Urban Centers in an Era of Job Decentralization

In the last few decades, more new jobs have been created in the suburbs than in urban centers.  Elizabeth Kneebone of the Brookings Institution notes that as employment decentralized “95 out of 98 metro areas saw a decrease in the share of jobs located within three miles of downtown . . [and] the outer most parts of these metro areas saw employment increase by 17 percent, compared to a gain of less than one percent in the urban core.”

Urban centers present unique location and place-based advantages, however, and urban center job growth is not a nostalgic throw back.  Decentralization has not been the same across all sectors.  Jobs in manufacturing have been most prone to leaving the urban core, but service- and information-based businesses have low rates of decentralization – and these are the fastest growing sectors of our economy.  So while many business sectors will continue to out-migrate for now, there are reasons that skilled workers want to re-populate urban centers and private businesses want to invest in being there.

One advantage is what Mark Muro and Peter Katz call “The Cluster Moment,” where concentrations of businesses and organizations can connect can seek synergies and efficiencies.  Clusters are “[h]ot spots of productivity and collaboration” where companies team up, share technologies, develop innovations, and draw on a highly-skilled labor pool to start new businesses – and create jobs.  Firms that need to collaborate or confer frequently can do so more easily when likely partners co-locate within walking distance.

For public policy, a best strategy to promote employment clusters is to encourage job growth in downtowns (i.e. historic urban centers) where transit and complementary land uses already exist.  Downtown’s can be strengthened as employment locations with additional investments in transit and parking infrastructure, and with programs that promote alternative modes, efficient parking, pedestrian-friendly streets, and context-based architecture.  As a bigger share of jobs is captured by urban centers, it will make home-to-work transit use more feasible –and put in place a more resilient pattern of land use and infrastructure.

If your business can’t easily fit downtown, then bring downtown to your business.  In car-reliant suburban areas, new urban centers can attract a highly skilled and creative workforce that seeks out urban vitality, attractive environs, and easy access.  In the new economy, suburban job centers need to have retail and housing as part of the mix – supported by higher densities and in locations where transit is accessible on foot, convenient, reliable and cost effective.

Larger infill parcels and expansive parking lots provide opportunities to remake suburban employment pods as amenity-rich, walkable, and transit-oriented places.  In Silicon Valley and the Research Triangle of North Carolina, research parks are adding shops, restaurants, and urban housing to make them more attractive to the skilled workforce that they want to attract.  Another employment retrofit is Tysons Corner, Virginia, which began with regional retail but has lacked housing that appeals to people who work there.  Centers can also be created by larger “infill” project that join employment with housing and amenities. “Bay Meadows,” (for which I developed the Specific Plan with Peter Calthope and Bruce Fukuji) reused of an underutilized horseracing track and attracted the corporate headquarters for Franklin Fund, the largest employer in San Mateo.


Retail in Bay Meadows.

Retail in Bay Meadows.

Bay Meadows Master Plan, Calthorpe Associates.

Bay Meadows Master Plan (Calthorpe Associates).


Apartments in Bay Meadows.

Apartments in Bay Meadows.

Employment in Bay Meadows.

Employment in Bay Meadows.


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