Sweeping generalizations, and poorly formed opinions about Metropolitan America

Hi there! The topics here are generally about cities, urban planning, transportation, sociology, politics, and how we live here in America.  I love this stuff so much that I’m starting a blog about it.  It’s my goal to update this site at least twice a week, though hopefully I’ll be inspired to write more than that.

I am not a writer, and that will be evident to anyone almost immediately.  But, my interest in the subject matter is more than purely avocational.  I have always been fascinated by big picture questions about the way we arrange our lives in big metro areas.

My goal here is to introduce readers to new ideas, and new ways of thinking about old ideas.

I believe much of the conventional wisdom about metropolitan areas, in both progressive and conservative circles, is wrong.

I’ll do my best to cite original ideas and research.  If I’ve inadvertently failed to give credit, please drop me a line and I’ll do what I can to fix it.

Thanks, and enjoy!



Plan B for the Stagnant Metros

“The Pittsburgh Conundrum,” John Russo’s piece in the American Prospect, does an excellent job pointing out the contradictions between the supposed re-birth of Pittsburgh as a prosperous and highly livable center for technological innovation, and the continued economic decline of its larger region, which has never shared in the elite spoils enjoyed in many of the city’s lovely neighborhoods.

Citing, among others, Joel Kotkin, Michael Lind, Bruce Katz, and Richard Florida, Russo details how Pittsburgh and its environs are emblematic of the challenges facing the United States’ economy, and how experts from across the political spectrum have offered varying diagnoses and wildly differing solutions to, among other things, the unaffordability of elite coastal metro areas, and the continued decline of the working class suburbs and smaller cities and towns outside of the urban core.

To me, the success of _parts_ of the city of Pittsburgh relative to the overall stagnation and decline of the region has a whole represent the limitations posed by relying on attracting Richard Florida’s Creative Class as an urban revitalization strategy.  Other cities and metro areas are farther along in this regard – Downtown Chicago and Center City Philadelphia are islands of the privileged elite surrounded by, and hard-up against, entrenched economic distress, with the accompanying crime, blight, and despair.  Attracting educated elites en masse does not translate to a more broad and universal middle class prosperity; rather it only magnifies inequality because it offers little ancillary opportunities beyond low-wage service jobs to the predominating members of the shrinking middle and working classes who lack advanced education.  The scientists, programmers, corporate headquarters/front-office and accompanying professional services jobs (lawyers, bankers, consultants, doctors, etc.) are largely beyond the reach of most people outside of the upper middle class elite.  Toward the end of the piece, Russo blames the vast disparities between metro areas, and, in places like Pittsburgh, within metro areas, on “…capitalism’s subordination of social needs to its economic necessities,” and concludes by pleading for urbanists to “…consider long-term strategies based on values, and not just spatial considerations, that address the concrete needs of people.”  I found this broad platitude, without much in the way of new ideas, a bit disappointing.

There is a lot of hand wringing going on among most of the above-cited thinkers about the delta between High Cost Talent Magnet metros like New York, San Francisco, and Washington versus Stagnant metros like Cleveland, St. Louis, and, yes, even Pittsburgh, in spite of its small but growing oasis talented elites surrounded by the vast desert of working class decline.  There is often discussion of how we could make High Cost Talent Magnets more affordable for the middle class by building our way out of unaffordability – intensifying density allowances, silencing NIMBYism, building vast rail systems like London’s Crossrail project to connect more outlying areas with the jobs in the core, and so on.  We should instead be focused on what’s going right in a third group metro areas that are rapidly growing, and offer broad-based middle class prosperity in a diversified, sustainable manner.  These places feature affordable housing, lots of available jobs at middle class salaries, and are not overly reliant upon boom-and-bust industries like tourism, retirees, and resource extraction.  They include places like Dallas-Fort Worth, Salt Lake City/Ogden/Provo, Nashville, Charlotte, and Raleigh-Durham.  The reasons for their success are myriad, mostly to do with being fortunate enough to have the right economic mix for the times. To me, the questions we need to be asking are whether, as a matter of policy, we can somehow replicate the conditions of the Fast-Growth metros in the Stagnant ones so that they too become magnets for middle-class prosperity, or if we need to have a Plan B.

As Russo noted in his article – how capitalism externalizes the social costs of prosperity – I wonder whether the stagnant regions are too far gone in their social challenges to ever solve the economic ones absent an incredible political revolution.  I’m referring to the entrenched interest groups that speckle Stagnant regions that will go to great lengths to preserve their place in the status-quo hierarchy at the expense of the overall prosperity of the metro region as a whole.  These include the miniature municipalities and neighborhood civic groups fighting to preserve their “character” through exclusionary zoning and NIMBYism, to the building trades who artificially inflate the cost of doing business and the accompanying good ol’ boy political machines.  In other words, our stagnant metro areas have become “closed shop” metro areas.  Absent politically-impossible feats like term limits for state and local elected officials, and metro-area-wide municipal consolidation, I don’t see things changing much for stagnant regions.  The best they’ll ever do is attract small-ish concentrations of the upper-middle-class elite in a few neighborhoods, as Pittsburgh has done so well.

Assuming that Pittsburgh or St. Louis cannot transform themselves into Dallas or Nashville, let alone New York or San Francisco, in our lifetimes, Plan B is to literally help the disadvantaged residents of Stagnant metro areas, as well as other stagnant or declining rural areas and small towns, to leave and go somewhere better.  We spend a lot of time focused on the health of a place that is declining, but if we really want to help the people who actually live there, why not provide grants or credits to families and households that move away from areas with high unemployment and low labor force participation to areas with available jobs and affordable housing?  This would literally be subsidizing people to leave places like Youngstown, or North Philadelphia, or East St. Louis, and move to Provo or McKinney or Cary, where stable, middle class jobs and lifestyles await.

I would expect nothing less than tremendous resistance to this idea due to the emotional, cultural, and family connections people have to the places they live.  But the factory jobs and other low-skill middle-class employment aren’t coming back to the Rust Belt.  I would also expect urbanists to compare such an endeavor to the original sins of single-family home mortgage subsidies and the building of urban expressways – that is, subsidizing more sprawling, unsustainable development patterns in already-sprawling metro areas, adding to pollution woes and climate change.  But to me that’s beside the point – aside from subsidizing the migration, we could also subsidize whatever livability and sustainability improvements we want in the prosperous regions too.  Raleigh and Nashville thrive _in spite of_, not because of, their lack of pedestrian and transit-oriented development patterns, and if adding these things to the prosperous regions adds to their environmental sustainability, then I’m all for that too.



Denver is joining the coastal elite

This Wall Street Journal piece on financial services firms relocating to Denver is evidence for what I believe is the natural and inevitable progression that certain metro areas are going through in the United States.  High-Cost Talent Magnets like New York and San Francisco (as well as Los Angeles, Washington, and Boston) are costly enough to push people and businesses to lower cost regions.  Fast-growth metros, including Denver, benefit from their “relieve valve” status relative to the high-cost regions.

With that said, metro areas that are growing quickly are not destined to stay that way forever – rather, the high growth rates signify a period of transition into a more long-term state, such as Stagnant regions, or High-Cost Talent Magnets.  I would argue that Denver’s desirability relative to the affluent and educated means that it is undergoing the gradual shift into a high-cost talent magnet.  Seattle and Austin are in the same boat.  Other high-growth metro areas with diversified economies, like Dallas, Nashville, and Raleigh also serve as relief valves for individuals and businesses priced out of high-cost talent magnets, but their lower attractiveness to elites  means that their costs of living, particularly real estate, will indefinitely remain lower than in Austin, Denver, and Seattle.

Unlike many other countries, even developed ones, the U.S. is not dominated by a single large metro area where government, corporations, the media, and academia cluster together (see, e.g., Mexico City, Buenos Aires, London, Moscow).  Don’t cry for New York or San Francisco – I would argue that these places long ago hit the critical mass of global immortality.  But, to the extent that prosperity can be shared across different regions of the country without relying too heavily on boom-and-bust sectors (ahem, Houston, Oklahoma City, Phoenix, Orlando), we’re better off for it.


Bikeshare Rant

In upper-middle-class culture, it is looked upon highly to show one’s environmental and social consciousness credentials in everyday behavior, from the car-free or car-lite-by-choice lifestyle (biking, walking, transit, or, where driving is a must, a hybrid or electric car) to the sorts of food and beverages bought and consumed (organic, locally sourced, sustainable), among other things.

These cultural mores are not universally shared and it is more than patronizing to think that everyone ought to live this way (or, given how expensive it can be, at least desire it), let alone that if we could just show _those other people_ how great it is, then they’d want it too.

Bikesharing is a gentrification emblem and detracts from efforts to make our cities (read: not the homogeneous bubbles that make young urban planners swoon)  more livable for most of the people who actually live there (read: middle and working class, as well as impoverished people who predominate in places like Philadelphia and Chicago and Brooklyn, but don’t wish to share in the supposed spoils of the affluent and ostensibly progressive, but mostly just upper-middle class enclaves), in accordance with their desires, in the manner in which they wish to consume the urban space around them, even if the upper middle class people around them see those choices as, at best, anachronistic, and at worst, gauche, from the foods they choose to consume (yes, even controlling for food deserts), to the way they choose to use parks, to their preferred modes of transportation.  Unless it’s actually convenient and economical to get around town without a car to meet the basic needs of life, then most people who can drive will do just that.  Outside a few big cities and a handful of other neighborhoods across the country, it is neither.  The exceptions are the places that tend to have bikeshare, and a bubble of urban progressives.  Most New Yorkers aren’t taking the subway because they want to be environmentally conscious; conversely, most folks in Austin, Texas, who are a pretty progressive lot overall, don’t drive everywhere all the time just because they actually want to add carbon to the atmosphere.

We can have a separate conversation about the urban public policy decisions we’ve made as a country, but we can’t judge regular people as morally inferior for having different lifestyle preferences than the trendy urban progressive bubble.  And just because a few people loudly advocate for something doesn’t mean the population at large actually demands it.

Does Innovation Equal Gentrification?

Does Innovation Equal Gentrification – The linked article at CityLab is another example of hand-wringing lip-service paid to the plight of the economically displaced in our urban areas when discussing the opportunities for the affluent elite.

Does innovation equal gentrification? Yes. Gentrification is many things, including displacement, but gentrification can still take place on a city-wide or even regional scale even if the classic neighborhood-level physical displacement of people is not taking place in the immediate area of the “innovation district” activity in question.

In Philadelphia, the University City explosion of growth is mostly taking place in an area that was previously a tangle of parking lots and railroad tracks on the fringes of the university campuses. To be sure, many decades ago the local anchor institutions, particularly Penn, took over established residential areas and displaced thousands, but that was a classic “urban renewal” scheme of slum clearance rather than the more insidious displacement caused by neighborhood gentrification. Today and in recent times, relatively few are being displaced from this immediate area.

However, as most Americans don’t live very close to work, one could argue that the innovation in University City has greatly contributed to the ongoing gentrification of neighborhoods like Point Breeze and Fishtown, as well areas where gentrification is, arguably, “complete,” like Graduate Hospital, Spruce Hill, Queen Village, and Northern Liberties.

Further, the institutions promoting the clustering of high-tech, high-skill jobs are only able to pay lip-service to how the people stuck in the cycle of poverty may be helped, “[c]hanging the opportunity dynamic for low-income communities…align and scale existing skill-building, education, and procurement programs to build a stronger, more diverse talent pipeline…develop tailored curricula for high-turnover occupations that neighborhood residents can fill.” Basically, the poor residents of the surrounding areas can benefit from the service jobs and other ancillary jobs, some of which might even be “decent paying,” but will these jobs allow people to be able to afford decent housing in neighborhoods not plagued by crime and blight? I’m not so sure. We need to admit that while we’d love to improve the lot of the poor and working class residents of a city, that the primary aim of “innovation” and “clustering” has nothing to do with these average folks but rather to attract and concentrate the educated and affluent, who are almost entirely coming from other affluent, educated areas.



The Problem with Passenger Miles

Randall O’Toole posits that all subsidies for transit should end, in part because it’s by far the most expensive mode of travel per passenger mile.

But the flaw in his reasoning is that the effectiveness of transit, and transportation in general, should not be measured on a per-passenger-mile basis.

It assumes, wrongly, that longer-distance trips are of greater value than short distance trips.  For example, imagine if Person A drives 28 miles each way to work.  Now imagine Person B rides transit just 5 miles each way every day.  It’s shorter in distance, but is most certainly of at least equal value for the person making the trip.  Why should the trip of someone who drives vast distances to work each day in, say, suburban Atlanta be valued more highly than someone in Chicago who rides the subway a few stops, or better yet, walks, rides their bike, or drives a short distance?  It should not.


Ross Douthat and the Liberal City

Last Sunday, the New York Times’ resident conservative columnist Ross Douthat published a column suggesting what he referred to as politically implausible or impractical measures designed to help spread some of wealth and power that have concentrated themselves into a handful of what I’ve been calling “high-cost talent magnets” around to less affluent regions of the country.  Moving government agencies out of Washington, setting up tax incentives for businesses to invest outside of these elite regions, and even taxing university endowments are some of the ideas he tosses around.  The reaction from the left-leaning urbanist community was swift and full of umbrage. CityLab’s Adam Sneed’s response was typical – basically, big liberal cities are not thriving at the expense of everywhere else; rather, bad urban planning, segregation, and lack of government investment in “anchor institutions” keep less prosperous places down.

But Sneed’s basic assumption – that cities like Flint or Buffalo could too be prosperous and affluent if only the state or federal government would step in to do things like build more transit infrastructure, provide more affordable housing, and spend on education to give residents the skills needed to get  the kinds of jobs that are plentiful in today’s economy – is wrong.  It’s as though the so-called “anchor institutions” themselves can reasonbly be a metro area’s economic raison d’etre.  They cannot.  With the exception of the federal government’s largess in greater Washington, as well as Hampton Roads, San Antonio, and some other places with a disproportionate number of military installations and defense contractors, it is the general mix of private sector industries that determine the relative prosperity of a metro area.  In New York, it’s finance, media, publishing, and the arts.  In the San Francisco Bay Area (including San Jose and Silicon Valley), it’s the tech industry.  In Los Angeles, it’s the entertainment business.  In Houston and Oklahoma City, it’s fossil fuel extraction.  Automobiles in Detroit.  A diverse portfolio of corporate headquarters in Seattle, Chicago, Denver, Dallas, Atlanta, Minneapolis, and Boston.  The “anchor institutions,” be they transit systems, or government agencies, or public colleges and universities, exist to serve the local economy, and not the other way around.

What’s missing from the discussion of somehow “breaking up” big liberal cities is that while everyone has been focused on less-prosperous regions that have not benefited from the new economic order (i.e., Flint, Akron, etc.), there are a number of fast-growing metro areas that are already serving as “relief valves” for the concentrations of wealth and power in the high-cost talent magnets.  From New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, and other high-cost talent magnets, firms and people have been decamping for the likes of Salt Lake City, Denver, Dallas, Austin, Nashville, Atlanta, Charlotte, and Raleigh.  Not all of these prosperous big metro areas are particularly liberal, and they’re poised to continue to facilitate middle class prosperity.  To be sure, while some of them have taken steps to invest in more sustainable urban infrastructure (such as extensive rail networks in Salt Lake City, Denver, and Dallas, and the Beltline light rail and linear park project in Atlanta), left-leaning commentators might decry their relative land-use orientation toward cars and the lack of dense legacy neighborhoods that facilitate convenient car-free living for more than just young singles and childless couples.  But then again, the big liberal cities decried by Douthat have indeed become such bubbles that their denizens genuinely believe that what is truly a niche lifestyle is somehow universally scalable to the rest of the country, where nearly 9 out of 10 people commute alone by car and live in such a way to require a private car to get around conveniently.

While not all of Douthat’s proposed solutions make sense, the problem that he has identified is real.  Too much talent and prosperity is concentrated into too few regions of the country.

America’s Continued Southward/Westward Push

The 2016 U.S. Census estimates are out, and they’re telling a familiar story.  Metropolitan areas in the South and West continue to grow rapidly, while Midwestern and Northern metros stagnate or even shrink.

But population growth does not tell the whole story about the relative prosperity of a metro area by itself.  There are fast-growing regions that are overly dependent upon single industries (e.g., Houston) or retirees (Las Vegas) that have unemployment rates at or above than the national average, while some slow-growth regions (Boston, San Francisco/Oakland) have tremendous levels of education and affluence.

Right-leaning pundits love to crow about how the national population’s continual push southward and westward reveals a universal preference for low-cost regions with few regulatory hurdles in the way of development, and along with that, to business growth.  But there are numerous counter-examples – Phoenix continues to explode in population while Tucson does not; Nashville grows quickly while Memphis does not; Atlanta swells while Birmingham stagnates; Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham grow while Greensboro-Winston-Salem does not; Oklahoma City expands far more than Tulsa.  In other words, it’s the economic building blocks of a region that determine whether it will grow, and whether it will prosper.  But growth and prosperity are not the same thing.  Prosperity in the form of affluence and amenity is concentrated in a handful of “high cost talent-magnets” with high-paying jobs and high-end public amenities, from parks to schools and even transit.  Largely because of the high cost of entry, these rich regions are hemorrhaging the middle class.  This is happening right now in the New York and San Francisco Bay areas.  Conversely, there are metro areas whose growth is largely dependent upon “snowbirds” and retirees moving in, along with real estate and leisure industries that make them highly susceptible to speculative bubbles and associated crashes, such as Orlando, Phoenix, and Las Vegas.

Here are the metro areas that I believe are both growing fast and growing in a manner that promotes widespread and long-term economic prosperity for more than just the affluent (in no particular order):

  • Portland
  • Salt Lake City
  • Denver
  • Dallas/Ft. Worth
  • Austin
  • Nashville
  • Atlanta
  • Raleigh/Durham

I’ve left a few conspicuous gaps here – Seattle is off this list because it is rapidly transforming into a high-cost talent magnet comparable to its California neighbors in affluence and cost of living.  I’ve also left off Houston due to its dependence on the fossil fuel industry, as well as San Antonio due to its dependence on government/military largess.

But, note that these are all metro areas in the South and West.