Steel Town, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)image from ecstaticist’s photostream

William H. Frey of the Brookings Institution recently took a look at migration within the United States and found an interesting fact: young, educated people are looking more to the Rust Belt and less to the Sun Belt. Frey identifies college graduates and young adults as groups which are usually considered the most mobile and coveted. For years the trend has been for these groups to flock to the Sun Belt states post-graduation. However in the new economy, young adults are less likely to migrate from their home states and, when they do migrate, they’re finding Rust Belt cities to now hold a greater attraction.

Why the change? One can assume it’s not for the weather, tax breaks or old economy jobs. One reason for the shift is that cities like Pittsburgh did not see a huge housing bubble — or housing bubble collapse — so there’s affordable, stable residential properties. Another key reason cited is that knowledge-based cities have become a magnet for the college-educated because that’s where the jobs are. The Brookings Institution chart shows that Pittsburgh in particular has turned a migration loss into a migration gain:

Richard Florida at The Atlantic notes about Brookings’ findings:

But perhaps the best news is that a significant number of older Rustbelt metros — like Buffalo, Cleveland, St. Louis, Hartford, and Milwaukee — that had been losing young adults and college grads have stemmed those previous losses, while others — including Pittsburgh, Columbus, and Baltimore, as well as New Orleans — have begun to turn them into gains.

While clearly the economic crisis has caused more young people to stay put in these locations, two other factors have influenced this shift. On the one hand, many of these regions have made long-term efforts to transform from industrial to knowledge-driven economies, which we know from the experience of greater Boston and other places take the better part of a generation to take hold. On the other hand, some of these cities and regions have also been at the forefront of efforts to develop strategies to make themselves more open and attractive to young college graduates, and these strategies may be starting to pay dividends.

One way to build on this trend is smart revitalization. We need to tap the economic potential to be found in our historic buildings, urban waterfronts and local business districts. Restoring existing structures is not only green, it creates the kind of vibrant and diverse neighborhoods that attract young professionals. Here’s a video by the City and Regional Planning Program at The Ohio State University which talks about the importance of sustainable development and investment in older communities: