Thursday, January 28

Shifting the equation of local competition

The New York Times has asked a number of observers to weigh in on the declining national mobility rates. Americans have gradually been moving less for the last two decades, and the rate has taken a precipitous decline in the face of our current recession. Formerly attractive states like Florida are actually losing population. It's interesting to speculate over why this is happening, but what's more interesting to me is how this change may play out in the local planning of communities.

It was fitting that Richard Florida had been invited to contribute, because in many ways his trademark prescriptions for regional economic development are founded upon high mobility. The title of his latest book is "Who's your City?" after all.

In the book, Cultural Creatives are presented with the option to choose a city based on an assessment of the amenities available before moving, and then seek a job and relationships in the location. On the other side of the ledger, localities naturally need to respond by enhancing the kinds of amenities the Creative Class wants in order to attract them. What all of this presumes is not only mobility, but the kind of mobility that is not locked into the best paying, available job (or prior relationship commitments). If these underlying conditions seem to be in question now, do we have to rethink this entire regime of metro competition?

Many have criticized the simplistic formula I've described as over-selling the case for adding some nice amenities to attract the right people, and Florida is presented as a one-show huckster dupping cities into these dubious investments. For better or worse, he has been publicly aligned with his trademark idea, which is usually what happens. However, in this case, Florida does seem to get this trend and is adapting his message to it:

"One consequence of this is a new kind of class divide in America between the “mobile” who have the resources and flexibility to pursue economic opportunity and the “stuck” who are tied to places with weaker economies or where their personal economic prospects are more limited."
"There is also a group I term the “rooted” — more advantaged individuals and families who choose to forgo economic mobility and reap the benefits of remaining close to family, friends, and community."
One advantage of "rootedness" is that residents who stay in a place longer can build stronger ties with a community. Crime goes down, as neighbors become "eyes on the street" for each other (crime rates have, in fact, been down across the country). And families tend to stay together (national divorce rates are also down). Local government participation goes up.

I don't know if this will change what kind of infrastructure cities choose to invest in, but it could certainly change their reasoning for doing so. Instead of building, say, a bike lane to woo a hypothetical young biotech engineer, they may build the bike lane because a bunch of active residents have asked for a bike lane. Cities may become diverse from each other, not because of marketing strategies to adopt a niche brand of local "authenticity," but because of a genuinely unique culture that swells up from the people who live there.


LH said...

Daniel, thanks for sharing this. Our firm recently submitted a proposal to EPA to advise on smart growth matters, and it was fun to think on the challenge of stimulating public sector actions that encourage growth in ways that are viscerally authentic to a locality, environmentally sustainable, and cognizant of the opportunities and threats represented by development trends. Not surprisingly, "community engagement" played a big role in our proposal response, since, as you correctly point out, what really matters is the stuff that bubbles up from the people who have a stake in a place.

Daniel Nairn said...

Good luck on that proposal. I know that Philadelphia has a lot to work with in terms of a distinctive local culture.

Eric Orozco said...

I think the mobility question and the "Creative Class" amenities (and demographic markers of innovative communities, e.g. percentages of gays/bohemians) are great indices to think about but may actually be a little distracting to focus on from Florida's most important point, and that is that innovation communities are marked by their tolerance for (1) integrating new people and (2) valuing idea and resource sharing. He and others have found that communities with high social capital (i.e. rootedness) have a drawback and that is not being able to integrate outside and fresh thinking into their communities easily. This insularity may breed a contempt for the kind of innovation that makes cities flourish.

But "rootedness", esp. the kind built by civic engagement, as Jane Jacobs points out, is an advantage cities provide. The trick is to "unplug" that rooted social capital so that it becomes dynamically attuned to new thinking, new modes of possibility, more meritocratic and tolerant of new faces... In other words, more participatory and civically engaged - a task for planners and participatory professionals like LH above, who is very generous in sharing his knowledge and social capital.

Our task is to make social capital "extroverted" (and as the Gospel would have it, "meek" and not exclusive). If we do that (practice the Gospel!) we'll create communities both rooted and innovative. Read Florida through the eyes of Jesus.

LH said...

Eric, thanks for the shout-out. Your point is an insightful nuance and a useful call: to be rooted but not rutted when it comes to old places and new ideas. This topic has been on my mind - my post this morning on my blog tries to explore this concept as it relates to minority leadership - so I appreciate your wisdom on it.

LH said...

Daniel, thanks for the encouragement . . . the EPA work would be really cool to do. Will keep you posted.

Daniel Nairn said...

Eric, that's a great insight. I've considered this question at the personal level - how can I maintain solid long-term relationships while being open and inviting to new people - but I haven't really made the jump you point to for whole communities or cities. In many ways, they face the same dilemma.

When I look at the life of Jesus, I see someone who devotes himself to the lives of his disciples and his own people, yet at the same time gives a welcoming embrace completely to the proverbial Other, the Samaritan woman for example. The blind and paralyzed, those on the margins. "Social Capital" with full inclusion.

As I think about it, even the character of God embodies this. A perfect community of relationships between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, yet always pouring himself outward into the created world through love. It gets to the heart of who God is, at least it seems to me.

How cities can do this is challenging, and will surely be imperfect, but I think you've put your finger on a good goal to strive for.