In Comparing Places, the Devil is in the Details, By Pete Saunders

New Geography Reprint
By Pete Saunders

Frequently I see examples of metro areas comparing themselves to other, more successful metro areas.  Metro area movers and shakers take a deep dive into the intricacies of what makes a “good” place tick, and try to implement the takeaways in their metro.  This is a reasonable action, but I believe it misses the point.  There is more to examine by taking a deep dive within your own metro than looking at another.

Surely there are physical scale, density and economic differences between metro areas that are worth exploring.  But those differences can be overstated.  Milwaukee, for example, will never be the Silicon Valley, for a host of reasons. Just as importantly, the reverse is true.

When I see that, say, Kansas City wants to do what Portland’s doing, or Grand Rapids wants to do what Nashville’s doing (totally fabricated examples, I might add), I cringe for three reasons — 1) distinctiveness, not homogeneity, should be the hallmark of cities and metro areas; 2) metro areas are already far more alike than different, in terms of their built environment and even their economies; and 3) there is more inequality that is evident within metro areas than between them.

Why is it that, when looking at the marketplace of metros, they try to emulate successes rather than striking out for distinctiveness?  This generally stands in opposition to what happens in business, where firms seek to deliver a product that is of better quality, or less expensive, or offers more options, in order to stand out in the marketplace.

Unfortunately we end up having metro areas chasing advantages they will never be able to attain.  The Bay Area’s combination of entrepreneurship and top-tier education, leading to the R&D work that supports Silicon Valley, is only tangentially replicable in a handful of metros nationwide.  The low-tax, low-cost advantage that many interior metro areas enjoy over their coastal brethren is not something that can be done in the high-tax, high-cost coastal metros.

Addressing the third point will lead to greater city and metro growth than trying to replicate what any other metro area purports to be doing at a metro scale.

Let me offer one example.  Below you’ll see a table that shows the top 25 metro areas from 2010, organized by median household income.  The data is from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey in 2011 (although there is more recent data available, the reason for using this dataset will become clearer below):

Median household income for the top 25 metro areas falls within a fairly narrow range.  Together, the metros have a median of medians, if you will, of $57,783, with a standard deviation of about $7,300.  The Tampa/St. Petersburg metro area comes in at the lowest ($46,890), while San Francisco/Oakland comes in as the highest ($76,911).

At the metro level, there are easy answers to explain why some metro areas are where they are — the supercharged, tech-driven or eds-and-meds economies lift San Francisco and Boston, while the presence of larger numbers of retirees in some Sun Belt metros, and deindustrialization that saw jobs move away, depresses incomes in Tampa, Miami, Pittsburgh or Detroit.

It’s data like this that reinforces the simple tropes that drive our understanding of metro areas.

But what if we look within a metro area?

I have a dataset that has 2011 American Community Survey data for 283 municipalities within the Chicago metro area, as well as the 55 zip codes that comprise the city of Chicago.  This data covers about 8.5 million of the 9.5 million within the broader metro area, excluding a handful of outlying exurban counties in Illinois as well as a few counties in Indiana and Wisconsin.  By looking at finer grained data that examines municipalities, and breaks down the behemoth that is the region’s core city of Chicago, we can see how there are greater differences within the a metro area than between them.

Median household income falls within a far broader range within the Chicago area than in the top 25 MSA dataset.  In 2011, the median of median household incomes for the 338 places identified was $68,325, which is completely understandable when one considers higher income suburban municipalities being over-represented in the dataset.  The range, however, is what stands out — the highest median household income was in North Shore Kenilworth ($242,188) while the lowest was in Chicago’s 60621 zip code, which corresponds with the city’s Englewood neighborhood ($19,692).  What’s crazy, though, is that the standard deviation for median household income in the Chicago area in 2011 ($32,700) is nearly double the actual number for the 60621 zip code.

There were 68 municipalities and city zip codes that had median incomes below $50,000 in 2011; there were 54 municipalities and city zip codes above $100,000.  One group presently drives metro area economic policymaking, while another remains largely ignored.

There is greater variation within metros than there is between them.  This idea should inform our urban policymaking.  (Note: I use Chicago only because I have the data for it.  I imagine other metros, particularly large ones, will have similarly large ranges; the range likely decreases as metros get smaller, but remains to some extent.)

For decades economic developers have relied on two economic strategies to improve conditions that influence data points like median household income — 1) attract more skilled businesses and workers, and 2) work like hell to retain skilled businesses and workers. The first strategy works in metros that have relied on migration for growth; the second works almost nowhere.

As I see it, there is an opportunity for dramatic metro area improvement by those that focus on talent development, rather than talent attraction or retention.  When metro areas focus on the successes of our nation’s metro area “winners”, and try to implement a talent attraction/retention strategy, they relegate themselves to the whims of a select group who, for a variety of reasons, can choose to be anywhere.  Developing talent — investing in early, secondary and higher education, forging strong links between higher education and the business community, supporting entrepreneurship and investment — can pay dividends.  At some point, metros that become proficient at talent development will find that that activity evolves into talent attraction, creating the vibrant economic environment that all metros desire.

Pete Saunders is a Detroit native who has worked as a public and private sector urban planner in the Chicago area for more than twenty years.  He is also the author of “The Corner Side Yard,” an urban planning blog that focuses on the redevelopment and revitalization of Rust Belt cities.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s