Displacing Education as the Most Important Asset for 21st Century City Growth

New York, Boston, San Francisco, Washington DC.

The murderer’s row of successful post-industrial cities in the early 21st century. Much ink has been spilled talking about why these cities have thrived over the past 20 years, and what other cities can do to emulate them.

But I argue that nothing these cities have done over the past 20 years is all that impressive. The key assets of these cities were put in place decades ago by prior civic leaders, and it was those investments that bore fruit over the past generation.

The biggest asset of all was the education level of the populace. Those four cities in 1990 ranked as the top 4 among the 25 largest US metro areas in terms of educational attainment:


On that list, the key pair to me is Detroit and Seattle. I remember the 1995 Mariners run “saving baseball in Seattle.” But here we see that while King County was poised for success with 32.8% of its adults having a bachelor’s degree or higher, Detroit’s Wayne County rate of 13.7% had it on the brink of collapse.

Triumph of the City takes it one step further, “Most of the differences in college achievement in 2000 can be explained, in a statistical sense, by education levels in 1940.”

I’d go so far as to argue that American city success from 1940-2013 could be boiled down to 3 variables: how educated of a city were you 70 years ago, were you in the Sunbelt or not, and the percentage of your population that was black.

But for a variety of reasons, the future city winners are likely to look different than the past. There’s a growing awareness that San Francisco and New York no longer create winners, they only accept winners. De-industrialization and white flight from cities has largely run its course. Thanks to the growth of college education and geographical sorting on the part of college grads, cities like Charlotte and St. Louis and Pittsburgh are as educated as Boston and San Francisco were in 1990. Educated cities no longer have monopolies on talent — they must compete fiercely for it.

And while nobody’s saying those big four cities are going anywhere — San Francisco and New York are where you go once you’re rich, Boston by virtue of decisions made in the 19th century is the higher education capital of the country, and Washington DC is where well-paying government-related jobs will always be — the 21st century is likely to belong to a different list of winners.

I’m still forming this thought, but my guess is the key variable for city success we’ll be talking about 50 years from now is “How willing were you to change, even destroy, parts of your city in order to grow it?”

What we think of now as timeless Paris was an autocratic program put in place by Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann from 1853-1870. Half the buildings in Paris were removed. Paris wouldn’t be “Paris” if city leaders hadn’t taken a wrecking ball to it.

This is worth considering in light of NIMBY and preservationist concerns in 21st century America. Does your city have a world class airport connected to the city center by transit? Does it have robust intra-city transit? Are its zoning codes flexible for the unknown demands of the future? Does it have a height limit? How hard is it to build in the city? Preservation committees run amok? Is it welcoming of new services like Uber that disrupt entrenched business and political interests? How are the public schools, and what is the likelihood of reforming them?

These are all questions that only government can answer, with neither “liberalism” nor “conservatism” capturing the changes needed.

Nobody’s questioning that New York and San Francisco have a head start when it comes to existing assets — wealth, infrastructure, and educated citizens. But when it comes to those questions it’s much less certain. “Is your city relatively satisfied with what it is, or is it hungry, even obsessed, with changing itself for the better? Will it destroy itself to make itself better? Does it believe that its key assets are its citizens, or its buildings?”

Those are questions that no data captures very well at the moment, but may be the key questions in the years and decades to come.

  1. csen posted this