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The Rise of the ‘Small Lifestyle City’

Young people are moving where walkable downtowns, historic buildings, with nice restaurants and bars are the norm

May 19, 2022

People are leaving big cities and moving to smaller ones. Census data shows that Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, and the Bay Area had the largest population declines in the country in 2020-2021, and there is limited growth in many other so-called “superstar” metros. 

Most people say they left because they were priced out. According to RedFin, nearly 1 in 3 homeowners are looking to relocate to somewhere more affordable.

Those ex-pats are not just moving to any small city. Increasingly, they seek out places that are a bit smaller and cheaper, but that have a similar lifestyle brand to the places they left—liberal, outdoorsy, and amenity-rich. Assuming such trends continue, these cities must avoid the policy mistakes—namely restrictive zoning—that first drove people from bigger ones. 

This migration trend started even before the pandemic but accelerated due to the rise of remote work. A Pew study showed that increasingly, people prefer working from home. Remote work has allowed people to move out of big cities since they are no longer tied to a location. 

More Americans now prefer living in small towns. A Gallup poll showed that almost half of Americans would prefer living in a town or rural area, rather than a city or a suburb. Census data shows that small towns in the west are growing at a faster rate than big cities. But there is also a growing appetite for smaller metros. A recent Brookings paper finds an “absolute decline in the aggregate size of the nation’s 56 major metropolitan areas (those with populations exceeding 1 million). At the same time, smaller metro areas, as a group, experienced higher population growth than in each of the previous two years.”

The “lifestyle city” mixes small town and big city qualities—they often have universities, walkable downtowns, historic buildings, and nice restaurants and bars. 

Boise, ID, may be the lead example; it’s one of the fastest-growing cities in America, and many people moving there are fleeing California. The median home price is $400,000, and it has short flights to Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco. That has attracted lots of tech workers, with Inc Magazine saying Boise was “on track to become the next Silicon Valley.”

Boone, NC is a college town in the Blue Ridge Mountains, home to Appalachian State University. While a small town of only 19,000 residents in a micropolitan area, it has doubled in population since 1980. It is 2 hours from Asheville, another mountain city in North Carolina with booming growth.

US News and World Report called Boulder, CO the “best place to live in the US.” It has the third highest-performing job market, is home to the University of Colorado Boulder, and tech giants Google and Apple have offices there. Running along the Rocky Mountain range and with exceptional views, it is also very expensive; the median home price is over $1 million

Huntsville, AL was ranked the 3rd best place to live according to US News and World Report, but compared to Boulder, CO, is affordable, with median home prices under $200,000. But it also sits beside a mountain range—the southern portion of the Appalachians—and is known as “Rocket City” for being home to many defense companies.

Santa Fe, NM is a mountain town—southwestern style—and its historic downtown is a national landmark. The buildings have Spanish-Pueblo architecture which gives it a unique look. Just down the road is Albuquerque, another fast-growing city that is larger and overlooks the Sandia Mountains. 

I could go on with other examples, Portland, ME; Riverside, CA; Coeur d’Alene, ID; Fredericksburg, TX; and my own hometown of Charlottesville, VA. They all embody a certain brand and aesthetic that appeals to cultured yuppies who might sooner be found in bigger cities (if they could afford that).  

Even low population states are forming communities like this—or have the potential to. Bozeman and Kalispell, Montana are two of the fastest-growing micropolitan areas in the U.S. Rapid City, South Dakota is also one of the fastest-growing cities in the Midwest. In a 2020 piece for Catalyst, I wrote about how even the poor towns in West Virginia and Kentucky could rebrand themselves along these lines.

As more of these “small lifestyle cities” emerge, and existing ones grow, there needs to be recognition of what caused the demographic shift. People are moving from big progressive cities because progressivism was, to a degree, what made these cities unlivable. Such politics led to high taxes, high home costs (due to the regulations), underperforming schools, and high homelessness (accompanied by a lack of policing). 

Transplants to the new cities should be careful not to take those politics with them. And existing residents should prepare for the onslaught by learning from New York and San Francisco’s mistakes. Namely, there should be a realization that the newfound growth is already causing a home shortage; and that if these cities don’t get out ahead by loosening their zoning and allowing more construction, they’ll soon have an affordable housing crisis. 

Some already are learning this lesson. The Albuquerque Journal reports on an “apartment boom” in Santa Fe that is adding 5,000 units to the pipeline. Boise, ID is considering a rewrite of its zoning code to allow for more density. Almost all of these cities have greenbelt policies that limit home supply, and those will need loosening too. 

If such deregulation can happen, perhaps they grow from small cities to amenity-rich large ones that working-class people can actually afford. If not, they’ll become (to the extent they haven’t already) the latest set of exclusive liberal cities, spurring the rise in 20 years of a new crop of nascent “lifestyle cities” that people must migrate to. 

This article featured additional research from Market Urbanism Report content staffer Rebecca Lau.