Thursday, March 29th, 2012

The Great Reordering of the Urban Hierarchy

My latest blog post is online over at New Geography. It is called “The Great Reordering of the Urban Hierarchy.” In it, I look at how the relentless expansion of the US federal government and the “spiky world” forces of globalizations are revamping the urban hierarchy of the top tier cities in the United States. While not a definitive view, it seems that New York is going from strength to strength, while Washington, DC emerges as America’s new “Second City.” This has been to the detriment of Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston. It’s controversial to be sure, but I hope you’ll enjoy it. Comments definitely encouraged on this one.

Update: Richard Florida has more to say on this topic over at The Atlantic Cities..

Topics: Economic Development, Globalization, Strategic Planning, Sustainability
Cities: Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Washington

61 Responses to “The Great Reordering of the Urban Hierarchy”

  1. the urban politician says:

    Chad, I’m fully aware of the Economist article.

    And some other article will come out putting DC at number 4 or 5 in the US, with Chicago at number 2.

    Perhaps another one will put Chicago at number 3, with DC at number 4.


    I have lived in both cities. I have walked both cities with my 2 feet, ridden the buses and trains, jogged the trails, interacted with the people. I have dined, toured, enjoyed what both cities have to offer.

    DC does not have the sheer depth or magnitude to be America’s second city. Not happening.

    I’m glad that it’s currently riding the wave of an expanded role of Federal Government. That’s great. New jobs are nice. A lot of other places probably covet them. But a lot of nice jobs don’t necessarily make a place great, and they don’t always make it important (not that I’m saying jobs aren’t important–they clearly are).

    I think greatness is a composition that includes economic importance, cultural importance, aesthetics, a sense of history, a representation of ethnic communities and the mixing of such groups, etc; and DC is a fine place but it still falls short in my book.

    Just my opinion.

  2. John Morris says:

    I don’t think many people implied DC was greater city, just that it was now more important. It’s a pretty good sign something has gone seriously wrong.

  3. Alon Levy says:


    DC Metro has grown at a healthy clip.

    But America’s second city it is not. Not even by a long shot.

    I’m not necessarily saying that Chicago is. I don’t know who is, that’s a tough question.

    No argument there. America’s second city is still evidently Los Angeles. The issue is that Washington has been steadily growing – nothing dazzling like Houston, but still fast, and because it’s the capital it’s likely to continue its current trajectory. Give it a couple of decades and it’ll surprise you.

    A hundred years ago, Chicago was the unassailable second city. It no longer is.

  4. REALTOWN says:

    PHILADELPHIA:”The biggest city that if it disappeared, no one would notice.”
    But isn’t that because we confuse image with reality?
    Philadelphia gets very little publicity in the national media, especially the glamour media, yet Philadelphia
    city and metro has one of the largest populations and economies in the country.

  5. Wad says:

    @Chad, L.A. is not an American financial powerhouse anymore. I’ve described in another post L.A.’s lost decade (1987-1997). The first shock of the lost decade was the collapse of the banking and S&L industry, which gutted what had been the second most powerful banking sector in the West Coast behind San Francisco.

    San Francisco, New York and Charlotte salvaged the waste of the collapse.

    L.A. was reduced to a branch office territory in the American banking world. But, the banking sector has regenerated itself, just not in a way that’s noticeable.

    L.A. has re-specialized in private finance and international banking. The latter has really exploded with trade among Asian and Latin American nations.

    Continued …

  6. Wad says:


    … Continued

    As far as corporate concentration, Southern California is admittedly dreary for the population size. Note that I don’t refer to Los Angeles city limits proper, let alone downtown Los Angeles. Southern Californians are highly mobile, and there’s no practical distinction for municipal boundaries. Also, this excludes the entertainment industry on account of Southern California being the apex predator (no other region in the world can match the size and scope of Southern California’s showbiz sector).

    On the S&P 500, Southern California has a total of 16 companies listed. I cut out two because they are entertainment-related: DirecTV and Disney. I’ve also cut out Edison International because it’s a utility that has no exports and is limited to its Southern California customer base. That leaves a baker’s dozen, and they are scattered.

    Mattel (El Segundo/LAX); CB Richard Ellis (Century City/West L.A.); Occidental Petroleum (Westwood/West L.A.); Public Storage (Glendale/Burbank); HCP Inc. (Long Beach Airport); Allergan (Irvine); Amgen (Thousand Oaks/Ventura County/W. San Fernando Valley); Watson Pharmaceuticals (Inland Empire); Avery Dennison (Pasadena); Jacobs Engineering (Pasadena); QLogic (Orange County); Broadcom (Irvine/Orange County) and Western Digital (Orange County).

    For New York, there are more than 80 companies! Of course, this is the CMSA definition. About a third of the companies are in New Jersey, and a dozen or so in Connecticut.

    Chicago, the No. 3 area, boasts 33 headquarters. Almost none of them are even within Chicago’s city limits.

  7. the urban politician says:


    I think the role of “second city” is being split by Chicago and LA, personally.

    LA certainly for media & culture, Chicago still for finance and business, although to a certain degree Chicago is waning economically. This recession really took a lot out of Chicago and exposed some fundamental weaknesses that were probably already there to begin with, but somehow Chicago just looks anemic to me. It isn’t in full implosion mode like Detroit or Cleveland, but it isn’t thriving like New York either. Chicago just seems to be sitting there trying to figure out what to do with itself.

    However, as a western metro that is closing in on 10 million, Chicago is simply too big and diversified to ever lose some aire of importance, especially given the sheer size of its gdp.

    I’m not sure where Chicago should go from here.

  8. the urban politician says:


    On a per-capita basis, in many ways Chicago isn’t performing any worse (or better) than New York.

    Your companies per S & P 500 is a great example. Using metro data, Chicago is right on par with New York. In Inc’s “Fastest 500”, a yearly list of the fastest growing privately-held companies in the US, Chicago has proportionally the same number of companies to its population as New York has. In the 2010 census, metro Chicago actually grew faster than metro NY, again on a percentage basis.

    A lot of what plagues Chicago is the whole “established, diversified giant” thing that is shared with New York. The difference is, New York gains so much from its financial center that it can pretty much fail at anything else and probably still look good on paper.

  9. Chris Barnett says:

    TUP & wad,

    Losing Bank One to Chase has clearly hurt Columbus, Indy, Detroit and Chicago in finance/banking leadership. It was “our” superregional bank, as PNC is to Pittsburgh and Cleveland.

    Since there is no longer a Midwestern superregional bank with its HQ in Chicago, it weakens Chicago’s economic ties with the second-tier cities almost by definition.

  10. TUP, I’ve responded a bit in a separate post now on the blog. I have a couple more negative Chicago posts in the queue which you probably won’t enjoy, but then am looking at some more in depth research projects that include quite a bit of things I think you will. Cheers – and thanks for the comments everybody

  11. uffy says:

    Yikes, this comment section has gotten ugly.

    Again, the country as a whole created not a single net new job for somewhere around a dozen years. Virtually every community in America was rocked by house price declines and long-term unemployment not seen since the Great Depression.

    We read about the decline and/or weakness of LA, of Chicago, of the Midwest in general, of California in general, of the Pacific Northwest, of the Sunbelt, Appalachia, Las Vegas, Miami and others. The whole country is suffering, and neither the low cost/low service/low standard of living model exemplified by Texas/Arizona/Louisiana nor the limitless Federal largess model of NYC/DC are going to cut it for the rest of the country. Neither is sustainable if we want to maintain and grow our standard of living.

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