Urban Sandboxes

CEOs for Cities recently relayed an interesting story from USA Today that has some interesting implications for older, depressed urban centers as Gen Y and the Millennials gear up to make their mark on history:

Tulane's applications almost doubled from 17,572 pre-Katrina to 34,100 this year. As one Loyola's vp of enrollment told the paper, "Students know they are coming down to have an adventure. It's a great time to be part of something... the rebirth of a city."

NOLA and other struggling burgs -- think Detroit, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Baltimore, or even smaller cities like Canton, Reading, and Flint -- together provide a unique opportunity in their hard times. These are the urban sandboxes, the cities that present young people trying to prove their mettle with the opportunity to do so in new and interesting ways. Desperation breeds innovation out of necessity.

Previous generations have tried and blundered efforts to turn Rust Belt and Northeastern cities back into growing, productive urban hubs. We now know that stadiums, riverwalks, and high-end condos have a limited (if any) effect on cities. What is encouraging about the surge of interest in New Orleans is that the challenge of repairing the city is so blatant, and so thoroughly un-glamorous (try as Brad Pitt might to change that).

Perhaps this is an early sign that the next generation of urban innovators gets that top-down, aesthetic-focused efforts aren't what improves a city; indeed, the "fix downtown and the neighborhoods will follow" theory is proving itself to be pretty weak over time. Could the interest in the Big Easy mean that tomorrow's civic leaders are now planting the seeds, as college students and recent grads, for a reversal of this process?

Besides -- if Millennials can fix Detroit, the "Greatest Generation" mantle may be up for grabs.

(Photo from Flickr user Alex Summer. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)

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