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Friday, September 19th, 2014

Metro Area Gross Domestic Product

percent-change-per-capita-gdp-2010-2013
Percent change in real per capita GDP, 2010-2013.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis is out with the preliminary numbers for 2013 metro area GDP (see the press release).

Update: Since Real Clear Policy linked this, I’ll add in a spreadsheet with per capita GDP data for all large metros.

We’ve now got enough data that it’s worthwhile to start tracking the trend vs. a 2010 base instead of 2010. With that, here are the top ten large metros by real per capita GDP:


Rank Metro Area 2013
1 San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA 100,115
2 San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA 78,844
3 Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA 74,701
4 Boston-Cambridge-Newton, MA-NH 74,643
5 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 73,461
6 Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX 72,258
7 New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA 69,074
8 Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA 68,810
9 Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT 66,870
10 Salt Lake City, UT 62,008

San Jose cracks the $100,000 barrier, though that’s in part to the Bay Area being split into two metros, and the base year for constant dollar calculations getting switched from 2005 to 2009. But still impressive.

This list is similar to what we’ve seen before. But how are things changing? Let’s look at the top ten large metros for percent change in their real per capita GDP from 2010 to 2013:


Rank Metro Area 2010 2013 Pct Change
1 Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX 63,816 72,258 13.23%
2 San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA 89,806 100,115 11.48%
3 Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA 63,025 68,810 9.18%
4 Columbus, OH 50,370 54,493 8.19%
5 Grand Rapids-Wyoming, MI 41,248 44,482 7.84%
6 Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia, NC-SC 51,819 55,802 7.69%
7 Oklahoma City, OK 45,993 49,441 7.50%
8 Salt Lake City, UT 57,790 62,008 7.30%
9 Nashville-Davidson–Murfreesboro–Franklin, TN 50,464 54,112 7.23%
10 Detroit-Warren-Dearborn, MI 46,314 49,653 7.21%

A full map of this metric is at the top of this post.

Houston’s #1 showing is very impressive. This is a per capita value remember, so they aren’t on top just by virtue of adding lots of people. And they are in the top ten for 2013 per capita, so it’s not like they started on a low base or something.

Portland and San Jose continues their strong showing in this metric (more on these metros to come next week). Two metros in Michigan made the top ten, though some of that I’d speculate must come from the auto industry recovery, meaning it’s cyclical in nature.

I’ll throw in the total real GDP figures as well, but obviously these heavily align to population. Here are the ten biggest metro GDPs in 2013 (amounts in millions of dollars):


Row Geography 2013
1 New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA 1,377,989
2 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA 775,967
3 Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI 550,793
4 Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX 456,177
5 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 437,085
6 Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 413,627
7 Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD 358,091
8 San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA 356,081
9 Boston-Cambridge-Newton, MA-NH 349,652
10 Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, GA 288,175

And the top ten in total real GDP growth percentage, 2010-2013.


Rank Metro Area 2010 2013 Pct Change
1 Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX 379,595 456,177 20.17%
2 San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA 165,435 192,184 16.17%
3 Austin-Round Rock, TX 86,546 98,126 13.38%
4 Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA 140,717 159,266 13.18%
5 Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia, NC-SC 115,229 130,318 13.09%
6 Oklahoma City, OK 57,856 65,246 12.77%
7 Nashville-Davidson–Murfreesboro–Franklin, TN 84,572 95,124 12.48%
8 Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 368,015 413,627 12.39%
9 Salt Lake City, UT 63,090 70,719 12.09%
10 San Antonio-New Braunfels, TX 80,101 89,463 11.69%

Richard Florida posted some thoughts on this data over at City Lab. I’m less bothered than he is by Washington, DC’s poor performance, however. Much like Detroit’s cyclical upswing, I think short term turbulence in DC from the sequester and fiscal challenges was to be expected.

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

The Challenges Of Talking About Quality of Place In a Small Town

For many of us in the urbanist world, the idea of upgrading physical aspects of our cities with a goal of improving quality of life through improving quality of place is axiomatic. That seems to be a tougher case to make in small towns, except perhaps basic Main St. beautification.

One challenge I’ve noticed is that people who live in small towns have a strong belief that it’s already a great place to live. In part this is a self-selection matter: the people who didn’t like it are gone. But in part it’s also because their belief is true.

However, so much of what makes up the quality of place in a small town is the people in it, in their relationships, experiences, shared history, etc. I think about Laconia where I grew up. To me, the quality that makes that place so wonderful to me is my family, the house I grew up in, the church I attended, the schools I went to and the experiences I had there, the relationships I built. When I drive down the road everything I see triggers memories, maybe even memories of something that’s no longer there.

But those are all things that are unique to those of us who are already established in a place. So it can be difficult for us to relate to what a newcomer sees when they drive through. Yes, newcomers can build those experiences too, but that takes time. People and businesses thinking about moving in don’t have those great, positive experiences yet. All they can judge the community by is the numbers they see in their spreadsheet, and what it looks and feels like when they are there and the surface interactions they have when visiting.

Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to get honest, direct feedback on what that is. And because our own experience blinds us, we can’t fully divorce ourselves from it to see clearly like an outsider would. This makes it difficult for a lot of places to see where they need to change. Which is a shame, because stereotypes notwithstanding, it is possible to find a great new home as a newcomer to a small town. But you have to get them there first.

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

Beyond Urban Branding

Following on from my Governing piece, here’s a video of a similar presentation I gave on city branding at a symposium on the topic at the University of Washington-Tacoma.

I normally do not like to pick on smaller cities (bigger cities and ones that profess to be world class should be able to take it), but in this case I wanted to make some direct peer style comparisons to cities the size of Tacoma. Here are links to the videos I reference in the talk. They weren’t included in the posted version.

Video 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8M1rT9hX1nE (I also wrote a post on this one a while back)
Video 2: https://vimeo.com/70575853 (I only played 3:45 or so of this one)
Video 3: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZt-pOc3moc

If the embed doesn’t display, click over to You Tube.

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

The World City

Last week’s episode of the Monocle 24 show the Urbanist was an interesting look at the “world city” or “global city.” They take a bit of a skeptical look, showing how, for example, many residents of Istanbul are at odds with the construction boom designed to turn the city into what one critic dubbed a low-grade Dubai. And also how smaller cities like Lisbon and Wellington, New Zealand are following their own path without trying to aspire to compete as peers with the big boys. They also take on Vancouver, though fail to note its extremely high housing prices (it’s not livable if you can’t live there), and also its gang wars and other issues that belie the kumbaya vision the mayor is pitching. And there’s a conversation with an analyst from the Economist Intelligence Unit who talks about that organization’s ratings. It’s a bit eyebrow raising that Monocle, a publication that has done a lot to promote the whole global city idea and transnational norms, values and amenities to which all cities are called on to aspire to (in addition to publishing its own league table), would be critiquing the global city, but it’s a good listen regardless.

If the audio embed doesn’t display for you, click over to listen on Soundcloud.

Sunday, September 14th, 2014

The New Donut

Former Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut used to like to say that “you can’t be a suburb of nowhere.” This is the oft-repeated notion has been a rallying cry for investments to revitalize downtowns in America for three decades or so now. The idea being that you can’t have a smoking hole in your region where your downtown is supposed to be. This created a mental based on a donut. You can’t let downtown become an empty hole. For reason that will become apparent soon, I call this model “the old donut”:

Filling in the hole became every city’s mission. Pretty much any city or metro region of any size has pumped literally billions of dollars into its downtown in an attempt to revitalize them. This took many forms ranging from stadiums to convention centers to hotels to parking garages to streetcars to museums and more. It’s popular today to subsidize mixed use development with a heavy residential component.

These efforts have paid off to a certain degree. Most big city downtowns have done very well as entertainment and visitor districts, eds and meds centers, etc. More recently we’ve seen an influx of residents, even in places where the overall city or even region has struggled or declined. Cleveland added about 4,000 net new downtown residents in the 2000s. St. Louis added 3,000. With most cities in some stage of an apartment building spree consisting of a few thousand units, these numbers should only improve.

Key weaknesses remain in private sector employment (declining in most places) and retail (not enough high income residents yet). And other than the tier one types of cities like Chicago, few places seem to have reached a sustainable market rate development level yet – pretty much everything is getting public assistance. Yet its pretty evident that most larger downtowns have made huge strides and are experiencing overall reasonable health.

In short, the donut hole has been filled in. Where does that leave us? I’d argue with a paradigm I call “the new donut”:

In this model, the old donut is inverted. What used to be the ring of health – the outer areas of the city and the inner suburban regions – are now struggling. Whereas the downtown is in pretty good shape, and the newer suburban areas are booming. (You might add in a fourth outer ring with troubles – these were the exurbs where very low-end housing proliferated because development standards were very low).

You see this in the population figures. Wendell Cox cranked the numbers and found that major metro areas gained 206,000 residents in the two mile radius from the center, but lost 272,000 residents from the 2-5 mile ring. Growth picked up strongly beyond that arc. This is the new donut area, though the start and end of it vary by metro and some have thicker rings of challenge than others.

We’ve got three decades of experience in downtown revitalization, but much less in dealing with this newer challenge zone. I’ve said that suburban revitalization may prove to be the big 21st century “urban” challenge. This is where it is happening in many cases. These areas have an inferior housing stock (often small post-war worker cottages or ranches), sometimes poor basic infrastructure, and are sometimes independent municipalities that, like Ferguson, MO, are often overlooked unless something really bad happens. Unlike the major downtown, they are often “out of sight, out of mind” for most regional movers and shakers.

What’s more, while downtown provides a concentrated location for massive public investment, this more spread out area is too big to fix by throwing money at it. And how many stadiums and convention centers does a region need in any event?

This is where we need to be doing a lot of thinking about how to bring these places back, look at what’s being done, etc. And also, given the inequality in the country, to try to think about ideas that don’t involve gentrification. One project that appears to be in this kind of zone, for example, is Atlanta’s Beltline project, though there’s a gentrifying aspect to this one. Regions that figure this one out will be at a big advantage going forward.

Friday, September 12th, 2014

If Cities Want to Succeed, They Need to Focus on What Makes Them Distinct

My latest column is out in the September 2014 edition of Governing Magazine. It’s called “If Cities Want to Succeed, They Need to Focus on What Makes Them Distinct” and long time readers will find the themes consistent with what I’ve long argued. Here’s an excerpt:

Bike lanes are great. But bike lanes are the civic equivalent of what might be called “best practices” in the corporate world. They are things every well-functioning city is now expected to have. They don’t, however, generate differential value or make a city any more competitive in the market. Just as you can’t build a successful company on simply a collection of best practices, it’s hard to build a successful city just on these things. You need them, but they aren’t enough. They are the new urban ante — just table stakes.

If we think of the places that have the greatest resonance in the public mind, it’s generally those places that are unique. People visit New Orleans or Las Vegas because no other place is like New Orleans or Las Vegas. There’s no place on earth like New York or San Francisco. If there’s nothing unique about your town, then your town is just a commodity. And we know that commodities compete on one factor: price. Being a commodity player leads to weak marketplace leverage. That’s why firms are always trying to differentiate themselves in a marketplace.

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

Time Lapse Portugal

This week a time lapse video of Portugal by Kirill Neiezhmakov, featuring Sesimbra and Lisbon. The scene transition technique is very cool. A beautiful piece but my gut reaction was that the beauty seems at odds with the country’s economic malaise. Best in full screen high definition. if the video doesn’t display for you, click over to Vimeo. h/t Likecool

As a bonus time lapse, here’s another installment in a series on LA, “Time-LAX 3.” If the video doesn’t display for you, click over to Vimeo.

Sunday, September 7th, 2014

When the People Are Corrupted

This is another installment in my series on corruption. The New York Times ran an article last week about Buddy Cianci entering the race for mayor of Providence. Cianci is a larger than life figure in Rhode Island. Dubbed the “Prince of Providence,” he served two previous stints as mayor of the city – both times ending up forced from office due to felony convictions.

I don’t know the details of the first case, in which he pleaded no contest to a felony assault charge over attacking someone with “a lit cigarette, ashtray and fireplace log.” There’s got to be more to that story than I know because I can’t imagine a felony charge resulting from something like that, or that he’s plead no contest knowing it would get him removed from office.

The second time was he was convicted of racketeering charges (though actually acquitted of all but one of the things he was charged with) as part of an FBI investigation called “Operation Plunder Dome” that resulted in a number of convictions. He did 4+ years in federal prison as a result.

Now Cianci is back and running for office again. Apparently he remains quite popular and there is so much fear among many that he’ll actually win – he’s running as an independent – that various candidates have dropped out of the race in an effort to avoid splitting the vote and letting Cianci somehow slip in.

The fact that Cianci is considered a viable candidate for mayor despite being notoriously corrupt shows something that tends to happen in communities where corruption is the norm. Namely that the people themselves become corrupted in the process.

This actually happened long ago in Rhode Island, which seems to have been crooked about as long as it’s been around. One of the most famous pieces of writing about the state is Lincoln Steffens 1905 McClure’s Magazine screed called “Rhode Island: A State of Sale.” Here’s what he had to say about the matter:

And Rhode Island throws light on another national question, a question that is far more important: Aren’t the people themselves dishonest? The “grafters” who batten on us say so. Politicians have excused their own corruption to me time and again by declaring that “we’re all corrupt,” and promoters and swindlers alike describe their victims as “smart folk who think to beat us at our own game.” Without going into the cynic’s sweeping summary that “man always was and always will be corrupt” it is but fair while we are following the trail of the grafters to consider their plea that the corrupt political System they are upbuilding is founded on the dishonesty of the American people. Is it?

It is in Rhode Island. The System of Rhode Island which has produced the man who is at the head of the political System of the United States is grounded on the lowest layer of corruption that I have found thus far — the bribery of voters with cash at the polls. Other States know the practice. In Wisconsin, Missouri, Illinois, and Pennsylvania “workers ” are paid “to get out the vote,” but this is only preliminary; the direct and decisive purchase of power comes later, in conventions and legislatures. In these States the corruptionists buy the people’s representatives. In Rhode Island they buy the people themselves.

Rather than just businessmen buying politicians, the politicians bought voters, and virtually ever voter in the state was on the take, and in fact became quite peeved if their vote wasn’t purchased:

Nine of the towns are absolutely purchasable; that is to say, they “go the way the money goes.” Eleven more can be influenced by the use of money. Many of their voters won’t go to the polls at all unless “there is something in it.” But there need not be much in it. Governor Garvin quoted a political leader in one town who declared that if neither party had money, but one had a box of cigars, “my town would go for that party — if the workers would give up the cigars.” In another town one party had but one man in it who did not take money, and he never voted. A campaign marching club organized for a presidential campaign paraded every night with enthusiasm so great that the leaders thought it would be unnecessary to pay for votes in this town; few of the members voted. Another time, when no money turned up at a State election, one town, by way of rebuke to the regular party managers, elected a Prohibition candidate to the Assembly.

In this environment, the public is mostly indifferent to corruption and can even embrace it as part of the civic identity. Hence the viability of a known crook as a mayoral candidate.

It’s the same in Illinois. Even many of my highly educated professional friends there actually take pride in the state’s corruption, cracking boastful jokes about how it only proves Chicago is the best or something.

As Scott Reeder put it in an article earlier this year:

Well, another state legislator is heading to prison. You won’t hear much outrage in Springfield. Or dismay for that matter. In the grand scheme of things, the conviction of state Rep. Derrick Smith, D-Chicago, on bribery charges is picayune. You’ll hear it whispered around the statehouse: “He ‘only’ took $7,000.”

llinoisans have become jaded to criminality among those we elect. A few years back, some Springfield wag printed up bumper stickers that said, “My Governor is a Bigger Crook than Your Governor.” This kind of cynicism has metastases through the electorate leaving political tumors of apathy, inevitability and suspicion.

Derrick Smith, the representative of $7000 bribe fame, was expelled from the House back in 2012 after being indicted, but actually won re-election with 63% of the vote.

And this bit in an article about corruption in Springfield:

Larry Sabato, a nationally recognized political analyst from University of Virginia, adds insight while talking about Illinois in an article written by Dave McKinney for Illinois Issues: “The central and most vital point about corruption is it flourishes where people permit it to, in part because they expect it in the normal course of events. A classic case comes from your state with Otto Kerner being caught solely because the people extending the bribes to him actually deducted it from their taxes as a necessary and ordinary business expense,” he says. “Their argument was, ‘This is how business is done in Illinois.’ That’s what has to change. It’s always up to the people. It’s a democracy. They have to go beyond the images.”

It’s one of the challenges that makes cleaning up corruption so hard. Once it has dug roots deep into the civic soil, the public becomes co-dependent and so there is no constituency for change.

Thursday, September 4th, 2014

Reinventing Higher Education

It’s no secret that the status quo in higher education is facing a lot of pressure from things like skyrocketing tuition, ballooning student loan debt, people questioning the need for higher education, difficulties graduates are getting established in careers, etc.

One organization focused on helping universities navigate the transition to a new future and boost higher educational attainment rates in the US is the Lumina Foundation. Lumina is a $1 billion foundation in Indianapolis – no, they don’t give out scholarships! – focused on “increasing the proportion of Americans with high-quality degrees, certificates and other credentials to 60 percent by 2025.”

I recently sat down with Danette Howard, VP of Policy and Mobilization for Lumina, and talked a bit about their work and the future of higher ed. Danette was formerly Secretary of Higher Education for the state of Maryland. If the audio player embed doesn’t play for you, click over to Soundcloud to listen.

As a preview, here’s an excerpt of her response to those, especially in tech industry, challenging the idea, particularly heard in the tech industry, that people don’t need to go to college:

We hear all the time about these incredible outliers. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are not your traditional college dropouts, and I really wish that people would stop holding them up as the example. Because for every one of them, there are millions of others who also didn’t complete college and whose lives are not nearly as successful as they would be if they had some type of post-secondary credential, in my opinion. And, it’s a fact that post-secondary education is still the best predictor of lifting oneself out of poverty. So if you want to have a better life for yourself, and you are starting at the lowest income levels, your surest best of doing that is getting a college degree or credential. That’s an undisputed fact.

Update 9/9: I want to add as a disclosure that I’m a finalist in a competition that’s being sponsored by Lumina. Though as far as I know Danette has nothing to do with that. I first made contact with her as part of researching an article on college tuition.

On the same topic, City Journal also has an article out called “Slimming the College-Tuition Beast.” Here’s an excerpt:

Some states are proposing to get rid of pay-as-you-go tuition altogether. Citing the “increasing unaffordability of college education,” Oregon’s legislature unanimously approved a plan last summer—“Pay It Forward, Pay It Back”—that would make tuition free for resident students attending the state’s public universities and community colleges. In exchange, the students would sign “binding contracts” requiring them to pay a percentage of their future income, over a set number of years, to the state. Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission (HECC) will determine how much students will pay and for how long, and come up with a funding source for the first 15 to 20 years of the program. After HECC works out the details, it will send its recommendations to the 2015 legislative session. The plan will launch initially in a few pilot schools.

Given the good deal that Pay It Forward offers students, it’s no surprise that the program emerged from a classroom—one belonging to Portland State University professor Barbara Dudley. A cofounder of Oregon’s left-wing Working Families Party, Dudley wanted to offer a senior capstone class on a subject that was, in her words, “relevant to the community.” So she chose the economics and politics of student debt, asking her students to propose a solution to the growing tuition burden. After reviewing research from Seattle’s Economic Opportunity Institute, the students came up with Pay It Forward. Kevin Rackham, one of Dudley’s former students, tells me that he lobbied for the idea “because of my experience with debt, because I know how much this debt is going to impede my ability to do things like buy a car and house and start a family.” After developing Pay It Forward further with the Oregon Students Association and the Working Families Party, Dudley’s students approached a group of state legislators, who introduced a bill based on their suggestions.

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014

Chicago Riverwalk Construction

The Architect’s Newspaper recently put up a post with a video from Sasaki Associates showing construction progress on the Chicago Riverwalk. It’s mostly construction shots, but if you want to see more design renderings, check out this HuffPo piece. If the video doesn’t display, click over to Vimeo.

It’s debatable whether spending $100 million on a downtown riverwalk really ought to be a top priority given Chicago’s problems. But spending on major civic statement projects in defiance of circumstances has a long and storied tradition in the urban world, and may in fact be a necessary part of what it means to be a city (or a human being for that matter). Getting it right is a tough challenge with no easy answer, as today’s article in New Geography about Chicago by Roger Weber makes clear.

Turning Around Rhode Island

Channel 10 in Providence recently did a town hall style meeting with various civic leaders from around the state, looking for ideas to reverse the state’s economic malaise. It’s long and probably of specialized interest, but I wanted to include for those following the Ocean State’s travails. If the video doesn’t display, click over to channel 10. h/t Andy Cutler

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