Springfield is at a crossroad. Since 1960, Springfield has seen its geographic size increase by nearly 200 percent. However, the population has only increased from 85,000 to just shy of 120,000 (roughly 40 percent). A predominant portion of economic and population growth has occurred on the outskirts of the community. While this is not a trend unique to Springfield, it does present challenges for the capital of Illinois.
While the city limits expand, the local school district’s geographic area does not. The result is a hollowing out of revenue from property tax for the public school system in Springfield. Many new residential and commercial developments in Springfield are located in neighboring, “bedroom community” school districts. Residents of the urban core are faced with fewer resources for students in the public school system, and call for higher property taxes to pay for those resources and educational opportunities.
Also challenging Springfield is the need for new, private-sector employment opportunities. For much of the past half-century, Springfield has relied heavily on government employment for its economic growth. However, the State of Illinois faces a $3-5 billion deficit this fiscal year and a looming $100+ billion pension liability well into the future. The result is a flatlining of government-sector employment, if not a decrease. Springfield will need a bustling private-sector economy in order to fill the gap between population and state government employment opportunities.
The conventional wisdom by local developers, business groups, and planning organizations has been to attempt to bring new employers to the city with an abundance of greenfield development near the periphery of the city and by offering 20th century-style residential opportunities in subdivisions and outlying communities. The perception of higher quality education in these outlying areas further promotes growth in these areas, at the expense of urban core neighborhoods and schools. As residents move outward, the city faces increasing difficulty funding public services and infrastructure improvements.
However, Springfield does has strengths in its urban core. The community invests nearly $20 million in public transportation annually, providing nearly 2 million trips in the urban core. Its street network is human-scaled, meaning that much of the urban core consists of small, compact blocks with walkable distances between neighborhoods. State government, medical services, and tourism are reliably based in the urban core.
However, Springfield is missing a focus on attracting Millennials (individuals born between 1985 and 2000). This demographic tends to be attracted to urban neighborhoods, tend to drive less, and tend to be entrepreneurial in spirit. Additionally, companies are increasingly going back to the urban centers of communities to attract Millennials to their firms. According to real estate research firm CoStar Group, office rents in urban areas rose 18.7 percent from 2010 to 2015. Compared to suburban increase of 3.3 percent, urban office environments are back on the rise. Millennials want to be in the city, and employers are willing to go where the Millennials go.
True walkability requires infrastructure that is human-oriented: wide, comfortable sidewalks, with shade trees and a buffer from auto traffic. Neighborhoods in the urban core must be bike-friendly, allowing for residents to commute to nearby commercial areas safely. Public transportation should be frequent, reliable, and easy to understand. Services, such as markets and shops, should be within a 10-minute walk of home. Millennials want a lifestyle where the car is an option, not a requirement. Springfield has excellent bones in that regard, but needs refining.
The $20 million investment in public transportation needs to be utilized better, creating more efficient routing. A sea of parking lots between Victorian-era neighborhoods near downtown and the central business district needs to be bridged with walkways that create a pleasant experience for users. Oversized roadways for current traffic counts should be reevaluated and examined for road diets.
The key to jobs in the urban core is creating a place where Millennials want to live, work, and play. This is why it is crucial for us to restore the core. Put simply, the conventional wisdom of attempting to bring jobs to the core first and waiting for residential growth to follow is in need of examination. By creating livable, walkable neighborhoods in the urban core, Millennials and urban pioneers will drive economic growth and job creation in our community.