The downtown districts of many larger US cities are struggling to recover to pre-pandemic levels, according to the results of a new study from UC Berkeley.
Using data obtained from the use of mobile phones and GPS location services, the study compared the effects of the “early shock of the pandemic” – that is, the migration of workers to non-central city areas or suburbs – to the level of the central city area. will be visited until May 2022.
Of the 62 North American cities included in the study, only a handful showed increased activity in their urban areas when compared to March 2019. The rest showed a slower recovery trajectory – and some recovered more slowly than others.
“Preliminary studies show that cities will struggle to recover from the pandemic, due to a disproportionate share of business closures, reduced demand for urban housing due to remote work, and challenges related to the loss of business travel and the rise of e-commerce,” the authors study writing in a research brief issued by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies.
San Francisco’s downtown area, for example, had the worst of all cities with a “recovery result” of just 31% – meaning the district saw only 31% of the activity observed in March 2019. Cleveland (36%), Portland, Oregon (41%), Detroit (42%) and Chicago (43%) rounded out the bottom five on the list.
Kansas City’s landed in the middle of the pack with a recovery of 53%, just above St. Louis at 50%.
At the other end, the Salt Lake City metropolitan area exceeded its pre-pandemic activity level, at 155%. SLC was joined by Bakersfield, California (117%); Columbus, Ohio (112%); and Fresno, California (108%) as the only city to manage an increase in city-county activity between 2019 and 2022.
The top 10 US cities with the highest and lowest recovery results, as determined by researchers with UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, are as follows:
Highest Recovery Mark
- Salt Lake City: 155%
- Bakersfield, California: 117%
- Columbus, Ohio: 112%
- Fresno, California: 108%
- Omaha, Nebraska: 92%
- Baltimore: 91%
- El Paso, Texas: 91%
- San Diego: 89%
- Tampa, Florida: 85%
- Honolulu: 84%
Lowest Recovery Mark
- San Francisco: 31%
- Cleveland: 36%
- Portland, Oregon: 41%
- Detroit: 42%
- Chicago: 43%
- Indianapolis: 44%
- Minneapolis: 44%
- Raleigh, North Carolina: 45%
- New Orleans: 46%
- Oakland, California: 46%
Overall, however, the authors of our study found that downtowns in southern US cities generally rebounded better than those in the north. It was also found that cities with certain variables – low urban housing stock, high education levels, a large percentage of workers in tech, information, hospitality and financial industries – are more likely to have slower recovery rates.
The same study also analyzed the activity throughout the city in each area studied – not just in the city center – and found that the recovery rate of the city “is often higher” than in the city center, “suggesting that the urban area has. Consistently lags behind in the recovery of activity when remote working and digitization of services continue.
The authors of the study cited a survey that predicted that many of the country’s big cities will never recover, and that it may be “time to reinvent” these districts with less office space, residential buildings, and more focus on culture and recreation.
“Most importantly, cities should seek economic diversification to focus on resilient sectors such as education, health, and governance,” the researchers said.
More information from this study, including the author’s definition of the downtown area and the methodology used, can be found at DowntownRecovery.com.