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A Reader Asks: Are Some Cities Doomed Never to Catch Up?

A Reader Asks: Are Some Cities Doomed Never to Catch Up?
ollyy/Shutterstock.com

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.

And it's not like big cities and metros are the only ones that are doing well in attracting and retaining your peers. Smaller college towns like Austin, Boulder, and Ann Arbor — to name a few — actually are out-competing much bigger cities like Chicago and Los Angeles in attracting and retaining recent graduates.  
 
Des Moines is interesting because it has done a lot of things right, to build up its economy and strengthen its downtown. It actually has a very high percentage of the group of knowledge professionals, scientists and technologists, entrepreneurs and innovators and artists, musicians, designers and media types I dub the creative class.
 
Plus Des Moines and other cities and metros like it are home to talented and creative people of all stripes and across all walks of life who have chosen to live there and love their cities and want to help build and transform them. The key thing cities of every size and scale need to realize is that building a more vibrant economy need not be a zero-sum game where some cities win at the expense of others. A key thing cities can do is develop strategies to tap into the creative energy of all their residents in every kind of job.
 
I certainly don't think smaller cities should be decertified. I am not a big fan of what people call "the shrinking cities" movement. Every city, every place, every neighborhood has something to offer. We made a big mistake as a nation decades ago around what was called "urban renewal" — when government programs destroyed functioning city neighborhoods in the name of progress. Some of the most vibrant urban neighborhoods today are one that residents organized and saved from the wrecking ball of these programs. Every city, every neighborhood, every place has people and assets to build from.
 
I do think these places can benefit from working more closely with their "neighbors" as you say. Great communities are part of what Bruce Katz of Brookings calls our "metro nation." So places in a region are stronger together. This can occur on a large scale like the giant Bos-Wash mega region on the east coast. Yes, New York City services as the central anchor or hub, but Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and more have become stronger as part of this unit. Chicago plays the same kind of role in the Midwest, Atlanta in the Southeast, and so on.  The key here is that each city and community in a region develop its niche. Some will be more attractive to young people, others to people at different phases of their life cycle.
 
Jane Jacobs once said the best cities are actually federations of great neighborhoods. I like that. They key for cities and communities is to figure out what they do best as part of the bigger system of metros and mega-regions in their part of the world.
 
Great question, hopes this helps.
 
Lede image: ollyy/Shutterstock.com

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