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The Nashville Effect

News & Features | September 29, 2015

After graduating from Tufts, Ben Kurland (A ’15) moved back to his hometown of Nashville, TN. From his point of view, the Nashville he grew up in was “just some city in the South that’s famous for country music and not much else.”

Somewhere between then and now, Nashville became a tourist hub teeming with liberal college kids, musicians, artists, and entrepreneurs. The once-small town grew 13.1 percent between 2007 and 2013; over 80 people—mostly millennials, For Kurland upon his return home, this was a major culture shock. Instead of asking about his rural education, new acquaintances would exclaim, “Cool!” followed by, “But where are you from originally?”

Nashville is an exemplary case, but it’s certainly not isolated. There is a new kind of tourism on the rise in America, and it’s affecting cities from coast to coast. It seems like every town from Austin to Santa Fe to New Orleans is suddenly duking it out to replicate the Nashville Effect and attract this fresher brand of tourist: the recent grad, the young professional, the “millennial.” For these new travelers, it’s not enough to visit for the weekend—they want a permanent piece of the pie.

The act of young people moving to the big city has been a phenomenon since our parents’ parents generation. But only now are cities themselves actively nurturing the trend, restructuring their fundamental layouts to attract twenty-somethings fresh out of school. This trend has not gone unnoticed by the Internet, with a new post every day touting [random Midwestern city] as “the next big town for millennials.”

Dr. Markus Moos, a professor of Geography and Urban Planning at the University of Waterloo School of Planning has coined the term “youthification” to describe this exact phenomenon—what he calls the “increase in the share of young adults such that the city or neighborhood remains young over time.”

Anika Ades (A’14), a current Brooklyn resident, explains that as more and more young people flock to a city, they bring bars, art galleries, and bike shops with them, steadily building the town’s “cool” reputation.

“These cities are deemed cool and interesting to other young people, and it creates a snowball effect,” she says.

“The pursuit of youthfulness, whether it’s by the way we dress, how we cut our hair, or perhaps even through plastic surgery, has arguably become a cultural preoccupation,” notes Moos.

A fact on the opening page of Moos’ website aptly summarizes the idea of youthification: “Even Google autocompletes the phrase ‘Millennials live’ with ‘Millennials live in cities.’” He hypothesizes that America’s growing obsession with eternal urban youth accounts for both the essential push and pull factors of America’s hipper cities. According to him (and many would agree), we just want to be younger longer. For many of us, this means clinging to the “young adult” phase well past any age the term used to encompass.

How does this manifest? One possibility, says Moos, is the desire to live on a “campus.” While classically popular post-grad magnets like New York City can’t offer the close-knit downtown feel of a university, smaller, blossoming cities (think Portland and Nashville) can. This is not to mention the oft-discussed millennial drift away from family life, including delayed childbearing and marriage. Whether this is due to a refusal to “grow up,” or the prevention of home ownership due to economic factors like plump student debt is up for debate.

It’s hard to define the emotional basis for city dwelling. But Moos and his peers have reached a few undeniable conclusions: we, the younger generation, want to live close together. We want art, music, culture, food, and diverse company at a reachable distance. We want all of these things for a longer period of our lives than ever before, regardless of cost. And we definitely don’t want to have to own a car—fewer and fewer young people are investing in cars, according to government data, and instead are opting for bikes and public transportation. If a city can offer all of this, it becomes a millennial goldmine.

This might seem like nothing new, but evidence from researchers, politicians, and urban planners all over the country suggests the contrary. Not only are graduates flocking to more and more “up-and-coming” towns in search of the illustrious “youthful” lifestyle, these same towns are now working doubly hard to foster it; that is, the relationship is suddenly two-sided.

“I wouldn’t say there’s a recipe for success, but cities are certainly behaving as if there is,” says Tufts Anthropology Professor Cathy Stanton, who specializes in tourism. “Places all over the world are pursuing a strikingly similar set of strategies at the moment as they try to hit this particular jackpot.”

According to Justin Hollander, a professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University, cities use the same essential formula: “readjust their investment to try and attract as many creative industries as possible.” Hollander noted that a city is likely to attract prosperous young people not by reducing cost of living (which he says is actually a very inaccurate predictor of a youthful population), but by making it easy for them to start new, innovative business.

Reworking cities to be more millennial-friendly has become a full-on industry in itself—a strange, modern subset of economically-driven urban planning. This sector employs urban studies professionals like Richard Florida, whose entire career involves fostering a young urban class (a group he describes as “high bohemians”) by shifting funds towards infrastructure that fits with their lifestyles. Florida has done this in over 100 cities across America. He measures his effects on these cities with an original system—levels of attracted talent via a “bohemian index,” a “Gay index,” and a “diversity index.” Florida’s grand plan, according to his website, is to put more money toward attracting and retaining young talent rather than toward concrete infrastructure like stadiums, buildings, and malls. In Stanton’s eyes, while it’s clear that cities are in fact laying down concrete plans to attract millennials, there is no quantifiable measure of their impact.

“Sometimes these strategies seem to add up to more than the sum of their parts, and it’s kind of mysterious what makes that happen,” Stanton says. “It may be some combination of hype, luck, preexisting advantages, landscape or climate, price points, good government, concentrations of a certain kind of talent—chefs and restaurateurs, artists, musicians, innovators of various kinds—or something else that coalesces and gives a sense of making a ‘there there,’ that is, some kind of identity that a critical mass of young residents start buying into.”

Does young people flocking to cities, possibly to settle down, still count as a form of tourism? Aaron Langerman (A ’15), now living in the San Francisco Bay Area, says yes: they come to the area thinking it’s a, “hipster paradise,” but are, “ignoring the history, the socioeconomic realities, the ethnic makeup of the city, and how it’s been historically changing. Instead, it’s completely decontextualized because they come here and think it’s the way it’s always been.”

“Very few political leaders really care about gentrification,” answered Professor Hollander when asked about the ripple effects of a suddenly implanted but successful population. He noted that it’s these politicians, not academics or urban planners, who pull the strings. “They want increased business, property values, and more wealth. They’re not concerned with pushing out people so much as they [are] interested in pulling in whoever is economically attractive.”

This explains why so many cities are, as Stanton puts it are, “marketing themselves vigorously to millennials” without much regard for anyone else—and it’s working. But for how long?  It’s worth noting that, like all urban trends, the intense focus on this generational shift may be ephemeral, with no serious lasting effects. As Ades sums up, “For better or worse, these cities and neighborhoods tend to have expiration dates in terms of their recipe for ‘cool.’”

Among others who have studied the living and consumption patterns that characterize the young adult population, Stanton cautiously shares this opinion: as soon as the media realizes and exploits a notable millennial obsession, young people have already moved on to the next big thing.

“That sense of what’s hip and up-and-coming has always been very elusive and hard to define, and people who’ve studied it show us that, in some ways, it’s always already over,” Stanton says. “By the time that critical mass happens, there’s a sense that a place is too trendy and not as real as it used to be.”