Thursday, October 14th, 2010

Pittsburgh City Council Votes Down Parking Meter Privatization

Today the Pittsburgh City Council gave a thumbs down to a proposed parking meter privatization/long term lease. It now appears almost certainly doomed when the final vote is taken Tuesday. The City Council was skeptical about may aspects of the contract, and the public was overwhelmingly against it. The vote comes despite a looming December 13 deadline for the city to top up pensions to avoid a state takeover:

“We need to get this dead lease plan off the table now so we can start to figure out what the real solution is going to be,” Councilman Patrick Dowd said….A second, final vote on the bills is scheduled for Tuesday. While a change of mind is possible, council members left little doubt about how they — and their constituents — feel about the mayor’s plan.

“At this point, I think it’s irresponsible to actually entertain a plan that has been universally panned by the citizens of Pittsburgh,” said Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak, the first to call for a vote.

Councilman Bill Peduto said not a single constituent in his district has expressed support for the lease. “I’ve never been in a situation where 100 percent of my constituents were opposed to an issue,” he said.

I’ve been extremely critical of the proposed Indianapolis parking meter lease. While I haven’t looked at the Pittsburgh proposal in detail and so cannot pass judgment on it, this city council vote should certainly be something Indianapolis city-council councilors should take note of – especially as public opinion in Indianapolis is similar to that in Pittsburgh.

Sunday, October 3rd, 2010

Megaregional Migration

Update: The self-service tool that has easy query access to the IRS migration data, including at the metropolitan area level, is available at You can also read the launch announcement with more info on this tool and what it can do for you.

It’s almost become a truism that human capital is of paramount importance in the modern economy. It’s also becoming evident that networks play an increasingly powerful role as a determinant of urban success. It doesn’t seem like such a leap of logic to hypothesize that a city’s human capital network might be the most important one it has. So you would think cities would consider it mandatory to have a good understanding of their human capital flows. Without that, you are flying blind.

Alas, few cities seem to have even the most rudimentary ideas about this. Why is that? For one thing, it’s not easy to determine. The Census Bureau publishes net migration figures, but that doesn’t tell you anything about where people are coming from or going to, or anything about them. The Internal Revenue Service publishes very useful information on place to place migration, including data about income flows. You’ve probably see this before, such as via the Forbes map that made a splash a few months back.

Unfortunately, the Forbes analysis and most others like it are basically useless. It’s excellent eye candy, but it has key limitations. For one thing, the Forbes map only looks at one year. More importantly, the IRS reports this data in terms of county to county flows, but this isn’t really what we want. What we really would like to understand is metro to metro flows and such. But the data is so painful to work with that you rarely see this done.

However, I cracked the code on this problem. I hope to put out a self-service tool that will revolutionize analysis of this data. If you are interesting in being notified when I launch it, or if you are interested in commissioning custom analysis in the meantime, please shoot me an email.

In the meantime, I will be sharing some interesting findings that I’m already generating with this, though I’ve only scratched the surface myself.

Human Capital Circulation and Gross Migration

Migration numbers are typically reported in terms of net migration: where you are gaining people from and where are you losing them to. That’s important analysis to be sure, but is only one piece of the puzzle. For example, net values don’t tell you the absolute magnitude of the flows between cities. With City A you could have an inflow of 10 and an outflow of 5 for a net inflow of 5 people, while with City B you have an inflow of 10,003 and an outflow of 10,000 for a net inflow of 3. The net number alone obscures important information.

I think you need to look not just at net flow, but also the individual inflows and outflows. And also at something that, with a hat tip to an old University of Louisville study, I call gross migration. That is, the inflow plus the outflow. This I believe is the best measure of human capital circulation between cities and the relative strength of their human capital network relationship.

Let’s illustrate with some quick data from Pittsburgh. Here’s a graph of the top ten net inflow sources for the Pittsburgh MSA. The data is for release dates 2000-2008, which measures people who moved between 1999 and 2008:

Row MSA Total
1 Johnstown, PA 1,305
2 Erie, PA 776
3 Wheeling, WV-OH 518
4 Altoona, PA 379
5 Scranton–Wilkes-Barre, PA 263
6 Reading, PA 187
7 Buffalo-Niagara Falls, NY 181
8 Williamsport, PA 175
9 Provo-Orem, UT 167
10 Rochester, NY 147

Here’s the same data, though this time showing the top ten net outflow cities:

Row MSA Total
1 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV -4,990
2 Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL -3,161
3 Charlotte-Gastonia-Rock Hill, NC-SC -3,132
4 Phoenix-Mesa-Glendale, AZ -2,514
5 Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA -2,262
6 Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD -2,068
7 Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, FL -1,830
8 Raleigh-Cary, NC -1,640
9 Baltimore-Towson, MD -1,624
10 Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach, FL -1,531

Looking at this, what you see is a city that takes in people from regional metros and exports them largely to the Sun Belt. It’s the story you would expect of a Rust Belt regional center. But look at the 2000-2008 gross migration and we see another part of the narrative:

Row MSA Total
1 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 22,190
2 Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD 20,864
3 New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA 18,419
4 Youngstown-Warren-Boardman, OH-PA 14,758
5 Cleveland-Elyria-Mentor, OH 10,002
6 Erie, PA 9,722
7 Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach, FL 9,181
8 Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL 8,761
9 Columbus, OH 8,677
10 Chicago-Joliet-Naperville, IL-IN-WI 8,514

Now that’s interesting, isn’t it? Note the very large circulation numbers with New York, Youngstown and Cleveland that were completely missing from the net view. What we see from this view is a strong alignment with major East Coast metros as well as a secondary flow through the emerging Tech Belt between Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

I hope this gives you a flavor for the reason you should look at numbers other than just net.

Midwest Megaregional Migration

I ran the numbers for gross migration between the twelve large greater Midwest metros I tend to focus on here, and it’s fascinating stuff. Since Chicago is the capital of the region, I’ll share today migration between Chicago and these others cities. Here is a graph of total gross migration for the 200-2008 period. It’s MSA-MSA data – I just shortened the names for space reasons:

Milwaukee is number one, as you might expect. I find it interesting that there is such a gap between the top five and the rest. At one level it is not surprising, as migration follows a sort of gravity model pattern related to size and distance. These cities are either closer and/or bigger. On the other hand, Cleveland isn’t that much smaller or further away than, say, St. Louis. All of the Ohio cities are comparatively low. Indeed, Ohio is only the ninth highest state for migration with Chicago overall.

From this you could probably trace the outline of Chicago’s real sphere of influence from a human capital network perspective. Those top five cities clearly have a tighter relationship with Chicago than the rest. Pittsburgh and Louisville unsurprisingly bring up the rear. They are dubious as Midwest cities to begin with, and this just helps illustrate why.

Incidentally, the low standing of Pittsburgh on Chicago’s migration list, combined with its own East Coast orientation shows perfectly why Penn State has no business being in the Big Ten (IMHO). Also, while there might be a megaregion called Chi-Pitts, it’s not clear to me if Pittsburgh is really in it. Perhaps the are actually a couple of regions in the area from a human capital perspective, one centered on Chicago and another from the remains of the old metals region. This is an area for further research.

By the way, here’s the year by year on the gross migration data:

Migration has held fairly steady, with a sort of mid-decade dip. The exception is Indianapolis, which has been on a fairly steady upward streak. Here’s the detail on Chicago-Indy:

I’d also note that Indy’s ranking is, based on my gut feel, higher than it probably should be, and particularly on a run-rate basis. It’s more or less equal to Detroit and Minneapolis-St. Paul, both much larger cities, and a bit ahead of St. Louis, which is about a million people larger. All of those cities are further away, but it’s interesting nevertheless. And there appears to be a deepening of the human capital relationship. Possibly Indy simply missed the early decade spike some places had and that skews the chart, but it’s certainly something worth noting.

If you are interested in seeing the raw Chicago data, you can download it here in Excel format.

Eye Candy

In case you’re wondering, I can make eye candy too. Here’s a bonus map of net migration for Cook County, showing all the counties with which it had measured migration from 2000 to 2008. Net inflows are in blue and net outflows are in red – and no, there isn’t a political message intended! While this doesn’t indicate magnitude, it does in a sense reinforce the migration geography I noted above.

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

Jim Russell: Catch a Rising Star – Pittsburgh

[ It’s no secret I’m a fan of Jim Russell, who is doing simply the most compelling writing out there on the geography of talent on his blog Burgh Diaspora. He’s also the best at stating the case for why Pittsburgh is positioned to shine in coming years. If you want to know why the Pittsburgh story is real, read Jim’s blog. He graciously agreed to share a bit of the case for Pittsburgh today, focusing on its reputation as a demographic disaster zone – Aaron. ]

Prima facie, Pittsburgh is the picture of demographic dysfunction. Both the metro area and the city are perennial population losers. The core county of Allegheny is home to some of the highest concentrations of elderly people in the entire United States. As for domestic in-migration and immigration to the region, calling it anemic might be too generous. Shrinking cities scholars Justin B. Hollander, Karina Pallagst, Terry Schwarz, and Frank J. Popper sum up the Steel City, “Demographically, Pittsburgh consistently ranks as one of the worst performing U.S. cities in terms of poverty, crime, employment, income, and housing abandonment.”

This sad story is the basis of what the above authors term the “Pittsburgh paradox”. Why are cities across the country trying to figure out how to copy such a miserable place? Pittsburgh is legendary in urban planning circles. But don’t take my word for it:

Paul Farmer’s reputation as a visionary planner is what first caused Minneapolis officials to seek out and court him in 1994. Farmer had already served 14 years as deputy planning director in Pittsburgh when he accepted the Minneapolis post. He’d worked as a planning consultant in Canada, India, and Germany. He’d taught urban planning at several universities. In Pittsburgh, Farmer led the charge to redevelop 35 miles of waterfront, install busways and a light-rail transit system, and transform contaminated land into parks, businesses, and residential neighborhoods–all projects that city leaders have long been anxious to see happen in Minneapolis. …

… When you came to Minneapolis, it was clear why the city wanted you working here. Projects you steered in Pittsburgh–light-rail transit, the riverfront, downtown improvement–have had city councils across the country drooling.

Minneapolis wanted to be the next Pittsburgh. Given the lousy data associated with this Rust Belt backwater, all the interest in the economic redevelopment going on there is curious. Pulling a Pittsburgh would appear to be a bad idea.

Downtown revitalization is one thing, but stimulating a regional economy is quite another. Did Farmer’s efforts really spark a renaissance? The jury is still out on that question. But during the depths of the current economic downturn, Las Vegas looked at Pittsburgh as a model of a way forward. A reporter from the Las Vegas Sun called me, inquiring about the positive changes in my favorite city. What might Pittsburgh teach devastated Las Vegas?

I’m under the impression that most people don’t believe the good press that Pittsburgh receives. But I also think that few appreciate how far Pittsburgh has come, particular when one considers the lack of inmigration and immigration that has favored so many other cities, such as Las Vegas. The city has done much more than “redd up”. As I see it, the transformation of the regional workforce is more worthy of celebration. Pittsburgh is a demographic dynamo.

If you are familiar with my blog (Burgh Diaspora), then you know I’m fond of linking to this post from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago titled, “Growth and Great Lakes Cities”. As you might expect, Pittsburgh sports poor job creation over the last 40-years. Weighing per capita income, Pittsburgh is a hands-down winner. Words from the Fed:

The two local leaders in 1970 college attainment, Columbus, Ohio, and the Twin Cities also experienced the fastest employment growth. While Pittsburgh ranked low in college attainment in 1970, its gains in this metric since then have been the most rapid. Perhaps not accidentally, Pittsburgh’s growth in per capita income also outpaced other cities in the region.

Concerning the 1970 baseline, we would expect Columbus and the Twin Cities to do well over the next four decades. Smart cities tend to get smarter. Pittsburgh bucks the trend, unique among large metros (and not just Rust Belt cities). The result is some of the highest concentrations of college educated young adults in the entire country. (here and here) As the Boomers leave the workforce, Pittsburgh will emerge on par with Boston, Austin, San Francisco, and Washington, DC In terms of the availability of talent.

The strong performance numbers have been there all along, for anyone who cared to look past the shrinking city title. The fallacy is that population growth indicates economic growth. This is industrial era thinking. New metrics track educational attainment and the migration of the college educated. Pittsburgh does very well on both counts.

Then why aren’t people moving to Pittsburgh? As detailed above, Pittsburgh prosperity isn’t tied to attracting new residents. During the most recent recession, that has proved to be a point of economic resiliency. Thus, there is interest from boomtowns such as Las Vegas in learning how Pittsburgh did it. Improving the urban core didn’t bring back the people who left in the early 1980s. Nor did the title of “America’s Most Livable City” do anything to entice outsiders to relocate there. The declining population said all that needed to be said. No one, from there or elsewhere, wants to live in Shittsburgh.

As Aaron Renn himself has noted, all of that is beginning to change. More impressive to me is the improving jobs picture. I’ll bring your attention to two graphs from Chris Briem (Null Space), “Pittsburgh MSA Labor Force, 1970-present” and “Difference Between US and Pittsburgh MSA Unemployment Rates: 1970-Present“. The recession of the early 1980s was a demographic disaster for the Pittsburgh region. Relatively speaking, the most recent recession is the best of times. The progress over that 25-year time period is astounding, the reversal of fortune jaw-dropping. That change will get the attention of other cities. That’s what all the fuss is about, not the gloom and doom stereotype that has dogged Pittsburgh for the better part of half a century.

Pittsburgh is accelerating into the Great Reset like no other city in the Great Lakes megaregion. It’s a strong performer hiding in the Rust Belt, the manufacturing legacy still the dominant image. The usual numbers remain unimpressive, for now. The real story is lurking just beneath the surface. Pittsburgh, a former world class city, is a rising star.

Jim Russell is a talent economic geographer whose mission is to help shrinking communities benefit from outmigration. He can be reached at E-mail:

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

H. L. Mencken: The Libido for the Ugly

[ H.L. Mencken was one of the all time great misanthropes and polemicists. I’ve no doubt that Kunstler has spent many an hour studying the master. Mencken’s is some of the most biting and humorous writing ever in America. He rarely had much good to say about anybody or anything, though of course much of his writing is satiric. For those who aren’t familiar with the master himself, I’m presenting an on topic sample for your enjoyment. Though his views are not necessarily mine, I thought this would help illustrate that the critique of America’s built environment as ugly, complete with class dimension, far predates modern sprawl. Reading this recalls to mind W.E.B. Du Bois somewhat earlier observation that “Little of beauty has America given the world, save the rude grandeur God himself stamped on her bosom; the human spirit in this new world has expressed itself in vigor and ingenuity rather than in beauty.” I should also add that while I’ve never been to Westmoreland, Pittsburgh is actually a delightful city – Aaron. ]

On a Winter day some years ago, coming out of Pittsburgh on one of the expresses of the Pennsylvania Railroad, I rolled eastward for an hour through the coal and steel towns of Westmoreland county. It was familiar ground; boy and man, I had been through it often before. But somehow I had never quite sensed its appalling desolation. Here was the very heart of industrial America, the center of its most lucrative and characteristic activity, the boast and pride of the richest and grandest nation ever seen on earth-and here was a scene so dreadfully hideous, so intolerably bleak and forlorn that it reduced the whole aspiration of man to a macabre and depressing joke. Here was wealth beyond computation, almost beyond imagination-and here were human habitations so abominable that they would have disgraced a race of alley cats.

I am not speaking of mere filth. One expects steel towns to be dirty. What I allude to is the unbroken and agonizing ugliness, the sheer revolting monstrousness, of every house in sight. From East Liberty to Greensburg, a distance of twenty-five miles, there was not one in sight from the train that did not insult and lacerate the eye. Some were so bad, and they were among the most pretentious—churches, stores, warehouses, and the like–that they were downright startling; one blinked before them as one blinks before a man with his face shot away. A few linger in memory, horrible even there: a crazy little church just west of Jeannette, set like a dormer-window on the side of a bare, leprous hill; the headquarters of the Veterans of Foreign Wars at another forlorn town, a steel stadium like a huge rat-trap somewhere further down the line. But most of all I recall the general effect–of hideousness without a break. There was not a single decent house within eyerange from the Pittsburgh suburbs to the Greensburg yards. There was not one that was not misshapen, and there was not one that was not shabby.

The country itself is not uncomely, despite the grime of the endless mills. It is, in form, a narrow river valley, with deep gullies running up into the hills. It is thickly settled, but not noticeably overcrowded. There is still plenty of room for building, even in the larger towns, and there are very few solid blocks. Nearly every house, big and little, has space on all four sides. Obviously, if there were architects of any professional sense or dignity in the region, they would have perfected a chalet to hug the hillsides–a chalet with a high-pitched root to throw off the heavy Winter snows, but still essentially a low and clinging building, wider than it was tall. But what have they done? They have taken as their model a brick set on end. This they have converted into a thing of dingy clapboards, with a narrow, low-pitched roof. And the whole they have set upon thin, preposterous brick piers. By the hundreds and thousands these abominable houses cover the bare hillsides, like gravestones in some gigantic and decaying cemetery on their deep sides they are three, four and even five stories high; on their low sides they bury themselves swinishly in the mud. Not a fifth of them are perpendicular. They lean this way and that, hanging on to their bases precariously. And one and all they are streaked in grime, with dead and eczematous patches of paint peeping through the streaks.

Now and then there is a house of brick. But what brick! When it is new it is the color of a fried egg. When it has taken on the patina of the mills it is the color of an egg long past all hope or caring. Was it necessary to adopt that shocking color? No more than it was necessary to set all of the houses on end. Red brick, even in a steel town, ages with some dignity. Let it become downright black, and it is still sightly, especially if its trimmings are of white stone, with soot in the depths and the high spots washed by the rain. But in Westmoreland they prefer that uremic yellow, and so they have the most loathsome towns and villages ever seen by mortal eye.

I award this championship only after laborious research and incessant prayer. I have seen, I believe, all of the most unlovely towns of the world; they are all to be found in the United States. I have seen the mill towns of decomposing New England and the desert towns of Utah, Arizona and Texas. I am familiar with the back streets of Newark, Brooklyn and Chicago, and have made scientific explorations to Camden, N.J. and Newport News, Va. Safe in a Pullman, I have whirled through the gloomy, God-forsaken villages of Iowa and Kansas, and the malarious tide-water hamlets of Georgia. I have been to Bridgeport, Conn., and to Los Angeles. But nowhere on this earth, at home or abroad, have I seen anything to compare to the villages that huddle along the line of the Pennsylvania from the Pittsburgh yards to Greensburg. They are incomparable in color, and they are incomparable in design. It is as if some titanic and aberrant genius, uncompromisingly inimical to man, had devoted all the ingenuity of Hell to the making of them. They show grotesqueries of ugliness that, in retrospect, become almost diabolical. One cannot imagine mere human beings concocting such dreadful things, and one can scarcely imagine human beings bearing life in them.

Are they so frightful because the valley is full of foreigners–dull, insensate brutes, with no love of beauty in them? Then why didn’t these foreigners set up similar abominations in the countries that they came from? You will, in fact, find nothing of the sort in Europe save perhaps in the more putrid parts of England. There is scarcely an ugly village on the whole Continent. The peasants, however poor, somehow manage to make themselves graceful and charming habitations, even in Spain. But in the American village and small town the pull is always toward ugliness, and in that Westmoreland valley it has been yielded to with an eagerness bordering upon passion. It is incredible that mere ignorance should have achieved such masterpieces of horror.

On certain levels of the American race, indeed, there seems to be a positive libido for the ugly, as on other and less Christian levels there is a libido for the beautiful. It is impossible to put down the wallpaper that defaces the average American home of the lower middle class to mere inadvertence, or to the obscene humor of the manufacturers. Such ghastly designs, it must be obvious, give a genuine delight to a certain type of mind. They meet, in some unfathomable way, its obscure and unintelligible demands. They caress it as “The Palms” caresses it, or the art of the movie, or jazz. The taste for them is as enigmatical and yet as common as the taste for dogmatic theology and the poetry of Edgar A. Guest.

Thus I suspect (though confessedly without knowing) that the vast majority of the honest folk of Westmoreland county, and especially the 100% Americans among them, actually admire the houses they live in, and are proud of them. For the same money they could get vastly better ones, but they prefer what they have got. Certainly there was no pressure upon the Veterans of Foreign Wars to choose the dreadful edifice that bears their banner, for there are plenty of vacant buildings along the track-side, and some of them are appreciably better. They might, indeed, have built a better one their own. But they chose that clapboarded horror with their eyes open, and having chosen it, they let it mellow into its present shocking depravity. They like it as it is: beside it, the Parthenon would no doubt offend them. In precisely the same way the authors of the rattrap stadium that I have mentioned made a deliberate choice. After painfully designing and erecting it, they made it perfect in their own sight by putting a completely impossible pent-house, painted a staring yellow, on top of it. The effect is that of a fat woman with a black eye. It is that of a Presbyterian grinning. But they like it.

Here is something that the psychologists have so far neglected: the love of ugliness for its own sake, the lust to make the world intolerable. Its habitat is the United States. Out of the melting pot emerges a race which hates beauty as it hates truth. The etiology of this madness deserves a great deal more study than it has got. There must be causes behind it; it arises and flourishes in obedience to biological laws, and not as a mere act of God. What, precisely, are the terms of those laws? And why do they run stronger in America than else where? Let some honest Privat Dozent in pathological sociology apply himself to the problem.

This essay originally appeared in Prejudices: Sixth Series, 1927. In the public domain.

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

Richard Florida: How to Revitalize Rust Belt Cities

How to revitalize America’s great industrial cities? How to balance people- vs. place-oriented policies? And why mega-projects and bailouts don’t work, but organic, community, bottom-up efforts do. Richard Florida explains in this excerpt from “The Death and Life of Great Industrial Cities”, Chapter 12 of his recent book The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity.

One response to the problems of rusted-out industrial cities such as Detroit has been a new urban reclamation effort called “shrinking cities.” The idea, perhaps inspired by Pittsburgh, has caught on in smaller cities in the American Midwest, such as Youngstown, Ohio, and Flint, Michigan, and their European counterparts. The basic notion is that older industrial cities need not grow to improve. They can be better places by making do with less, by focusing on improvements in the quality of life for their residents, and by bringing their level of infrastructure and housing into line with their smaller populations. A June 2009 story in the U.K. newspaper the Telegraph bore the wince-inducing headline “U.S. Cities May Have to Be Bulldozed to Survive.”

The concept that certain places would be better off by shrinking has been around for a while. The notion of “planned shrinkage” was originally proposed in the 1970s by then New York housing commissioner Roger Starr. The late Senator Daniel P. Moynihan once suggested that benign neglect could be part of an urban policy. Though Moynihan meant to focus attention on dying cities – a cause he worked on over his entire career – the term “benign neglect” ultimately came to represent the Nixon administration’s neglectful attitude toward America’s urban centers: let hopeless neighborhoods fall to dust, and support the healthier areas that remain standing.

Today’s shrinking-cities advocates are much more sensitive to the issues facing older industrial communities. They recognize how globalization and market forces work against some older communities and sensibly suggest that such places would be better served by proactively managing the process of economic transformation and adjustment and by devising strategies to enable those communities to improve their quality of life and realign with the new economic and fiscal realities.

The most successful examples of shrinking, such as Pittsburgh’s, result not from top-down policies imposed by local governments but from organic, bottom-up, community-based efforts. While Pittsburgh’s government and business leaders pressed for big-government solutions – new stadiums and convention centers – the city’s real turnaround was driven by community groups and citizen-led initiatives. Community groups, local foundations, and nonprofits – not city hall or business-led economic development groups – drove its transformation, playing a key role in stabilizing and strengthening neighborhoods, building green, and spurring the development of the waterfront and redevelopment around the universities. Many of Pittsburgh’s best neighborhoods, such as its South Side, are ones that were somehow spared from the wrath of urban renewal. Others, such as East Liberty, have benefited from community initiatives designed to remedy the damage done by large-scale urban renewal efforts that left vacant lots in place of functioning neighborhoods and built soulless public housing high-rise towers. That neighborhood is now home to several new community development projects, including a Whole Foods Market, which provides local jobs as well as serving as an anchor for the surrounding community. This kind of bottom-up process takes considerable time and perseverance. In Pittsburgh’s case, it took the better part of a generation to achieve stability and the potential for longer-term revival.

The sad but unavoidable fact is that overall, and with few exceptions, places in the United States and in other advanced nations where the regional economies are based on blue-collar industries are headed for trouble. In my detailed statistical studies on hundreds of cities and regions, I found that those regions with large working-class concentrations have lower levels of economic output, lower incomes, lower levels of innovation, and lower levels of happiness. Our studies found this to hold true in a comparison of the fifty states and across the nations of the world, in a sample of more than one hundred countries. Stop for a moment and think about that. In both the nations of the world and U.S. states, locations with large working-class concentrations are far less happy. In fact they appear downright unhappy. Perhaps Marx was right after all about the alienation that comes from industrial work, or, for the purposes of our discussion, the unhappiness found in working-class locations.

The bigger question, then, is this: Should public policy toward hard-pressed, economically strapped cities focus on people, not just by encouraging retraining but also by helping them relocate to places with a better job market? Or should policies focus on places, by fostering geographically targeted reinvestment? For many urban economists the answer is simple – put people first. “While regional diversity within the United States might prompt politicians to pursue policies that target aid to distressed regions,” writes Harvard’s (Edward) Glaeser, “that seems likely to be counterproductive. America has always dealt with regional economic disparities through migration. … Today’s recession will also prompt mobility, probably toward more skilled, more centralized cities with less historical commitment to manufacturing.” My own view is that in most cases it makes sense to put people first. At the end of the day, people – not industries or even places – should be our biggest concern. As Clyde Prestowitz, president of the Economic Strategy Institute, aptly put it, “The plight of these people is also in a way our plight.” We can best help those who are hardest hit by the crisis by providing a generous social safety net, investing in their education and skills, and encouraging them, when necessary, to move from declining places to ones that offer better opportunity. Especially in tough economic times, we’re all better served by helping people. People need education and skills to shift from old industries to new jobs. And since these jobs are often in different places, they have to be able to move where the jobs are. This imperative is strongest for members of less-advantaged groups in declining areas, who we must prepare for new economic realities. There are times when it’s simply better for families to relocate to where the jobs are than to wait for longer-term efforts to rebuild declining industries to take hold.

That does not mean we should give up on places altogether. There is intelligent help we can offer to declining places that wish to turn around or at least stabilize themselves. First and foremost, their elected officials need to get over their love affair with big renewal projects. If we’ve learned anything over the past generation or two, it’s that large-scale top-down government projects to revitalize communities do not work and frequently do more harm than good. Bailouts of old industries are also a poor use of limited resources, because they simply forestall the inevitable and do little to bolster the prospects for older industrial regions.

So what can be done? Instead of spending millions to lure or bail out factories, or hundreds of millions and in some cases billions to build stadiums, convention centers, and hotels, use that money to invest in local assets, spur local business formation and development, better employ local people and utilize their skills, and invest in improving quality of place. One leading economic developer, who has extensive experience in economic revitalization in the United States, Canada, and Europe, explained the shift in economic development toward older industrial regions this way: “Urban revitalization based on luring so-called big game projects no longer has a place in the advanced countries,” he said. “If economic developers want to do that today, they should move to China. That’s where all the big corporate projects are or are heading. Revitalizing older cities in North America and Europe increasingly depends on being able to support lots of smaller activities, groups, and projects.” He talked about how efforts to support local entrepreneurship, build and nurture local clusters, develop arts and cultural industries, support local festivals and tourism, attract and retain people – efforts that he and his peers would have sneered at a decade or two ago – have become the core stuff of economic development. When taken together, seemingly smaller initiatives and efforts can and do add up in ways that confer real benefits to communities. These are the kinds of initiatives that Jane Jacobs and others have advocated as plain old good urbanism. [O]ne of the most effective things the federal government can do to help revitalize older Rust Belt cities and regions is to invest in a high-speed rail network that would better connect them to one another and to other, more thriving economic hubs, shrinking the distance between them and building economic size and scale required to compete more effectively.

Cities can take bold steps beyond the remaking of their physical space. One brilliant and beautiful example can be found in the City of Brotherly Love, an initiative called “Graduate! Philadelphia.” I’ve been making the point for years that cities with a higher percentage of college graduates in their populations are better positioned for long- term prosperity. The city of Philadelphia recognized this, too, and also knew it ranked poorly among cities in the level of educational attainment of its residents. Civic leaders also knew, however, that a very high percentage of the people, although they had no college degree, had accumulated some credits along the way. A partnership among the city government, foundations, and other private institutions formed to offer guidance and support to any Philadelphian who wanted to go back to school and get a degree. Quite a few nearby colleges and universities became partners in the project. A related project, Campus Philly, has worked to make the city and region more attractive to college students and to retain as well as attract recent college grads. And the city’s major universities, especially the University of Pennsylvania, devised new, more cooperative approaches for revitalizing their surrounding neighborhoods by investing in local schools, supporting home and storefront improvements, and making their own health centers and facilities open to residents as well as students and faculty. Here is a city looking toward the future, developing a strategy to raise its competitive position by preparing more of its people to succeed in the postindustrial, knowledge-based economy of the Great Reset. It seems to be paying off. In 2009, while older Rust Belt and sprawling Sunbelt cities were literally hemorrhaging people, the city of Philadelphia saw its population increase.

As with so many things in life, the small stuff really can make a difference to the people living in cities. That sounds like an easy thing to say, but there is considerable research to back it up. The quality of life in the place we live is a key component of our happiness, according to surveys of tens of thousands of people conducted by the Gallup Organization. There are three key attributes that make people happy in their communities and cause them to develop a solid emotional attachment to the place they live in. The first is the physical beauty and the level of maintenance of the place itself – great open spaces and parks, historic buildings, and an attention to community aesthetics. The second is the ease with which people can meet others, make friends, and plug into social networks. The third piece of the happiness puzzle is the level of diversity, open-mindedness, and acceptance: Is there some equality of opportunity for all? Can anyone – everyone – contribute to and take pleasure from the community? My own work with cities across the United States and Canada and around the world convinces me that none of these things can be accomplished by government-sponsored megaprojects. Instead, they are organic in nature and require real leadership and the active engagement of the community.

This excerpt from The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity originally appeared in the Montreal Gazette. Reprinted here with permission of the author.

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

The Talent Disconnect (or, Pittsburgh’s Talent Failure)

I’m not sure how I first came across Jim Russell’s Burgh Diaspora site, but I was quickly hooked. Jim was writing about two big ideas: that Pittsburgh was on the cusp of a comeback, and “brain drain” was the wrong way to frame the talent issue.

Pittsburgh was a place I’d never given much thought to, except in noting that it was one of the rare metros with population declines, which didn’t augur well for it in my book. Jim took the view that the demographic problems were a hangover from the steel collapse and disguised the fact that Pittsburgh had hit an inflection point. Well, over three years later Pittsburgh is now a media darling and the popular poster child for a Rust Belt comeback. I’ll even dare suggest Jim played a role in building and shaping that narrative.

One of Jim’s reasons for Pittsburgh optimism was a unique asset born of the collapse: the Pittsburgh Diaspora, aka Steeler Nation. He had actually started his blog in an effort to find ways to combat the exodus from Pittsburgh, only to conclude that brain drain was a poor way to frame the problem. He then went on to explore ways diaspora talent networks could actually power a local economy, branched out into boomerang migration, immigration, and much, much more, becoming one of the premier thinkers anywhere on the geography of talent. But don’t just take my word for it. HR Examiner recently listed Jim as the #11 online talent influencer in the United States. People from all over the US, Canada, and even from overseas places like the UK have reached out to tap into his expertise. And incidentally, Jim is an honest to goodness real geographer, holding a graduate degree in the subject.

Jim actually lives in Colorado, his own situation influencing his thoughts, naturally. You might think that a guy like that is someone Pittsburgh might actually want to recruit to their team. The same idea occurred to Jim. He even when so far as to rechristen his site “Return to Pittsburgh”, dedicated to his quest to move back to Pittsburgh, and started knocking on doors and applying for jobs in Pittsburgh.

No one would hire him.

DeWitt Peart, president of the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance said of one of his signature projects, “This is a talent initiative. We need to find a way to fill the talent pipeline in this region … if someone is looking to relocate, we think Pittsburgh is better off than a lot of other regions.” Peart went on to claim there were 30,000 open jobs just waiting for people to want to come to Pittsburgh. Audrey Russo, president of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, said, “As a region we are plotting many different strategies to figure out what’s going to ‘work’ to attract and retain businesses and talent…I think we have a very intriguing value proposition to offer anyone who is looking to relocate.” But does Pittsburgh’s reality match its leaders’ words?

Like most cities, Pittsburgh obsesses over talent – or so they say in public. Practically every civic initiative is framed at least partially as about attracting talent. But what happened when talent came knocking? Here was a guy with manifest skills in an area they themselves viewed as critical to the regional future, and someone who probably could have been hired fairly easily. Jim is motivated to live in Pittsburgh and if the city was willing to actually implement some of his ideas that would probably have meant more to him than money or a fancy title. So it’s not like it would have been hard to find something valuable for him to do. The fact that no one in Pittsburgh would hire one of America’s premier thinkers on talent speaks volumes about that city and how far it needs to go. Duly chastened after more than six months of trying, Jim’s site is back to being Burgh Diaspora now, though he is still a tireless champion for the Steel City.

But perhaps Pittsburgh shouldn’t feel too bad. I’ve noticed an enormous disconnect between what people say about talent and what they do. I’ve yet to find even one city that is an aggressive recruiter of talent. There are lots of initiatives that supposedly target talent, but few of them have much to do with actual talented people.

I’m continually befuddled that despite the enormous sums spent on talent and brain drain initiatives, almost nobody seems to ever try recruiting anyone. It’s like there’s a belief talent is some ethereal substance that wafts in on the winds if you put up a slick web site or something. But talent exists in actual human beings. Talent is people, real people. Just like with a business and employees or a university and students, cities need to actually recruit them – but they don’t.

Through my writing and travels, I’ve met a lot of people, including many senior civic leaders. I’m always watching to see if they will pitch me on their city. Not that they would necessarily offer me a job, but at least try to sell their city to me as a place I might personally want to live in, as a place for me to make a home or build a career. Not one person has ever even tried. All they want is for me to write something nice about them. You can be very sure they pitch that idea aggressively – very aggressively. The contrast is stark.

There’s an old axiom in sales – you have to ask for the business. Nobody out there is asking. I’m not running into too many cities that appear to be in the real business of selling themselves – or in the case of Pittsburgh even bending over to pick up the proverbial $20 bill on the ground in front of them.

For too many places places talent is like a Christmas tree ornament. It’s a standard all purpose justification used to decorate arguments for doing things that people already wanted to do. New stadium? Talent. Light rail line? Talent. Bike lanes? Talent. Art galleries? Talent. Lots of talking shop civic organizations? Talent. But does anybody really believe it? I cannot but conclude that most cities do not. They either suffer from a fundamental conceptual error, or at some level these initiatives are simply illegitimate.

As I said in a recent speech, there’s a huge opportunity in the marketplace for a city that wants to step up and actually get serious about talent. Who will it be? I hear Jim Russell is still available.

As for Pittsburgh? Sorry, Jim. You almost had me convinced.

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

Census Bureau Releases 2009 Population Estimates

The 2010 decennial census data collection is underway, but in the meantime the US Census Bureau just released its 2009 annual population estimates for counties and metro areas. So let’s take a look, focusing on the Midwest, but also giving everyone else a look at some types of analysis that might be useful for them to apply to their own city.

Let’s Not Fool Ourselves on Urban Growth

There has been a lot written lately about the return to the city. I’ve noted myself how places like central Indianapolis have reversed decades of population declines. That’s exciting. And the New York Times, for example, just trumpeted how “smart growth is taking hold” in America.

But let’s not kid ourselves here. In my view this represents a possible inflection point, but it is way too early for the type of triumphalist rhetoric being bandied about by advocates.

Let’s take a look at the change in the regional population share in core counties in 2009 vs. 2008 for the Midwest cities I typically focus on.

City  Core County Share Change   2009 Core County Share   2008 Core County Share 
Columbus 0.02% 63.83% 63.81%
Pittsburgh 0.02% 51.74% 51.72%
Milwaukee (0.01%) 61.52% 61.53%
Minneapolis-St. Paul (0.02%) 50.84% 50.86%
Chicago (0.06%) 55.19% 55.24%
Louisville (0.07%) 57.33% 57.41%
Kansas City (0.11%) 34.13% 34.25%
Cincinnati (0.17%) 39.37% 39.54%
St. Louis (0.18%) 47.68% 47.86%
Indianapolis (0.23%) 51.09% 51.32%
Cleveland (0.26%) 61.00% 61.26%
Detroit (0.32%) 43.47% 44.06%

For St. Louis, I use St. Louis city + St. Louis County as the core. For Minneapolis-St. Paul, I used Hennepin+Ramsey as the core.

As you can see, only two regions managed to increase core county share of population, and these by a minuscule amount. Everyone else lost core county share. Keep in mind that even these “core” counties have many places with suburban characteristics. Now you might prefer a purely core city measure, and if so, be my guest. But don’t be surprised if the data gets even worse in many cases. Even in Chicago, which might have experienced the biggest urban core construction boom in America, the city lost population while Cook County gained it. Looking at the core city would make Chicago’s share loss worse.

I think this shows there is still some work to do, to put it mildly.

So why the difference versus the EPA study the NYT trumpets? Well, for one thing, the EPA study is worthless as a measure of urban health. They measure only new building permits, not people. This I think taps into a subtle suburban mindset in our outlook, that new housing units must represent net new inventory and net new people moving in, but in urban areas that’s not necessarily the case.

The sad fact is, many of our urban cores have experienced significant housing abandonment and demolition. So in addition to construction of net new units, there’s a countervailing force of reduction. For example, the greater downtown area of Indianapolis has been seeing lots of construction. But the regional center comprehensive plan noted that between 1990 and 2000, the net number of dwelling units actually decreased. “The actual number of housing units declined over the 10-year period as some housing became dilapidated or was demolished and as some projects were emptied to await renovation (the Census only counts habitable units).”

What’s more, as yuppies move in, and others move out, there is bound to be an effect on household sizes. Is it is really a good idea to price out larger immigrant families to the inner ring suburbs so that DINK’s can move in? How’s that for the environmental footprint of the region?

I’m glad we’ve got big increases in urban construction and even population increases in some neighborhoods, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves by trumpeting a “fundamental shift”, as the EPA does, when the demographics don’t back it up.

The New York Times article is also a disappointment. It fails to do any independent analysis of the data and only talks to people who are cheerleaders for the study, making it a sad piece of journalism.

Someone recently described me as an “apologist for sprawl”. I in no uncertain terms reject that label. I am a passionate urban advocate who wants to see our core cities thrive and prosper. I want more growth there. I live in a city in a walkable neighborhood and rarely drive.

But advocacy research of the type urbanists are quick to decry in others does a disservice to the cause. To change the trajectory of our cities and our built environment in America, we need to start with something called “reality”. I am optimistic that there’s a change in the air. But let’s not make claims about “fundamental shifts” that are simply not supported by any realistic look at the totality of the data.


The big news is that for the first time in forever, Pittsburgh, the incredible shrinking city, actually had positive net domestic in-migration. Here’s a chart:

Graphic via Null Space

The region still lost population, but that’s because of an odd case of natural decrease – more deaths than births. It looks like Pittsburgh might be really hitting its inflection point and starting to regenerate positive demographic growth.

Population Growth

The United States as a whole grew by 0.9% last year. Here is how my Midwest cities fared, ranked by last year’s percentage growth. The rank is the rank within the 52 metro areas with more than one million people.

  • Indianapolis – 1.3% (#19)
  • Columbus – 1.2% (#22)
  • Kansas City – 1.1% (#24)
  • Minneapolis-St. Paul – 1.0% (#26)
  • United States Average – 0.9%
  • Chicago – 0.7% (#34)
  • Louisville – 0.7% (#34)
  • Cincinnati – 0.6% (#37)
  • Milwaukee – 0.6% (#37)
  • St. Louis – 0.4% (#44)
  • Pittsburgh – 0.0% (#49)
  • Cleveland – (0.1%) (#51)
  • Detroit – (0.5%) (#52)

This is pretty much the same as last year. I’ll again note that while Indianapolis is #1, and is growing 50% faster than the country as a whole, Columbus is coming on strong, increasing its growth rate from 1.1% to 1.2%. I would not be surprised if Columbus took over the top spot shortly.

Let’s take a look at this sorted by absolute population growth.

  • Chicago – 64,913 (#8)
  • Minneapolis-St. Paul – 32,202 (#21)
  • Indianapolis – 22,862 (#27)
  • Columbus – 22,026 (#28)
  • Kansas City – 21,502 (#29)
  • Cincinnati – 13,253 (#35)
  • St. Louis – 10,302 (#40)
  • Milwaukee – 9,216 (#41)
  • Louisville – 8,838 (#42)
  • Pittsburgh – (434) (#50)
  • Cleveland – (2,765) (#51)
  • Detroit – (20,344) (#52)

Cities that added more people in 2009 than 2008: Indianapolis, Columbus, Kansas City, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati. Cleveland and Detroit also lost fewer people, as did Pittsburgh. Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Louisville, and St. Louis added fewer people than last year.

Net Migration

Again, I like to look at net domestic migration as a key figure of urban demographic health, so let’s take a look.

  • Indianapolis – 7,034
  • Columbus – 5,018
  • Kansas City – 3,929
  • Louisville – 2,122
  • Pittsburgh – 1,144 (WOW)
  • Cincinnati – (384)
  • Milwaukee – (2,336)
  • Minneapolis-St. Paul – (2,503)
  • St. Louis – (4,532)
  • Cleveland – (10,191)
  • Chicago – (40,389)
  • Detroit – (45,488)

Keep in mind, these are total, not percentage figures. Chicago is huge so will naturally put up big numbers. Chicago is also a big immigrant port of entry, with significant international in-migration to offset this, and a structural exporter of people domestically as a result.

Indianapolis remains the migration champ of the Midwest. In terms of total net domestic in-migration, it ranked #18 in the nation. Over 72,500 have moved into Indianapolis metro in the past decade. That’s pretty amazing for a Midwest city and a huge source of demographic strength for the community.

Friday, January 15th, 2010

Midwest Miscellany

All the local and regional economic development groups throughout the Midwest are in a fierce competition with one another. My favorite advantages touted in Indiana are: 1). The cost of doing business is less expensive, and 2). 80% of the population of the U.S. and Canada can be reached within a one-day drive. Do these Indiana officials realize they have accepted commodity status? Low cost is the best we have? I suspect other states tout similar messages.” – Jon Speer

Attention non-US/Canada readers. If you read this blog from outside the United States or Canada and we don’t already know each other, I’d love to make contact with you. Please send an email to Thanks.

Vacant Parcels In Chicago

I was privileged to be on WBEZ 91.5 FM Chicago Public Radio this week with the incomparable Lee Bey discussing vacant properties in Chicago such as the Michael Reese Hospital site, the old Cook County Hospital, and the Uptown Theater. It’s a 12 minute segment embedded below, but if you don’t see it, click here.

Lee also blogged about this topic in A Way to Fix That Empty Feeling….?.

Brookings Metro Monitor

The Brookings Institution issued their most recent Metro Monitor report looking at the top 100 metro areas in the country. Here is the map they put together showing their current economic performance (via Map Scroll)

Manufacturing Follow-Up

As a follow-up to my recent piece on manufacturing, I want to highly a New York Times story this week on China’s rules hurting foreign companies that want to do business there. This in the wake of Google’s threat to quit China over its restrictive regulations and a series of hacker attacks.

Google is far from alone among Western companies in its growing unhappiness with Chinese government policies, although it is highly unusual in threatening to pull out of the country entirely in protest.

Western companies contend that they face a lengthening list of obstacles to doing business in China, from “buy Chinese” government procurement policies and growing restrictions on foreign investments to widespread counterfeiting.

These barriers generally fall into two broad categories. Some relate to China’s desire to maintain control over internal dissent. Others involve its efforts to become internationally competitive in as many industries as possible.

Doing business in China has never been easy. Foreign companies have long complained of being cheated by joint venture partners who set up parallel businesses on the side or abscond with assets. Many other countries also have policies that favor home-grown companies, although the opportunity for industrialized countries to do so is limited because they operate under tighter W.T.O. rules than China.

See also from the FT: Frustrated foreign groups in China rethink their position.

Education Week State Ratings

Education Week magazine released its Quality Counts 2010 ratings of state school systems. Click through for details if interested, but here’s a map:

Note: This map differs from the version you might have seen at GOOD. Mine is the overall scores. For some reason they elected to create a map based on a subcategory.

Transit Projects USA in 2010

The Transport Politic has a great roundup of planned transit projects for 2010, including a great map:

Cost, Residents, and Jobs in the City

Chris Briem, writing about the impact of a proposed prevailing wage law, takes a digression to look at the curious fact that while Pittsburgh’s population has plummeted, the job base in the city (if not the region) has remained constant for decades, despite many disadvantages one might expect to cause jobs to leave.

I really swear that everyone in their psyche keeps confusing the story on the city’s population (down in the past, going down now, probably going down in the future) with the story on the number of jobs located in the city of Pittsburgh which really are as stable as the rock of Gibraltar. Again the factoid: 300K jobs located in the city in 1960… same as today give or take some noise. If you realize the two trends are different then you get to some very different policy conclusions on just about every issue in local public finance.

The city honestly has lots of things that could make it a disadvantage to many a business. Parking fees of any kind are a killer for folks who like to drive to work and parking is nominally free for most suburban locations. In Downtown and Oakland that will never be the case. Other fees and taxes, inherently more restricted zoning in dense urban environments and innumerable other reasons make it hard to attract a new business to locate in the city proper.

Yet the jobs have remained. Go figure. Understanding that is the key to understanding most everything about the future of the city. Why do jobs act so irrationally and stay in the city? One could argue in Oakland it is a preponderance of tax exempt investment that anchors them to their location. A fair enough argument, but not something anywhere near as true for Downtown which continues to be one of the densest jobs centers in the nation.

So again.. Why? There are lots of details, but when you get to the core of it there must be something valuable in the location that makes businesses willing to put up with all the unique costs of doing business in the city.

Other Top Stories

Since I know I include a lot of links in these Midwest Miscellany posts, I wanted to inaugurate a feature of including a brief list of just the top stories I’ve selected. If you are limited on time, these are the ones I would recommend reading the most.

1. Ada Louise Huxtable @ WSJ: Eero Saarinen, Shaping the Future, at the Museum of the City of New York.

2. oobject: Top 15 Modernist Gas Stations (great pictures)

3. Der Spiegel: Squatters Take on the Creative Class: Who Has the Right to Shape Hamburg? (in English)

4. LA Times: Vancouver Engineers Its Own Urban Dream

5. NYT: Stadium Boom Deepens Municipal Woes

World and National Roundup

NPR: China aims to ride high speed trains into future

LA Times: Freight trains make big comeback in nation’s transportation network

NYT: A trainspotter’s guide to the future of the world – TNR/Brookings responds.

McKinsey study: The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in Education

NYT: Factoring Walkability Into Home Values – Nice coverage of the CEO’s for Cities research on this topic.

Proper Scale: Cracks in the Building Blocks of Mixed Use

The American Prospect: The Ruse of the Creative Class – A critique of Richard Florida. Ryan Avent posted a rebuttal.

NYT: Ambitious $4.2 billion transit hub in San Francisco

WCVB TV-5 Boston: Mayor Menino Inaugurates ‘New Era of Shared Innovation’ (via Brewed Fresh Daily). Also, NYT: Biopharmaceutical industry is banking on Boston – $2.3 billion in manufacturing plants under construction.

Human Transit: Portland – A Challenging Chart – transit market share not increasing.

More Midwest

A task force says Ohio urban centers should have more incentives to keep businesses and residents

Indian immigrants value entrepreneurship and education (Plain Dealer)

Columbus Is a City With a Lot to Celebrate (Experience Columbus)

Michigan: The Dark Ages (The Economist) – via Jim Russell
Detroit entrepreneurs opt to look up (NYT)
Detroit Skids from Dream Machines to Bailouts in Vivid History (Bloomberg)
Poll of residents finds grim but optimistic outlooks (WashPo)
What to do about Detroit? (Richard Layman)

Kansas City
New convention hotel might also expand Marriott complex (KC Star)

Lagging research puts city behind (J-S)

Twin Cities
Funding change worries suburban transit systems (Star Tribune)

Post Script

Colonel Sanders delivers some finger lickin’ good fire extinguishers to Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard:

Thursday, January 7th, 2010

Migration Matters

Wendell Cox provoked a bit of a predictable tempest with his recent piece on migration, “The Decade of the South“. I suspect Cox relishes his role as provocateur-in-chief. So I’ll let him provoke me into summarizing some of the thoughts I’ve had on migration.

There’s a school of thought at that net domestic migration is the primary statistic of urban health. I believe I’ve even said something of the sort myself. In this logic, people are “voting with their feet” about which cities and states are implementing the best policies.

Of course, this creates a challenge for urbanists because the migration data is all away from major dense urban cores towards the South and various Sprawlville, USA’s. Hence when these numbers are thrown in their faces, they dismiss or discount them.

But people who don’t believe this tells the whole story are quick to understand the power of migration logic in other situations. Cities that are attractive to international immigrants are feted, as are those that hoovering up the “creative class”. Becoming a preferred migration destination for “talent” is a standard paradigm in urbanist development circles. And of course the slowing of migration to the Sun Belt and a nascent back to the city movement have been heralded by some as the end or reversal of previous trends.

So I think at some level, we all realize that migration matters. The question is, what is it telling us? I won’t pretend to have all the answers, but wanted to share a few thoughts around various aspects of this.

Vote With Your Feet

This seems to be the dominant paradigm, and there is clearly something to it. In this view, people decide to relocate based on various factors like taxes and regulation, cost of living, amenities, type of environment, economic opportunity, and more.

If you look at the Midwest, the cities that are doing well on most measures – Columbus, Indianapolis, Kansas City, and Minneapolis – also have net in-migration or are nearly neutral, while places like Detroit and Cleveland are losing people. Chicago is an interesting counter-example of a place that is conventionally viewed to be successful but has net out-migration. I’ll return to that in a bit.

We also see that talent hubs like Seattle, Austin, Portland, and Raleigh are seeing people move in. They are certainly out performing many other less sexy locales.

And Austin of course is in Texas, where huge numbers of people have moved. As much as we urbanists might not like it, the Texas story is real. The state has generated enormous numbers of new jobs, a total unmatched by other states. The same is true of many other southern places.

So clearly there is something to this notion of voting with your feet.

The Limits of Net Migration

But when we look behind the numbers, we start to see interesting patterns emerge. First off, migration isn’t uniform within states. Cox notes that Ohio had huge out-migration and categorized it as an “economic basket case”, yet Columbus has in-migration. Indiana is losing people, but Indianapolis is not. Nor are suburban areas near Louisville and Cincinnati. Given that different regions within the same states, state level policies like tax rates and right to work laws can’t be the only answer.

So although “vote with your feet” has validity, perhaps there are other dynamics at work.

Greenfields vs. Brownfields

The South is frequently touted as a place whose favorable tax and labor climate is attracting business. But that is far from uniform. Places like Atlanta exploded into major business centers, other cities did not. In Tennessee, Nashville is thriving while Memphis is not. The south even has outright Rust Belt cities like Birmingham. Why are there so many struggling places in this nominally favorable environment?

Jim Russell suggests another key driver of the move to the south is the enormous advantages of greenfield development:

Bankrupt Birmingham is located in Alabama, a right-to-work state. Tennessee also has this distinction and is home to recovering industrial-dependent Chattanooga. Both the South and the North experienced an implosion of the manufacturing sector. Supposedly better state policies in the Sun Belt didn’t save any of those places from this fate. Why would it work magic in Pennsylvania for Erie?

In the face of globalization, states seem increasingly impotent. I suspect that most people, including the politicians, don’t understand the forces at work. I see a number of parallels with the brain drain issue. There is a poor accounting of the current situation. Ideological thinking dominates political discourse and policy suffers as a result.

During the 1980s, deregulation was the economic dogma of choice. The states with the least rules and lowest taxes should win. That’s not how it played out. If your city was saddled with high legacy costs, then state policy didn’t matter. Just so happens that the Rust Belt had (still has) a lot more of those cities than the Sun Belt did.

You can find the same economic geography within regions concerning the urban core and suburban periphery. Essentially, Americans have moved from brownfields to greenfields. When the unit of analysis is state, that trend gets lost in the data noise.

This is not to absolve bad decision making. High legacy costs in part derive from bad policy choices. But there is an independent logic to greenfield development. Because the world constantly changes but things like your physical location don’t, and your built environment and institutions are difficult to change, this means any city will eventually find itself facing the call of reinvention. Things like infrastructure and buildings constructed to outdated standards, institutional cruft, and deferred liabilities are almost inevitable, no matter how well run your city or state.

For more on this topic, I’d suggest reading my “What’s Killing California?” or Ryan Avent’s “Disruptive Technologies“.

Network Migration

There’s also the fact that migration, particularly international migration, involves networks. Why do people move? What factors into their decisions? A lot of times, factors other than purely economic considerations come into play, such as a personal connection to a place, proximity to family, or proximity of ethnic kinfolk.

One Louisvillian told me that “Our most important export is our women.” By that, he meant that college educated women who moved away from Louisville often returned with husband and family in tow when they had children. In effect, a significant source of new blood in Louisville is people who marry Louisville women and move back to be close to family. This illustrates both “boomerang migration” (return to a place you left) and family networks.

It also shows importantly that where you live is also a function of where you are in your life. I don’t think it’s entirely reasonable to expect or desire people to live in the same place from cradle to grave. What makes sense for a young single might not make sense for a family with kids or for a retired couple.

International migration works on family and ethnic networks as well and is often startlingly specific. For example, many Mexican towns have developed almost sibling relationships with US cities because migrants from that town clustered in a particular place. One example is the centralization of immigrants from the town of Tala, Mexico in Indianapolis. This was the subject of a Nuvo cover story “Bienvendios a Talapolis“:

[Tala] Mayor Cipriano Aguayo, one of the immigrant pioneers to Indianapolis in the 1970s, returned to Mexico when he was able to save enough money to support his family. Aguayo still has two brothers in Indianapolis. According to residents of Tala, including the mayor, nearly every home in the small town has a family member in the United States and the great majority of those are in Indianapolis. The money they send back is extremely important for Tala’s economic sustainability.

“More money circulates in this region due to remittances than anything else,” Aguayo says, “so we depend a good deal on the cash that comes from Indianapolis.”

Some of it supports civic projects, an increasingly common trend in Mexico. Lucila Madrigal, a Tala municipal official whose sons live in Indianapolis, reports that emigrant savings helped finance a bridge, renovate the cemetery and pave streets in the county. Local families depend even more on money sent home by their “absent sons.”

While Tala’s immigrants to Indianapolis maintain strong familial, cultural and financial ties to Mexico, they have also helped build the sort of cultural foundations here in Indianapolis that both facilitate assimilation and maintain the ties that bind this transnational community together.

“We Mexicans aren’t used to being without some family nearby,” says Fabian Alonso, who divides his time between Tala and Indianapolis. “So we all try to get someone from here to move up there and that’s how we created our neighborhoods that replicate those in Tala.”

Maybe economic opportunity brought original pioneers to Indianapolis, but much of the rest of the migration was driven as much by network effects as economic logic. Otherwise why not just stay in Texas rather than keep going north? And from what I’ve read, many of Indy’s original international immigrants arrived more or less by accident or mistake. The roots of the Tala diaspora lay in the 1970’s, when Indianapolis was a backwater town trying to shed it’s “India-no-place” label.

There are plenty of other examples around. Fort Wayne has 3,000 Burmese, not because it is an economic hotbed, but because of an active local policy to bring in refugees.

The large, traditional American port of entry cities have both the most and easiest physical connections to other countries, as well as long established and robust migration networks. So it is no surprise they remain dominant in international immigration. This may not say much about whether that is “logically” the places immigrants should go.


Another source of migration is people retiring and moving someplace to enjoy it. As this often involves leaving places with lousy climates for more sunny locales, it is a built in source out migration from the Frost Belt. These people may be leaving for reasons that have nothing to do with the amenities, tax structures, or regulatory schemes that are favorable to business and labor. Rather, they want places that are good to enjoy their life and don’t place a financial burden on their particular financial profile.

Huge numbers of people moved to Phoenix, but does that mean Phoenix is a great business center, or just a great place to golf?

Network effects are also in play here. A retired couple I know from Pittsburgh just moved to North Carolina to be closer to their children who left years ago. This might have said something about what Pittsburgh’s economy used to look like, but it doesn’t have much bearing on what it is today. Economics might explain the children, but doesn’t explain the parents. Places that previously experienced an out-migration wave driven by a bad economy or policy might, for this reason, suffer a hangover for many years even if the local economy hits an inflection point.

Again, this is a result of stage of life, not per se local policy. Many people may choose to retire in place, but the reality is, many others won’t.

Moving Out, Or Not Moving In?

There’s also the question as to whether or not net out migration is more a reflection of people leaving or not coming. People are constantly migrating away from everywhere. The question is, are they being replenished? A place could have a below normal out migration rate, but if no one is moving there, it still shows net out migration.

This could particularly be the case in places that are near an inflection point. Bad conditions have stopped driving people out, but nothing has changed to create an inbound dynamic. Perhaps because there have been so few people moving in, there are few established inbound migration networks. Also, the reputation of the place (or lack thereof) may cause many to not even put it on the list. Portland gets touted as a great place in the media every day, so people who might be interested in what it has to offer will naturally have that city come to mind. That’s less likely to happen for Pittsburgh.

Jim Russell again argues that we should look mostly at in-migration, not net migration as the figure. I’m not sure to what extent I totally agree with this, but there seems to be something to it, particularly for cities at an inflection point.

New York City

Then there’s the case of America’s largest tier one cities, and especially New York. These cities have very high net domestic out-migration. Cox notes that the majority of New York state’s 1.65 million out migrants left from New York City.

But it isn’t hard to see that a place like New York is a structural exporter of people. First, it is a huge magnet for international immigrants. After a time in NYC, if some of them move on then, bang, they are domestic out migrants. On the domestic ledger that’s 0 in, 1 out, a clear net loss, but not the whole story.

Also, it’s noted that NYC takes in lots of young people, but many leave when they get marrie and have kids. Again, let’s play this scenario out. Two young singles move to NYC, marry, have two kids. When those kids reach school age, they move to the suburbs or back to the wife’s hometown in Kansas City. That’s 2 in, 4 out, a net loss of 2 people.

Is this a bad thing? I won’t suggest that we shouldn’t try to improve our urban schools or make our central cities more family friendly. Of course we should. But it strikes me that places like NYC are never going to be the destination of choice for families with school age children. Even if it captured more market share, it seems that it will always be exporting families.

Again, is it reasonable to expect that every place will be equally as attractive to people at all stages of their life? I don’t think so. Some places are better for young singles, some for families, others for retirees. So anyplace that is attractive to young singles is likely to be a structural source of out migration.

If you think again about New York, it takes in immigrants – raw recruits if you will – and spits out Americans. It takes in young singles – more raw recruits – and spits out up skilled people with families. There is huge value added in this. In a sense, New York City is a gigantic refinery for human capital. It’s a smelter for people. Perhaps we shouldn’t be any more sad about New York exporting people than we are about it exporting financial services. Taking in people, adding value, then exporting them is one of New York’s core competencies. Maybe we should be thanking it for providing this valuable service.

Whatever the case, any place that is a magnet for immigrants and young people, as most tier one cities are, are likely to be structural sources of out migration no matter what they do.

Jim Russell on Migration

It’s no secret I’m a fan of Jim’s thinking on talent and migration matters. His blog Burgh Diaspora is required reading, IMO. As I hoped he might, he chimed in with a comment here, which I’m including below so everyone will see it:

Interesting to see all the aspects of migration packed into one post. Still, some additional data categories should be considered. It’s not so much that migration matters, but demography matters. We tend to play fast and loose with net migration and population numbers. Declining population has become synonymous with net out-migration. That’s a gross distortion.

Each shrinking city has a unique demographic profile. Break it all down by age cohorts and the analysis gets very complicated. In my opinion, it also gets more useful. What’s the urban dependency ratio? A huge issue in cities with substantial legacy costs.

Concerning natural replacement rates, there is a striking variance among Rust Belt cities. Lower rates make the net out-migration problem more acute.

Overall, I think the net migration numbers tend to limit our thinking about how to make better cities. The population shift from Rust Belt to Sun Belt is dramatic, but the dominant narrative that folks such as Cox peddle won’t inform better policy. This is especially true if we insist on using state level data.

A good example is Texas, a big “vote with your feet” winner. A lot of good that’s done El Paso and other lesser-tier cities in the state. Houston, Dallas and Austin will Hoover up graduates from those places as well as the Rust Belt. They also suck up talent from the entire Sun Belt.

I think state policy is a red herring.

Migration, Properly Considered

In short, migration does matter. Any city that thinks it can be blasé about this is fooling themselves. On the other hand, surface numbers only tell us so much. We need to understand the dynamics going on underneath the hood.

Still the American Dream

I thought I’d wrap this up with something I think almost all of us agree on, namely that immigrants have been a huge source of strength for America. Even those who are very down on aspects of immigration – illegal immigration, too much immigration, H1B visas, etc – tend to endorse the concept of America as the land of opportunity. This is one of the huge strengths of our country, and something that gives us an edge on the rest of the world.

The New Year’s resolution for the Christian Science Monitor was, “Don’t Accept US Decline.” Joel Kotkin’s recent piece, “Don’t Give Up on the US” takes up this theme as well, arguing that people from around the world still want to move here, and that’s a big source of strength.

Conveniently, Robert Guest had a long piece in the Economist recently dealing with immigration that called America “a Ponzi scheme that works.” Here are some excerpts from this great piece I strongly recommend reading:

When he arrived, Mr Lee was astonished by how rich nearly everyone was. He recalls his first dinner with Americans: the huge bowls and immense portions. He was startled to see lights left on in empty rooms. He is still impressed: “The roads are so wide, the cars so big, the houses so large—everything is abundant,” he says.

Yet this is not why he came, and it is not why he stayed and became a citizen. For Mr Lee, America is a land that offers “the chance to be whatever you want to be”.
Because America is so big and diverse, immigrants have an incredible array of choices. The proportion of Americans who are foreign-born, at 13%, is higher than the rich-country average of 8.4%. In absolute terms, the gulf is much wider. America’s foreign-born population of 38m is nearly four times larger than those of Russia or Germany, the nearest contenders. It dwarfs the number of migrants in Japan (below 2m) or China (under 1m).
You can find welcoming clusters of ethnic minorities in other rich countries, but not nearly as many. In a European country, if you want Korean food and a particular denomination of Korean church, you might find it in the capital but you will struggle in the suburbs. In America, it is easier to find just the niche you want: Polish or Vietnamese, metropolitan or exurban, gay or straight, Episcopalian or Muslim, or any combination of the above.
If you like low taxes and the death penalty, try Texas. For good public schools and subsidised cycle paths, try Portland, Oregon. Even within states, the rules vary widely. Bath County, Kentucky is dry. Next-door Bourbon County, as the name implies, is not. Nearby Montgomery County is in between: a “moist” county where the sale of alcohol is banned except in one city. Liberal foreign students let it all hang out at Berkeley; those from traditional backgrounds may prefer a campus where there is no peer pressure to drink or fornicate, such as Brigham Young in Utah.
Besides Somalia and the Netherlands, Ayaan Hirsi Ali has lived in Ethiopia, Kenya and Saudi Arabia. Of all these places, she considers America to be the easiest place to assimilate. She has her niche, hanging out with “nerdy academics” and eating Japanese food. Unlike Mr Lee, she is more or less divorced from her native culture. But that works just fine in America. “I’m surprised how fast complete strangers will invite you into their houses,” she says. Asked what she dislikes about her new home, she mentions that the air-conditioning is too cold.

She admits that before visiting America she had a negative view of the country. Listening to her Dutch friends, she assumed that Americans were fat, loutish, naive and sexually repressed. “But then I came here and found it was all false,” she smiles.

Outsiders sometimes assume that it is hard to be an outspoken atheist in a devout country such as America. Ms Hirsi Ali thinks it is easy. Many Christians ask if she is a believer. When she replies no, she says “they don’t try to kill me. They say they’ll pray for me”.
Migration matters. Economic growth depends on productivity, and the most productive people are often the most mobile. A quarter of America’s engineering and technology firms founded between 1995 and 2005 had an immigrant founder, according to Vivek Wadhwa of Harvard Law School. A quarter of international patent applications filed from America were the work of foreign nationals. And such measures ignore the children of immigrants. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is the stepson of a man who fled Cuba at the age of 15 and arrived without even a high-school diploma.

Because immigrants have to work, America does not have ghettos full of permanently jobless and alienated young immigrants, as in France, for example. This is perhaps why, although America has a high murder rate—three times that of Britain—its immigrants rarely riot. They are too busy earning a living…..Some of America’s talk-show hosts are quite vicious, but no openly xenophobic politician can attract the kind of support that France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen did in 2002, or that Austria’s Jörg Haider did.

Robert Guest also covered the same ground in a video presentation. If the embedded video doesn’t display, you can directly visit the PopTech podcast page to view it.

Last, but certainly not least, Richard T. Herman and Robert L. Smith just released their book, “Immigrant, Inc: Why Immigrant Entrepreneurs Are Driving the New Economy (And How They Will Save the American Worker).” I guarantee you will find the stories in this book both inspiring and humbling. It will make you proud of America.

Friday, September 25th, 2009

Pittsburgh Renaissance?

My latest post is up over at New Geography. It’s called “Pittsburgh Renaissance?” and is a look at the Pittsburgh transformation story. You’ve probably seen one or more national media stories talking about the Pittsburgh turnaround and touting that city as role model for the rest of the struggling Rust Belt. I examine that proposition and come to the conclusion that while the Pittsburgh renaissance story is overblown, there is definitely legitimate progress there and hopeful signs for the future. I also look at whether or not Pittsburgh is a model.

One of those national media stories was a recent piece in Forbes called “Pittsburgh? Yes, Pittsburgh“. I recommend checking this one out since I’m quoted in it.

If you want to keep track of the Pittsburgh story through the blogosphere, the place to look is Mike Madison’s Pittsblog. Another great blog with a more wonkish take is Chris Briem’s Nullspace. And of course you already know the Pittsburgh story from the diaspora point of view from Jim Russell’s Return to Pittsburgh.

Speaking of Pittsblog, Madison recently completed an Urbanophilesque ten part examination of the Pittsburgh comeback. I’ll link to his series below, but first want to give my take on the matter of Pittsburgh’s “grit”. There’s a meme out there that Pittsburgh pulled through because of the unique grit and tenacity of its residents. Madison seems to think this is vastly oversold and I probably agree. However, there is something legitimately different about Pittsburgh. It’s what I label in my article, for lack of a better term, “provincialism”, and it is something you see in almost all the old middle America river cities. Pittsburgh’s got it, so do Cincinnati, Louisville, and New Orleans. I don’t know St. Louis or Memphis as well, but it wouldn’t surprise me if you see it there too.

Provincialism in this case is all about attachment to a particular locale, a sense of shared history, identity, and tradition, and of course, a half-remembered, half-imagined greater past. It manifests itself in all sorts of good and bad ways. You see it in unique local traditions, local cuisine, and local dialects. You see it in old families and old power structures and social markers. You see it in a sort of reactionary arch-conservative social state, even in places that are nominally blue. Low immigration and a very high percentage of people who’ve lived in a place their whole lives are also a hallmark. The river geography also led to stunning views, and often fragmentation into large numbers of dense, distinct neighborhoods. And of course it fractures the towns along geographic lines.

In Pittsburgh, you see this in yinzer dialect and cookie table tradition at weddings. In Cincinnati in Cincinnati style chili and local institutions like the Charter Party. In Louisville it’s about where you went to high school. Cincy and Louisville both exhibit big civic fractures, Cincy in its east side-west side divide, Louisville in its “ends”. I think this provincialism is one reason why Madison, Indiana, once the largest city in that state, preserved its old center intact as one of America’s most important historic districts. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh also seem to have suffered less than most regional cities from urban demolition.

I do believe this provincialism is one key to the Pittsburgh story. It creates emotional resonance for a place, even where people left. If you look at why, for example, Louisville and Dayton took such different trajectories, among them has to be the love of place that is so prominent in Louisville. Of course, there’s a down side too. It creates a short of haughty self-regard and smugness, and a resistance to new ideas and new people. Like most things, this provincialism is a double-edged sword.

Here is the story on the Pittsburgh turnaround from three of its best bloggers. First, here is Mike Madison’s series:

Chris Briem takes a look at this over at in “The Decline and Rise“.

And Jim Russell’s take on the Pittsburgh turnaround is a New Geography, “Hyping Pittsburgh: With the Global Economy in Dire Straits, Hell With the Lid Blown Off Never Looked Better

For another view, see “Five Things That Helped Pittsburgh Turn the Corner” over at PopCity.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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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.

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