Great Cities Keep Their People

For a city to be really great it needs a bunch of people to stick around and not move away. I think this may be one of Provo’s biggest but most poorly understood challenges.

As one of the many people who came to Provo as a college student, I’ve experienced this challenge first hand; many of my friends loved Provo but left because they needed jobs or other things. Those of us who have stayed have consequently watched wave after wave of friends leave.

And this isn’t just an individual challenge. As Jane Jacobs wrote in chapter six of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, successful places are the ones that incentivize people to voluntarily stick around:

They contain many individuals who stay put. This, I think, more than sheer ethnic identity, is the significant factor. It typically takes many years after such groups have settled in for time to work and for the inhabitants to attain stable, effective neighborhoods.

Jacobs’ point holds true for most communities: if people voluntarily stay they have reasons for doing so and eventually choose to invest in the community. If they leave, the community obviously lacked opportunities — for jobs, housing, culture, social life or whatever. More recently, this idea was one of the underlying issues in Brittany Shoot’s piece on Millenials moving away from their small towns.

Jacobs goes on to point out that one key to keeping people is diversity. So, for example, a development of homogenous tract homes targeting middle-middle class people can’t keep younger families just starting out, or older people on a fixed income. The same goes for homogenous cultural scenes, job markets, or other sectors.

Homes and apartments side by side in Provo. Among other things, Jane Jacobs suggested that diverse housing options allow more people to voluntarily remain in a city.

Jacobs also points out that demographic volumes may remain constant, but if actual individuals don’t stick around there are too few people investing in the community. Provo seems to illustrate this concept well with it’s ongoing but highly transient student population.

This concept may also explain recent findings that mobility is highly determinative of civic engagement.

Jacobs herself offers examples of communities that managed to retain people. One of her favorites is Boston’s North End, which despite being considered a slum was a sufficiently compelling place that residents voluntarily remained and built it up. Jacobs was obviously writing a long time ago, but the lesson — when communities entice people to stay they become better — is fairly universal.

The point, it seems, is that getting people to stick around and invest in communities isn’t magic or dependent on things like better advertising. It’s all about opportunity of all kinds — economic, sure, but also social, cultural, ethnic, etc. And that means cities like Provo can also devise ways to get more people to call them home.



Filed under community

5 responses to “Great Cities Keep Their People

  1. I completely agree with this. In my case, though, I was lucky enough to find a great job, but the housing is a problem. I’m a single college-grad and the only housing I can find is for students or families. I don’t want to buy/rent a house, and I don’t want to live with five roommates. This town needs more options for single adults!

    • the same thing happened to me. After searching for a long time, and saving a lot of money I eventually bought a house, not because I ever really wanted to own a home, but because it was either that or live in a little student-oriented place. I think there should be better options in the future, though given a few new project that are coming up.

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