The downtown districts of many larger U.S. cities are struggling to recover to pre-pandemic levels, according to the results of a new study from UC Berkeley.
Using data obtained from mobile phone usage and GPS location services, the study compared the effects of the “initial shock of the pandemic” — i.e., the migration of workers to non-downtown areas or the suburbs — to the rate at which those downtown areas were being visited as of May 2022.
Of the 62 North American cities included in the study, only a handful had shown increased activity in their downtown areas when compared to March 2019. The rest were demonstrating slower recovery trajectories — with some recovering much more slowly than others.
“Early studies suggest that downtowns will struggle to recover from the pandemic, due to their disproportionate share of business closures, the lessening demand for downtown real estate due to remote work, and challenges associated with the loss of business travel and rise of ecommerce,” the study’s authors wrote in a research brief released by UC Berkley’s Institute of Governmental Studies.
San Francisco’s downtown area, for instance, fared the worst of all downtowns with a “recovery quotient” of only 31% — meaning the district was only seeing 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 downtown landed in the middle of the pack with a recovery quotient of 53%, just above St. Louis at 50%.
On the other end, Salt Lake City’s downtown area exceeded its pre-pandemic activity levels, at 155%. SLC was joined by Bakersfield, California (117%); Columbus, Ohio (112%); and Fresno, California (108%) as the only other cities that managed an increase in downtown-district activity between 2019 and 2022.
The top 10 U.S. cities with the highest and lowest recovery quotients, as determined by researchers with UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, are as follows:
Highest Recovery Quotients
- 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 Quotients
- 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%
On the whole, however, the study’s authors found that downtowns in southern U.S. cities generally rebounded better than those in the north. They also found that cities with certain variables — low downtown housing stock, higher education levels, a larger percentage of workers in the tech, information, hospitality and finance industries — were more likely to have slower recovery rates.
The same researchers also analyzed city-wide activity in each of the areas studied — and not just the downtown areas — and found the recovery rate of the entire city was “often higher” than that of just the downtown, “indicating that downtown areas have been consistently lagging behind in activity recovery as remote working and the digitization of services continues.”
The study’s authors cited surveys which predicted that many of the country’s larger downtowns will never fully recover, and that it might be “time to reinvent” these districts with less office space, more residential buildings, and more focus on culture and recreation.
“Most importantly, downtowns should look to diversify their economies to focus on resilient sectors such as education, health, and government,” the researchers suggest.
More information from this study, including the authors’ definition of a downtown area and the methodologies used, can be found at DowntownRecovery.com.