A Reader Asks: Are Some Cities Doomed Never to Catch Up?
Welcome to the Atlantic Cities Inbox! We're insanely grateful for all the correspondence we get each week, so to say thank you, this month we're kicking off a semi-regular feature where our editors, staff writers or expert contributors answer a reader's urbanism-related question. Have something you've always wanted to know about urban policy, demographics, or trends in your hometown? Send them to theatlanticcities (at) gmail.com. You can also tweet at us at @atlanticcities.
Dear Atlantic Cities,
My home state of Iowa is surrounded by states with bigger cities acting as bigger magnets for its college graduates. Within a few years of graduation, nearly all of my friends and acquaintances had fled the state, and a few years later I joined them. It seems unlikely, particularly in that context, that Des Moines is ever going to "catch up" to Chicago, or even Minneapolis or Kansas City.
What should these states do, from an urban future-centric perspective? Are they simply obsolete as polities, should they just be decertified and folded into neighbors which won the city race?
-Matt Kuhns, Lakewood, Ohio
Richard Florida: Matt, you've hit upon what urbanists sometimes call the giant urban sorting machine. The problem for cities like yours is that young people are the most likely to move. A 25-year-old college graduate is three to five times more likely to move as someone in their 50s. Many cities think they can lure young people back as they get older and have families, and while this may work to a certain extent, the simple math suggests they can never recoup their losses of young people.
What can they do? As I argued long ago, Number 1 is to try to stem the losses. Figure out ways to retain that age group. I'm not saying that only that group matters, but if they cannot be kept or captured it will be hard to stem the sorting problem, as you describe. In fact, this is exactly the problem both Boston and Silicon Valley confronted a half century ago — talented young people were leaving Cambridge (MIT, Harvard, etc.) and Stanford for better jobs, etc., elsewhere. This is why university leaders (not mayors and economic developers) decided to support high-tech development. It could provide a source of employment for these new grads.
Of course the issue is more complex now. Young people not only move for a job — but to be part of a thick labor market that offers many jobs and also to be around other young people and a more vibrant dating and mating market (finding the right partner can be even more important than having a great job). These are the two main things, I find in my research, and they trump nightlife and restaurants and even outdoor activities — although those things can and do serve as signals that is place offers lots of economic and social opportunity. As Smart Growth America's William Fulton told USA Today, "This Millennial generation is the generation that decides where it's going to live before it decides what it's going to do." I think both decisions go together. So if cities want to attract and retain your peers they have to offer what I dubbed a great "people climate" as well as a great business climate for companies and jobs.