Sunday, April 15th, 2012

Nashville Rolls On

I have a friend in Nashville and try to get there about once a year for a visit. He knows my insatiable desire for urban exploration, so tries to take me around to new places each time, which is awesome. A couple of my previous trips were documented in the posts “Impressions of Nashville” (from 2007) and “Nashville: Next Boomtown of the New South” (from 2008). As with previous visits, I want to highlight a few observations I had.

The first is, “What Great Recession?” Yes, Nashville surely suffered from this, and there’s a notable absence of private sector construction visible that testifies to that, especially in marked contrast to my first visit in 2007. Yet what you feel in Nashville is a sense of vitality and a sense of optimism. This is a place that hasn’t lost faith in its destiny.

I think that can’t be overstated in a city. It feels good to have the wind at your back. It feels good to be in a place where the people believe they are headed towards better days and towards a better future. Just like bandwagon sports fans, people want to sign up to be with the winning team and while the future can’t be predicted, Nashville looks like a winner and its people believe they are winners. I can feel the difference in the air versus say even the best performing Midwest metros like Columbus or Indianapolis.

Nashville was the 12th fastest growth large metro in America in the 2000s, growing at 21.2% and adding 278,000 people during the course of the decade. Last year, like most regions, growth slowed, but remained healthy at 1.4%. During America’s “lost decade” of job creation, Nashville added 36,000 jobs. Nashville’s job growth last year ranked 5th among large cities at 2.4% or 17,400 new jobs. The sense of optimism is fully backed up by the numbers. Lots of places would kill to be performing like this.

Beyond simple internal growth, Nashville is an attractor city. People from outside want to move there and I’ve met many people originally from someplace else. While this is changing or diluting the culture – southern accents are in decline in various precincts, for example – in ways some might not like, as I’ve noted before, having a critical mass of outsiders is very important to urban success.

The driver of this seems to be the music industry. I’ve gotten in the habit of asking people why they moved to Nashville. Music is by far the most common answer. (In fairness, perhaps this is something that’s de rigueur to say, and people don’t want to admit to having moved for more prosaic reasons). That industry is clearly key to the city. Not only is it economically important in its own right, but it draws media attention and even draws celebrities (not all of them country stars) to live there. Music is like a lot of other industries. It’s easier than ever to get into the game and I suspect most cities have a vastly better music scene than they did a decade or two ago, yet the peaks of the industry are also higher than ever, and Nashville is one of the peakiest of all.

The other thing music drives is tourism. Nashville is a big (but thankfully not too big) tourist draw. Again, this creates brand awareness and drives economic growth, but also exposes people to the city. I’d say that increases the likelihood of attracting people. My point of view on Nashville before visiting it would have been to assume it was a sort of hillbilly heaven, but I learned it was more cosmopolitan by visiting it. It’s a city I could actually live in. Drawing visitors gives Nashville the opportunity to tell its story and make a pitch for the place.

Nashville also is implementing some very forward looking urbanist policies. I noted before their form based code, high quality basic urbanism of the new development in the central city, and legitimate infill densification. They continue to up their game here, with a major rezoning that effectively eliminates traditional zoning in the downtown apart from banning heavy industrial use, and eliminates minimum parking requirements. That’s huge and we’ll see what dividends it pays over time.

Everything isn’t perfect in Nashville. My friend worries that if he ever lost his job, there would be few corporate opportunities available to someone with this skill profile. Nashville doesn’t yet have the large and diverse employer set of major cities, making planting your flag there somewhat risky outside of industries like music and health care. Assuming the city continues its growth, this will be addressed over time. But it’s something that should inform the city’s recruitment efforts. The city is very focused on trying to lure corporate HQ relocations. But trying to lure an HQ where there’s little overlap with the existing industry base might not be the best idea.

Also, Nashville suffers from a notable lack of quality in some areas. I previously mentioned their second class infrastructure standards. This place too often suffers from a southern “bare bones” feel, even in new development. Also, the architecture is extremely conservative. This seems not to have harmed their growth and perhaps really isn’t that important in the short term, no matter how much I might want it to be. Where I believe it makes a difference is over time as things age. If things are super-cheaply done and notablw mostly for being new and to contemporary style, they may lose their appeal over time and end up as struggling redevelopment zones 20-30 years down the road as so many other places have.

But that’s a problem for another day. For now Nashville continues to rock and roll, as it were.

Topics: Demographic Analysis, Economic Development, Talent Attraction, Urban Culture
Cities: Nashville

21 Responses to “Nashville Rolls On”

  1. Matthew Hall says:

    Not that Nashville is doing anything special with its advantaged position. It is as car-based, sprawling and poorly planned as anywhere in the country, a few well intentioned planning actions in the city of nashville itself aside. Nashville is following Atlanta’s lead, not Austin or Raleigh. That is, its going for quantity of quality at almost every opportuntiy.It’s not going to age well.

  2. Alon Levy says:

    Nashville is not doing as poorly as Atlanta, but its real per capita income growth last decade was negative, too. The parts of the South where people were doing well are the ones that aren’t famous for fast growth: all of Alabama and Mississippi, the Tidewater parts of the Atlantic South from Hampton Roads to Savannah, Louisiana even away from New Orleans, Arkansas.

  3. Matthew Hall says:

    Nashville is doing better than Atlanta now because it is doing what Atlanta did twenty years ago, going for easy growth instead of investing more strategically.

  4. Alon, PCI is an important metric, but only one. I think urbanists like to emphasize it because favored cities score well on it. Quantitative measures like job growth are too often discounted. Nashville is a quantity oriented city, no doubt. As I’ve noted, there are fairly few places that seem to be doing both quantity and quality well.

    If you are going to pick an income oriented metric though, I would suggest using median household income adjusted for cost of living. I can understand the attraction of PCI as it is easier to pull however.

  5. Alon Levy says:

    The problem with job growth is that it measures population growth more than actual growth. In a service economy, population creates its own demand for jobs to a large extent. If Nashville manages to have slight decreases in real income with a large population growth, it’s nothing to be proud of; it’s not Saudi Arabia or another natural resource fiefdom, where the measure of interest is GDP rather than GDP per capita.

    The BLS makes available price index numbers for the four major regions of the US, the major metro areas, and metro areas within each region by size classes – go here. The numbers in the data series are meant to be used purely for regional inflation rates, and not for cross-regional cost of living comparisons.

    This makes Dallas look better (it flips to small positive real growth), Atlanta less bad (still negative real growth), and New York and Washington worse (still with positive real growth, but only barely in New York’s case), but the secondary Northeastern cities look as great as ever, and the secondary Southern cities only improve marginally. Nashville’s per capita income growth was below the CPI increase in both Southern city size classes it straddles.

  6. DBR96A says:

    This is anecdotal, but last year, the South African band Seether scored a big hard rock hit called “Country Song,” and the band said they named it that for two reasons: one, because of the swampy-sounding guitar during the verses of the song, and two, because they loved Nashville and enjoyed the time they spent there. If a foreign band can fall in love with Nashville, then maybe there’s more to the city than the stereotypes suggest. I’ve always enjoyed Nashville (Tennessee Titans notwithstanding), and I’ve been telling people that it’s about to make Austin passe, so to speak.

  7. Matthew Hall says:

    Nashville isn’t anything like Austin. Nashville is a low-cost, back-office place, not a center of innovation like Austin. AT&T may have moved its corporate administration to Nashville, but its research labs are still firmly established in New Jersey. Nissan may manufacture in Tenneesse, but it designs its cars in San Diego and buys many of its parts from manufacurers in the Great Lakes. This helps to explain why its per capita numbers are so poor. They’ve moved routine lower value activities to a cheaper place while keeping the high value innovative activities in some of the most high cost locations in the country. Austin is unique because it has managed to lure actual innovative activities to a low-cost location. Nashville, with the possible exception of Vanderbilt, isn’t even trying to play that game.

  8. Actually, Matthew, Austin’s PCI decline has been even steeper than Nashville’s. Nashville went from 104.4% of the US average to 100.1% of the US average in the last decade. In other words, not particularly low PCI. Austin by contrast went from 108.1% to 97%.

    If you look at percentage change in PCI over the decades among large one million population metros, Nashville ranked 36th out of 51. However, they were actually ahead of Denver, Austin, San Francisco, Portland, and Minneapolis. The leaders in this metric interestingly include a lot of metros conventionally viewed to be in bad shape or stagnant: New Orleans, Virginia Beach, Providence, Buffalo, and Hartford.

  9. Matthew Hall says:

    Recent changes in PCI may suggest changes afoot, but the large differences in income with average salaries of $41,620 in Nashville and $47,340 in Austin suggest these changes would have a long way to go for Nashville to challenge Austin as a center of innovation.

  10. Chris Barnett says:

    Matthew, different kinds of innovation and creativity. Musicians don’t make as much as engineers or app developers.

    It’s a difference between the two cities of very long standing. The Grand Old Opry moved to Nashville decades ago, about the same time as IBM was growing its operations in Austin. (My father was an engineer in computer peripheral development back in the mainframe era, and he traveled to IBM Austin back then.)

  11. Matthew Hall says:

    It appears that the Austin form of innovation is more valuable than the nashville kind. Almost $6,000 times 900,000 workers seems like a big difference in local wealth to me.

  12. Carl Wohlt says:

    I think it’s interesting to note that Nashville lies within a zone between the lower Midwest and the upper South that extends approximately from Knoxville to Oklahoma City. This part of the country has some very attractive features. The geography includes a good hunk of the Interior Uplands and the rolling hills of Kentucky and Tennessee. Lots of major rivers and lakes.

    The zone has early springs and late autumns. Of course it’s tropical in the summer, but the winters are relatively short. I have a friend in Tulsa who never tires of calling me in mid-February to tell me he’s standing on his back deck in shorts, and of course he inquires about the weather in Chicago.

    Nashville seems to be emerging and the capital of this unique zone. It’s certainly something for urban enthusiasts to keep your eyes one.

  13. DBR96A says:

    That zone from Knoxville to Oklahoma City is what I consider the Mid-South. It includes the Ozark Mountains, the lower Ohio River Valley, and the Tennessee River Valley. It has four distinct seasons, although winter is about a month shorter than average, and summer is about a month longer than average.

    The big drawback is the tornadoes. They’re relatively frequent in the Mid-South, and rather than having a definite high-risk season for them like the Great Plains have, there’s only a definite low-risk season from June through September. In other words, tornado outbreaks can occur at any time from October through May, even including December and January. (Merry f___ing Christmas!) The Mid-South also has the highest percentage of nocturnal tornadoes in the United States. Tennessee leads the way, with 46% of all tornadoes since 1950 occurring at night. Arkansas and Kentucky each have had at least 40% at night as well.

  14. Matthew Hall says:

    what averages are you talking about?

  15. Chris Barnett says:

    Matthew, even an economist like me knows that there are both tangible and intangible aspects to “value”. Economics, unlike accounting, is (still) a social science. The arts’ value is hard to calculate and the benefits are far more dispersed than PCI would capture. Florida asserts they’re correlated, but I’m not convinced. Too many cultural “starving artist” archetypes exist for them to be only anecdotal.

    Lay aside any biases about American bluegrass and country music for a moment.

    Do you drive down the road (or run, or walk, or cycle) reciting code from an app loudly? Do apps speak to universal truths about life, or do they merely have utility value that can be measured in time or dollar savings? How do you value a “moment” of happiness or deep truth shared in song? Which is more valuable: a year-round music scene or once-a-year fly-in festival?

  16. Matthew Hall says:

    It’s not for me to decide what others value. We each have to decide that for ourselves. When you aggregate those choices you have a market. In a free market the value of any good, sevice, or place takes into account any and all value that people might give that good, service, or place. Successful places figure out how to pay for everything they value. I don’t know how ‘value’ is different form ‘utility value’? If I value the time and space to contemplate a deep truth or share a muscial performance with others, I have a use for that time and space. It has ‘utility’ for me, and presumably the others who are there also. It would be arrogant of me to say that the workers of austin are getting paid more for their work than they should or that the workers of nashville aren’t getting paid enough. It’s not my choice.

  17. the urban politician says:

    Perhaps Nashville has changed? I lived in Nashville for four years, and left in 2003. The city I lived in was not too different than what Aaron described, but my biggest frustration with it (beyond the whole country music thing–I’m obviously not a fan) was the suburban nature of the whole place. It really is a giant city of strip malls and suburban-style shopping centers, making the city unbelievably car-dependent.

    I lived there having spent a year living in Center City Philadelphia, and I was instantly shocked at how much my lifestyle changed. I went from carless and active to being car-dependent, and I perhaps reached my heaviest weight of all time when I lived there.

    Nashville has some good qualities–I love the Vanderbilt campus, people are friendly, there are some good restaurants and there is some great soul food, a lot of attractive women (although diversity in this is lacking), but from an urban design standpoint it falls woefully short. Perhaps that has changed in the past 9 years? One of these days I’ll have to venture back there and see what’s different.

  18. the urban politician says:

    Interestingly, Nashville’s downtown has eliminated parking minimums. That makes Nashville, at least in this regard, more progressive than Chicago! 😉

  19. TUP, Nashville remains totally car oriented. However, they have built a ton of urban infill, and most of it is pretty high quality by the standards of urbanism. There’s a long way to go before Nashville could be considered as having anything resembling a great urban environment, but as you note they have the proper policies in place on the zoning side.

  20. Human Behaviour says:

    Nashville has changed dramatically since 2003. I moved away around that same time and ended up back in Nashville after a stint in Ann Arbor. In 2003, the Gulch was still a seedy, industrial area. It’s now the first LEED certified neighborhood in the Southeast (or so it claims). Popular urban ‘hoods like East Nashville, 12South or Germantown were not nearly as nice as they are now either. The latter in particular seems to get a fair amount of good national press. There are many more neat, local shops and eateries than there were a decade ago. I recall Nashville getting a lot of flack years ago for its lack of home-grown businesses and eateries, but that has changed.

    There isn’t too much we can do about the suburban, car-oriented nature of city for the immediate future. The city/county consolidated half a century ago and the metro grew during a very car-centric period with big ring towns like Murfreesboro and Franklin becoming very popular. The focus seems to be on improving the bus system and getting regional transit options rolling. Much to my chagrin, Mayor Dean appears more focused on BRT than light rail like we’re seeing in Charlotte and Austin.

  21. Human Behaviour says:

    I meant East Nashville is getting great national press in my last post. Not Germantown. Here are a few recent articles about the emerging Nashville food scene and East Nashville.

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