When you look at the lists of the best places to live in North America, the usual suspects appear at the top: big, cosmopolitan cities like Seattle, Toronto, San Francisco. But architect and author Witold Rybczynski points out in his new book "Mysteries of the Mall," excerpted in Salon, that Raleigh-Durham in North Carolina is also way up there, as is Rochester, Minnesota. They are college towns, and Rybczynski calls their rise a new urban trend. They are also becoming the new trendy move for urban baby boomers.

Many changes have made moving to a small town easier than it used to be. The smartphone and the Internet make it easier to stay connected, and the rise of online shopping has made the trip to the department store a thing of the past. Rybczynski also notes that a lot of the important features of the big city have been spread around:

The forces of decentralization account for much of the appeal of the college city. For example, the largest American cities — New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston — have traditionally had the most sophisticated hospitals. The decentralization of medical skills now means that a regional medical centre, like the Duke University Medical Center or the Mayo Clinic, can provide world-class health care.

I would argue that this is not a new phenomenon. College towns have always been appealing. When I used to be in the prefab housing business, I found that many of my clients were downsizing from the big city, where their houses had been worth a fortune, to the college towns that were affordable, but where you could still find a good bookstore, an espresso and an art movie house. Big student populations attract a wide range of stores, restaurants, and street life that you don’t find in other cities of comparable size.

Rybczynski describes Burlington, Vermont, which is close to his former home in Montreal:

The presence of so many young people may be one of the secrets to the success of college cities like Burlington. College students are generally bright, healthy, social and usually unencumbered by serious financial worries. They typically don’t have large, comfortable homes to retreat to — or families to take care of — and so they tend to inhabit the public realm. At night, students are out and about; downtown Burlington has two independently owned cinemas as well as a renovated theater. Although some might complain that students, by their nature, can be bothersome, they contribute a vital ingredient to urban life.

Sami GroverSami and an ELF electric bike, made in Durham. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

Last winter I was in Raleigh-Durham and visited MNN contributor Sami Grover and the factory where they make the ELF electric bike. Durham used to be a tobacco town, but now it is dominated by Duke University and associated high-tech businesses. Living as I do in a big city, I was amazed at how much there was to see and do, as Sami took me to a farmers market that was still crowded the day after the biggest blizzard in years; past more food trucks than I have ever seen in one place; to Monuts for the best donuts I have ever tasted. This town of less than a quarter of a million people had all the stuff of the big city. And unlike Toronto where I live, you can probably get tickets to a ball game without having to sit in the nosebleed section.

These university towns will be seriously attractive to the boomer generation, as it cashes out of its urban real estate. These places offer more affordable housing, continuing education, small business opportunities without giving up a quality coffee. You can get around on foot or by bike, and you have somewhere to go. But there is another, more elusive quality that many people want, and can't often get anymore in the big city, as Rybczynski concludes:

Unlike their career-focused elders, college students really do have the time to sit in a café or dawdle on the village green, which is why many college cities have retained the vibrant kind of public street life that was once characteristic of larger cities. Who would have thought that the ivory tower would nurture that precious but rapidly disappearing commodity: city life.

No wonder they are so popular.

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.

In praise of the college town
College towns and cities have culture, street life and good espresso.