Which American downtowns are thriving — and which are struggling
Downtown activity has returned to — or even exceeded — pre-pandemic rates in a handful of U.S. cities, but most downtowns are still struggling to attract the foot traffic they once did.
- That's according to anonymized mobile device connectivity data analyzed by researchers at the University of Toronto's School of Cities.
Why it matters: Downtowns became ghost towns during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic as people sought to "flatten the curve" by staying at home as much as possible.
- Even as the pandemic ebbs, the era of remote and hybrid work it ushered in means fewer people are visiting restaurants, bars and shops.
- That has big implications for downtown economies, which have historically relied on commuting workers who spend money before, during and after their daily 9-5s.
By the numbers: Salt Lake City (139%); Bakersfield, California (118%) and Fresno, California (115%) had among the country's highest post-pandemic downtown recovery rates as of February (the most recent data available), as measured by estimated foot traffic.
- San Francisco (32%), St. Louis (38%) and Portland, Oregon (40%) had among the lowest.
Zoom in: San Francisco's sluggish recovery is due at least in part to its heavy concentration of tech workers — many of whom decamped elsewhere amid the pandemic — as well as a shortage of affordable housing.
- Nordstrom is closing both of its downtown San Francisco stores, the company announced this week — a major loss that reflects businesses' increasingly sour attitude toward the area.
- New York City has also been affected by remote work, though to a less extreme extent. The Big Apple is at 75% of pre-pandemic downtown activity, per the latest data.
Yes, but: Businesses and political leaders are increasingly trying to curtail remote and hybrid work, which could boost downtown recovery levels.
How it works: The researchers essentially treated smartphones and other mobile devices as a proxy for their owners — if a device pings a nearby cell tower, it's a good bet that's where the device's owner is.
- Of note: For this analysis, "downtown" is defined as areas of a given city with the highest employment density.
Reality check: While downtown activity is one indicator of a city's economic health, it doesn't paint a full picture on its own.
- The lure of better, springtime weather, meanwhile, might convince more people to head back into the city — to enjoy dinner and drinks al fresco, for instance.
What's next: Many cities are experimenting with various efforts to rethink their downtown neighborhoods — including, most notably, office-to-residential building conversions, which are poised to skyrocket in the coming years.
- Yet that idea is more cumbersome than it might seem, in part because the design and shape of some office buildings make them ill-suited for residential use.
The bottom line: Whether you feel like America's downtowns are once again thriving depends a lot on where you live.