Wednesday, June 25th, 2008

The Urbanophile Conjecture

As I was looking through the recent Brookings Institution data that I posted, and especially going down below the size threshold of Midwest metros I normally look at, I was really struck at how there was pretty much a simple rule of thumb that defines whether a city is successful or not. Namely, if you’re a state capital with a greater than 500,000 metro area population, you’re probably doing pretty well. Otherwise, you aren’t.

I first noted this when I was sorting out my Midwest metros (a slightly different measure than normal, including smaller cities and excluding non-Midwestern ones) for a forthcoming posting on meeting the globalization challenge. I sorted metros into three primary buckets: Successful, Stable, and Failing. Almost every one on my successful list met my criteria:

  • Minneapolis-St. Paul
  • Columbus
  • Indianapolis
  • Madison
  • Des Moines

There was only one successful city that didn’t meet that state capital of > 500K measure. That was Kansas City. One other, Chicago, the data is mixed for, with some measures very healthy and some very anemic. I classified it by itself as a World City. Indeed, it is taking on more of the characteristics of a global city instead of an American one. Mostly notably a central city boom with financial industry fueled glitz and a thriving upper class, surrounded by an increasingly challenged fringe, with traditional sprawl on the edges. To a great extent, Chicago is no longer a Midwestern city. There are other state capitals – Springfield, Illinois, for example – but they seem to lack minimum efficient scale to be successful in the new economy.

So I’m officially badging this the “Urbanophile Conjecture”, which says, “If you want to be a successful Midwestern city, it helps to be a state capital over 500,000 population”. It would be interesting to see how true this holds in non-Midwestern areas.

Topics: Demographic Analysis, Economic Development

7 Responses to “The Urbanophile Conjecture”

  1. thundermutt says:

    Did you look at Missouri and Oklahoma; Missouri is “midwest” culturally and geographically; OK is geographically so but culturally “southwestern” because of the oil and Native American influences. Both capitals fit your rule.

    There may be another aspect that makes a smaller city “play bigger”: the presence of a large state university. I’m thinking specifically of Madison.

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  3. Jim Russell says:

    I would look at the conjecture from a slightly different angle: If you are a Midwestern state capital with a population over 500,000, then economic development policy doesn’t matter.

    I’d expect state capitals to weather economic transformations and exogenous shocks better than other cities because the bureaucracy anchors the downtown.

    You need to find a way to control for The Urbanophile Conjecture so we can better understand how agency is important.

  4. thundermutt says:

    Jim, perhaps The Urbanophile’s observation is actually proof of Richard Florida’s concept: attract the cultural and intellectual elites and your city will thrive.

    I don’t think the answer is in the anchor provided by government…anchors are deadweight, not dynamic. Such cities obviously do have state and federal government clusters that provide extremely stable long-term employment with benefits and pensions; those don’t typically attract the “best and brightest” but rather those looking for security.

    State capitals (in the aggregate) usually have more than the surrounding region of: lawyers, insurance and investment companies, regional/specialty medical centers and health-care systems, real-estate developers, media outlets (often “the paper of record” for the state, though the importance of such a thing in the new media age is definitely smaller than historically), advertising/pr shops, policy think-tanks, regional non-profits, statewide trade associations, state universities (and thus, scientific and social-science research centers). These high-income people tend to support arts and culture clusters and charitable institutions.

    As Urbanophile has documented elsewhere, several of these state capitals have become “net in-migration” cities and he has speculated that they are magnets for the best and brightest from the small towns and cities in their state. I tend to agree.

  5. Jim Russell says:

    These high-income people tend to support arts and culture clusters and charitable institutions.

    The causality arrow you describe (how a thriving city attracts cultural and intellectual elites) is that exact opposite of the Richard Florida Conjecture. Being the location of a state capital will ensure activity and investment downtown, which is a boon to creative types.

    Government workers will support a strong service economy (e.g. restaurants) in the urban core. For the most part, that doesn’t go away during a recession or economic transformation. Did Midwestern capitals have to deal with the kind of devastation other Rust Belt cities endured?

    The first thing that popped into my head when I read the post about Nashville is that I bet Chattanooga wishes it was the state capital during its bout with the evaporating industrial economy.

  6. The Urbanophile says:

    Thunder, that’s a nice summary of the potential underlying causes.

    I don’t think there’s necessarily a causation conflict. These things are self-reinforcing. High income people support culture buildings, etc. A strong cultural infrastructure attracts more high income people. It’s a virtuous circle, but also a chicken and egg question.

    When it comes to the jobs vs. people debate (do jobs attract the labor force or does the labor force attract the jobs?) it is the exact same thing, though I’ve argued that the labor force seems to be the most critical, at least for the jobs of the 21st century (e.g. life sciences – as I like to say, you can’t have a life sciences industry without life scientists). Perhaps for the industrial age jobs it was the reverse.

  7. Anonymous says:

    By Kansas City, I suppose you mean Topeka? How does Lansing, with about 450,000 in the metro area, fit in?

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