Thursday, August 16th, 2012

Cities of Aspiration

Drew Klacik’s recent post on how he ended up in Indianapolis got me thinking about the unique status of what I’d describe as “cities of aspiration.” Pretty much all cities seem to be reasonably good at attracting people in the following cases:

1. Recruiting someone to a specific career or other opportunity. In this case, the value of the opportunity is really the question at stake. The attractiveness of the community itself is generally a secondary consideration though may have an impact pro or con.

2. Luring residents based on a family connection. This would often be the case for “boomerang migration” – people who left and came back, ordinarily after marriage and children. More broadly we could think of this as retaining or attracting those with a historic connection to a place, such as being born there.

3. Drawing people from a city’s natural catchment area. The size of this area depends on a variety of factors, but pretty much every city has some natural hinterland from which it draws people.

I call this the “normal model” of attraction. Clearly, a place like Indianapolis does well on all of these types of attraction, as do most similar sized cities I’d argue. That’s how Drew ended up in Indy.

However, there’s another basis of attraction. This is what I call “aspirational attraction” – it’s people deciding to move or desiring to move to a city from outside of its natural catchment area despite a lack of a job offer or historical connection. I see this as based in one of three primary motivations:

1. Desire to work in a particular industry that is centered in a particular location. Want to be a country musician? Moving to Nashville helps. Similarly, if you want to be an actor, New York, LA, or Chicago are basically your only options.

2. Desire to live in a particular city for lifestyle reasons. Portland would be the paradigmatic example here. People sure don’t move there for its job market.

3. Desire to live in a city because of its reputation for a rapidly growing economy or superior job market. Many of the Sun Belt boomtowns might fall into this category. They’ve got similar quality of life to many other places, but their robust job markets (and perhaps a bit of nicer weather) draw people in.

Clearly, there are comparatively few places that function as a aspirational cities in a meaningful sense.

Back to Drew’s piece, I don’t want to put words into his mouth, but my impression was that he sees Indianapolis having a strong “normal model” of attraction but not functioning as an aspirational city. I agree. More than 80% of Indy’s net domestic in-migration comes from elsewhere in Indiana, the city’s natural catchment area, and it isn’t hard to believe that specific opportunities and boomeranging account for almost all the rest. Perhaps the implication of his notion of tradeoffs is that if a city like Indy isn’t aspirationally attractive, you have the luxury of compromise since you probably already have a lock on the market you’re currently capturing. That’s a perfectly valid conclusion to reach, IMO.

A very serious question cities that function nearly exclusively as normal attractors need to ask themselves is whether they desire to become aspirationally attractive. If so, then some exploration of the basis of that, and a realistic assessment of whether or not it is possible is important to undertake. Included in this would be the implications of not becoming aspirationally attractive. It seems to me that not having some type of aspirational component to your city’s attractiveness ultimately puts a ceiling on what it can achieve. On the other hand, it is far from clear that it’s easy to consciously create an aspirational value proposition where none currently exists.

Topics: Strategic Planning, Talent Attraction, Urban Culture
Cities: Indianapolis

24 Responses to “Cities of Aspiration”

  1. Drew says:

    While I agree with most of these notions, including the fact that Indianapolis has a strong normal model, you did put some words in my mouth as I do beleive Indianapolis aspires. Furtehrmore, Indianapolis does fit your desire to work in a specific industry aspriational model #1- if you want to work in motorsports Indy and Charlotte are your likely destinations. In my studies of the motorsports industry I’ve interviewed folks from all across the nation and indeed the world that moved to Indy to advance their careers.

    I want to suggest that aspiration isn’t an all or nothing proposition rather it is each city carefully or to use your word realistically picking its aspirational targets. So in Indy I’d suggest the new airport terminal, the commitment to downtown including the effort to add housing and a new cool urban grocery store, many of the current and emerging neighborhood initiatives, the cultural trail, the development of the Speedzone (building upon its motorpsort cluster), and continuing to build its sporting venue niche as aspirational efforts designed to help attract people from outside its base. The city and many other cities aren’t big enough to offer everything to everybody, so it has to pick and choose its aspriational moements. So I don’t think that its failure to build world class parking garages or based on some opinions even nice ones means it lacks aspiration, rather it has realistically focused its aspriation elsewhere.

  2. jbcmh81 says:

    I’m not sure most of the Sun Belt is all that aspirational from an economic standpoint. Most of these states and cities have some of the highest rates of unemployment in the nation and seem to be recovering very slowly vs the rest of the country. While their economies were booming as recently as a few years ago, there’s little indication that they still are. And if things don’t improve, I question all these predictions of continued high population growth. Charlotte, for example, has 10% unemployment (that has gone up each of the last 4 months), yet it’s still constantly being mentioned as a city that will maintain it’s growth rates. Why would people continue to move there under such conditions? A bit more sunshine only goes so far, and there are plenty of other places with far better job opportunities. It seems to me that at least some of the aspirational desire to move to a place also falls under the normal mode of economics. Weather might play a role in where retirees go, but let’s be honest here, most people still need a job.

  3. Drew, thanks for clarifying your own point of view.

    I will grant you motorsports, but that’s a pretty tiny piece of the overall Indianapolis puzzle. The other items you mention are certainly positives – often very positive) and make people more likely to come to or stay in Indy, other things being equal. But motorsports excepted, I don’t see them as the types of things that would make someone from elsewhere in the US go, “Wow, I really want to live in Indianapolis.”

  4. You say that people move to Portland for the lifestyle and not for its job market. Could you expand on that? I am looking at a job in Portland right now, and I am also looking at Austin. I live in Chicago, so visiting Austin is easier for me, so I know more about it.

  5. pete-rock says:

    I bet at one time Indy thought amateur athletics would be an aspirationally attractive sector. Has it had the impact of motorsports? Indy has developed the infrastructure to host all sorts of amateur athletic events, and got the NCAA to move its headquarters there. But I don’t think athletes or coaches say they must move to Indy to train or coach.

  6. Chris Barnett says:

    Aaron, though it was “for a job”, when I came to Indy it was aspirational. I had never lived in Indy, had no connections here, and I wanted a good career in manufacturing and operations management.

    The world’s leading TV manufacturer was here; also GM (then including both Allison operations), Ford, Chrysler, Harvester, AT&T (Western Electric), and many smaller companies. Many other companies were within commuting range of Indy and its suburbs (other GM operations, Arvin, Cummins, etc). I worked in both consumer electronics and auto-parts manufacturing for global companies before the world changed (when I changed careers the first time).

  7. Chris Barnett says:

    pete, the “aspirationally attractive” part of the amateur sports cluster is in organization and event management and the high-paying jobs, not the day-to-day athletics.

    Every other city’s people come here to learn how to stage large sporting events: motor races, Final Fours (and now, Super Bowls).

  8. Drew says:

    At times we are discusing the aspirations of people and why they live in certain places (Chris for example had aspriations when he moved to Indy or someone whao aspires to be in country music might move to Nashville) and at other times we are trying to determine the aspirations of a city (Indy used an amateur sports and downtown development strategy to improve its brand).

    As I pointed out in the original piece I never aspired to live in Indy nor anywhere else for that matter, but now that i live here i’m glad i live in a region that is trying to find the appropriate balance between addressing the needs of its normal model of attraction base while still striving to develop some aspirational attraction power.

  9. UrbanJD says:

    I think it is interesting that for a city that (at least according to this article) doesn’t seem to have a large amount of “aspirational attraction”, metro Indianapolis has led the Midwest in percentage of population growth for pretty much every decade since at least the 1970’s.

  10. @UrbanJD, when I examined the IRS records, I determined that the overwhelming source of domestic migration to Indy was from elsewhere in Indiana. It accounts for over 80% of the total. So clearly Indy is a big draw for people who are already Hoosiers without a doubt. To me that is its natural catchment area, just as Ohio is for Columbus. Actually, I think there is a real brain drain, but it is college educated people from the rest of the state getting sucked into Indianapolis. Domestically, Indy hasn’t proven that it can be a serious attractor outside of the state of Indiana (and metro Chicago, which is actually the #1 metropolitan source). Internationally, it has done quite well.

  11. Bow says:

    @pete-rock: I am sure some athletes do come to Indy to train. Most come to engage the sports medicine cluster here. Not only is that cluster well known in the states and it gets international acclaim.

    Indy’s sports strategy, as they will tell you, isn’t about the sports, never has been. What it about, is building image, transforming the downtown and infusing the city economy.

    Indy has really pulled back from amateur sports since the mid nineties. The fact that the city did not hold one or more Olympic trails since 1980 did not go unnoticed. Look for them to retrench.

    Consider the fact that the Sports Corp in Indy had to hold a press conference to announce the city would not bid on the new College Football Championship despite being a favorite.
    Even that got the city national press. Cities in the BIG including Chicago Press ran stories decrying Indy as the northern states standard flagship for that event and it had dealt a major below for the game in the north. That’s a negative positive for the city.

  12. @Bow, why did the city decide not to bid?

  13. Bow says:

    I can only tell you what they busy, full plate of major events already scheduled. Zahan also eluded they were hoping to soon announce another major event.

  14. Jon White says:

    I think I would have to agree with Aaron here. I grew up in Indianapolis, but the part of the city I grew up in, the southside, looks like a neutron bomb hit it. My family all still live there, though all of my siblings have decamped to Johnson county. Most everyone I went to high school with who went to college moved elsewhere, many to Chicago. Though I agree that downtown Indianapolis is fantastic, much of the rest of the city seems weak. I’ve most recently been living in Columbus, OH (after long stays in Albany, NY and Portland, OR) and overall, the neighborhoods in Columbus seemed more vibrant than those in Indianapolis, even though its downtown is somewhat lacking. My experience in Columbus, as well as Indianapolis and Columbus is that they are regional attractors except in very slim categories (motorsports for Indy, Education for Columbus)and not the kind of places people just pick up and go to without a job in advance. Portland is that kind of place (and freethought; if you have a job Portland is wonderful, if you don’t its frightfully expensive)and it seemed like no one in Portland is a native Oregonian. I don’t think the same could be said about Indianapolis.

    And (rant alert) when did everyone start calling it Indy? that still drives me crazy.

  15. Alon Levy says:

    Aaron, based on this typology, pretty much all significant migration is normal. When a city’s job market is stronger, people don’t just move there because they’ve heard that the job market is stronger. Instead, people move because they have a concrete job offer. The exceptions are when the income differences are so large that you’re statistically guaranteed to be better off after moving (e.g. international movement from the third world to the first), or when jobs are lush and you’re again guaranteed to get something (e.g. mining boomtowns).

    Aspirational migration, with exceptions like Portland (which has the unemployment rate to go with it), tends not to be significant. The number of actors in the US is in the tens of thousands or maybe the low hundreds of thousands. LA has 18 million people. The film industry is larger than actors, but I don’t think being a stagehand is particularly aspirational.

    So the upshot is that if a city wants to get migration that’s not boomerang, it needs to have a strong job market. That’s about it. People don’t move to Dallas for the joy of 40-degree summer days. They move there because Dallas has jobs for their social class that pay better relative to their social class’s local standard of living than most other US cities.

  16. Chris Barnett says:

    Jon, it’s easier/faster to type “Indy” on a smartphone. Also Cbus, MSP, STL, Cinti, DFW, SFO, DC, Pgh, Lvl, NYC, LA, and Philly. And people understand it in context on this blog.

  17. Chris Barnett says:

    Drew, Aaron seems to be saying that individuals with aspirations want to be in a place that exudes a matching sense of “civic aspiration”, something more than being good at “normal” attractors. So understanding and matching micro and macro is probably important to Aaron’s model of civic attraction and individual choice.

    This seems to be an attempt to capture something beyond “build it and they will come”, those grand civic aspirations captured in concrete, steel, stone, and glass. It seems also about the vibe a place gives off, in an accumulation of cues both large and small.

    Aaron sometimes dismisses places where small talk starts with, “so where’d you go to (high) school”–that gives off a parochial vibe. And he calls out Indy for building stupid “features” into the everyday environment: trip-hazard sewer inlets, poles in sidewalks, etc. Not the whole story, but probably indicative of some bigger truth.

    This is sort of simple and incomplete…but have I caught your gist, Aaron?

  18. Well, Chris, there are a lot of things, inter-related. But clearly there’s so much that goes into establishing a place’s particular “vibe” as you say. So much physical, so much cultural, etc.

  19. Chris Barnett says:

    Food for more thought and blogging. :)

  20. Bob Cook says:

    All the discussion about the merits (or lack thereof) of Indianapolis, I think, needs to include how the state of Indiana itself affects the city and its image, especially in light of Aaron’s stat that 80 percent of domestic newcomers are from the state itself.

    The conservative architectural and planning choices that Aaron has pointed out are a direct result of Indiana’s overall conservative mindset, which is a drag on Indianapolis. The city itself actually has a burgeoning international population, arts and restaurant scene, and other things happening that aren’t exactly reflected in the architecture that could be attractive for younger workers, or even to get people back who moved out. I’m a Carmel native who is living in the Chicago area, and changes in Indianapolis have gotten me to thinking moving back might be a great thing. (Heck, with all that’s changed in Carmel, I would even consider moving back there, and I NEVER thought I would think that.)

    But Indiana has a well-earned reputation for being hostile to youth and new ideas, and electing the likes of Mike Pence and Richard Mourdock doesn’t help shed that image, and it gives me pause about returning. I don’t mean that Indianapolis would attract more talent if it only elected more liberal politicians.

    However, like how Austin’s “keep Austin weird” culture helps attract people who might otherwise be repelled by the Rick Perrys of the world, an Indianapolis that sticks its neck out to show it’s open to new ideas AND isn’t beholden to traditional images of Indiana could become a much more attractive destination. If Indianapolis tries to be Carmel or Noblesville or Greenwood, it loses every time. However, if it tries to stand out as an urban destination, where all ideas and people are truly welcome, Indianapolis has a chance.

    However, I’m not hopeful that the city leaders will warmly embrace that idea. Heck, CARMEL extended domestic partnership benefits before Indianapolis did it. Having your suburbs be gay-friendlier than you is not exactly the way to promote that you have the sort of urban core that is fresh and exciting. C’mon, Indianapolis, save the small-town mindset for the small towns — let your freak flag fly!

  21. John says:

    I agree with this characterization of migration, but I think you left off one more key reason people move; education. Universities can draw young people to a city they wouldn’t normally have considered. After graduating, they may have an easier time finding a job locally, and end up staying indefinitely. So I would think one thing cities can do to boost their attraction is have more universities, especially large or prominent ones.

    Also, I agree that “normal migration” probably makes up the vast bulk of migration for most places, especially in the Midwest (outside of Chicago). I am from Columbus, but live in Chicagoland. I would consider moving to Ohio to be a boomeranger, but if I weren’t from Ohio, I can’t imagine any reason to actively want to move there.

  22. Idyllic Indy says:

    Chris, on a light note: Cinti and Pgh, instead of Cincy and Pitt? Just wondering if those are commonly used by folks around here.

  23. Dan says:

    I first discovered the phenomenon when landed a job in the Denver area after grad school. Many young professionals I met moved to Denver not because they had a job waiting for them, but because the region offered an “outdoorsy” lifestyle that best matched their hobbies, interests and personality.

    I call the phenomenon “lifestyle cities”, places that attract residents not necessarily because of family ties or employment opportunities, but because they offer a kind of lifestyle or “scene” that appeals to them. Outdoorsy? Denver’s going to be on the top of your list. Hipster? Austin is calling your name, even though everybody has heard of it.

    This puts cities without a well-known “scene” or culture with strong appeal at a disadvantage. Cities like Buffalo and Pittsburgh offer vibrant yet affordable urbanism — an asset that is growing increasingly rare — but they lack a “scene” of a critical mass that appeals to newcomers looking for a place where they can not only work, but also fit in. If you’re a young, active professional, you’ll be among peers in Denver, but in the Rust Belt, you may feel like you’re on the outside looking in. The dominant blue-collar culture just isn’t a draw.

  24. Matthew Hall says:

    Denver, Austin, and Portland lure the pretentious and shallow away so that ‘real’ cities are even that much more real. Freedom and choice really do work to the benefit of all!

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