Sunday, April 15th, 2012
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.
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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.