Saturday, September 6th, 2008
This week’s Indianapolis Business Journal has a very interesting article (“Young, Educated, and Living in Indy“) about the demographics of Indianapolis. The city is actually doing very well at attracting affluent, educated, young families. They say it lags nationally as a singles destination, but is at least beating most regional peers at it.
The research was conducted by Drew Klacik at the Center for Urban Policy and Environment at IUPUI. (I’ll see what I can get from him in terms of the actual research, so perhaps more forthcoming). Working with ESRI, Klacik’s team segmented the population into 12 demographics based on criteria such as age, income, education, and hobbies.
They found that Indy is doing well with two key groups: Family Portraits and High Hopes. The family portraits is the aforementioned young, educated families. High Hopes are younger people, married and single, with less education but aspirations for homeownership and participation in the middle class to the extent that they are willing to move to get it. Indy lags in so-called Solo Acts (young, educated singles), Global Roots (immigrants and expats), and Senior Styles (retirees).
None of this should be surprising. Intuitively, Indy has marketed itself as a “great place to raise a family”. The distribution centers and such springing up around town are a magnet for people who are looking for work in a region with a declining manufacturing base. It should be no surprise that those people look to cities like Indy with a strong economy as a place to go. The lack of education of the High Hopes group, in my opinion, is not necessarily a bad thing. I believe economies like Canada, which are solely focused on highly skilled immigrants, can miss the real secret ingredient, which is an openness to risk taking and a willingness to try new things. The New World, after all, was largely settled by Europe’s rejects, poor Irish, Germans, Italians, etc. But they built the greatest economic power the world has ever known. Similarly, these people moving to Indy in search of work are bringing an attitude with them that is a key part of urban success, as I previously noted. I believe that the signal attribute of a successful city is that it is one in which large numbers of people decide that “this is where I’ll seek my fortune”. What’s more, I believe that a successful city must ultimately be a place that can provide a good standard of living to other than the educated elite. This is where a place like Indy can shine. Self-styled progressive meccas like NYC are great if you are rich or poor, but they are horrible for the middle class. They resemble the third world in this regard. Indianapolis can be a place where all citizens have a chance to participate in the American Dream, and where there can be urban success properly so-called.
On the flip side, we know Indy is lacking in percentage of foreign born, and I believe needs to seriously increase it. Lagging in seniors is not necessarily a bad thing, IMO. Indy is not a Sun Belt retirement haven, and having a generally younger population means a higher ratio of working people to pay the cost of social services.
Klacik is skeptical of the Creative Class notion, which endears him to me. Not that I think Florida is totally wrong or off-base. But his Creative Class is but one component of many needed for a successful city, and overly focusing on a narrow demographic is not good. And creativity is only one value among many.
Anne Shane of Biocrossroads is pleased by the research results, which she believes bodes well for Indiana’s life sciences push. But in her view, because of Indy’s lack of reputation, it has to rely on job creation to attract people. Quoting, “We can’t compete head-to-head with a Chicago, with a San Francisco, with a New York, with a Denver. We can do a good job, but we’re just not in the same class. We probably have to focus more on having the great-paying job here and then get people to the city so they understand that it’s also a good place to live.”
I agree with a lot of this. Indy is not NYC or SF by a mile. And its a false choice between jobs and people. The reality is, you need both. They feed on each other. I also think Biocrossroads is doing the Lord’s work on building Indiana’s bioscience industry.
My own view of this comes from a slightly different vantage point. For things like distribution jobs, I do believe it is a jobs led thing. People are moving to Indy because they need jobs, Indy has them, and other cities don’t have as many. As these people move, this labor force of truck drivers, dispatchers, warehousing experts, etc. attracts still more jobs. But for life sciences and other advanced sectors, I believe that having a qualified labor force is probably the more important of the two. You can’t have a life sciences industry without life scientists.
No, Indy is not San Francisco. But San Francisco is no Indy either. There seems to be this implicit assumption out there that San Francisco is the paragon of urbanity, its very platonic form, and that the further a place is from that ideal, the less attractive it is as a destination. I could not disagree more. Indy can’t take Chicago, New York, and Boston on head on. That would be a fool’s errand. But you know what, Indy can step up and be a world class Indy. Indy is not a traditional 19th century big city, so it will never have those old urban style neighborhoods, subways, etc. But it can be one of the best cities of the 21st century. The goal shouldn’t be to try to beat other cities at their game. Instead, let them try to you at your game.
I believe Indianapolis can carve out its own unique urban space and become known as one of the most desirable places in America for people to aspire to live in. (I wrote a lot about this in my Urban Aphorisms presentation). Will this be easy to achieve? No. But I believe if Indy wants to realize its ambitions in life sciences as elsewhere, this is what it needs to do. This blog will play a part in trying to articulate what it takes to make that happen. And it is all about not taking on an entrenched opposition head on but craving out a unique niche that it can dominate. As Klacik’s research indicates, the city is already well on its way.
The article itself makes the case for why it won’t be easy. Both of the case studies they mentioned, a couple from Chicago and one from New York, had Indy roots. The key challenge for Indy and other Midwestern cities beyond Chicago is how to become a destination of choice for people who don’t have roots in the area. This is what is so often missing in brain drain discussions. It’s as if these cities have so little belief in their own desirability as places to live that they don’t believe they could ever convince anyone who wasn’t born there to come. That’s a self-defeating view. Ultimately, San Francisco didn’t become what it is by retaining its home grown talent; it got that way by hoovering up everybody else’s talent. Getting a spot in the top tier means being able to attract a significant number of people who have no pre-existing connection to an area.
Austin, Texas is nothing like San Francisco. Neither is Las Vegas or Charlotte. But these cities found a way to build their own unique appeal, each targeting a different population segment. Indianapolis can do the same. Find its own path, and its own ambition. There’s plenty of room for success out there, and no one size fits all model to find it.