Yesterday, the Brookings Institution released a report titled, “Job Sprawl Stalls: The Great Recession and Metropolitan Employment Location.” Author Elizabeth Kneebone and the Brookings team analyzed the location of jobs relative to the central business district of the nation’s 100 largest metro areas and tracked changes over time. They found that the number and share of jobs within three miles of downtown increased in just one region – Washington, D.C. – between 2000 and 2010. Accordingly, the share of jobs located more than 10 miles from downtown increased in 85 regions during the same time period. This phenomenon of “job decentralization” was slowed, however, by the Great Recession, which was particularly hard on industries that thrive at the periphery of cities, such as manufacturing and construction.
I was particularly interested in what the report had to say about my home region, Metro Atlanta, where Market Street also recently completed a Regional Economic Competitiveness Strategy. The researchers found that Metro Atlanta is among the most decentralized regions in the country. Using ZIP Business Patterns data from the Census Bureau, Brookings measured the number of jobs in three distance bands around the central business district of each region. They set the bands at 0-3 miles, 3-10 miles, and 10-35 miles. Nearly two thirds of the jobs in Atlanta – 64.6 percent – fell into that outer band, while just 9.9 percent of jobs were located close to the CBD. Only Detroit, a region that is basically hollowing out, had a lower share of jobs downtown.
At first glance, this shouldn’t come as much surprise. Metro Atlanta has long been associated with sprawl, and while many public discussions of the topic focus on the proliferation of low-density residential developments, jobs have also clearly been on the move. But while the Brookings report provides an interesting starting point for conversation, I wanted to dig a bit deeper into Atlanta to see if there might be some additional storylines.
This required a bit of guesswork and substation. For one, Brookings’ methodology did not specify the exact location it deemed to be the “center” of Downtown Atlanta from which to set the distance bands, so I placed this point at the intersection of Peachtree and Marietta Streets, a prominent location in the heart of downtown. From here, I attempted to replicate Brookings’ results by using the Census Bureau’s handy On The Map tool. According to my analysis – 10.4 percent of jobs in 2010 were located within three miles of Peachtree and Marietta, while 66.2 percent were between 10 and 35 miles away. Those percentages don’t exactly match those from the Brookings report, but they’re close enough for a quick, blog-worthy analysis.
In addition to a simple count of employment in these areas, On The Map provided a robust breakdown of the jobs in each geography, including workforce demographics, jobs by earnings, and jobs by business sector. The following tables show two of the most interesting points:
While the edges of Atlanta experienced significant growth in the previous decades, nearly one third of jobs in the 10-35 mile band are in retail, health care, or education – service sectors that tend to follow population, not the other way around. Meanwhile, nearly 28 percent of the jobs in the region’s core are in professional services or public administration, a reflection of the agglomeration economies typically found in central cities and Downtown Atlanta’s role as a seat of government for the city, county, and state. The largest individual sector in the 3-10 mile band is transportation and warehousing, owing to the presence of Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, a massive employer and transportation and logistics hub. The second table reveals that jobs in the central city tend to be much higher paying – more than 50 percent of jobs in the 0-3 mile ring pay roughly $40,000 per year or better, while nearly a quarter of the jobs in the outermost ring pay less than $15,000 per year. Additionally, the share of high-paying jobs in the central city grew 12 percentage points between 2002 and 2010, compared to just a 7.6 percent proportional increase in the 10-35 mile range.
It’s certainly not surprising that high-paying jobs at businesses like law firms would be located in the central city. But I point it out here to suggest that when thinking about job decentralization, it is necessary to focus on more than just raw numbers. For example, consider that the two primary drivers of the growth in the 10-35 mile band between 2002 and 2010 were education and health care, which together added 79,009 jobs. All other industries in this area combined to lose 23,100 jobs. So while the net gains on the edge of the region were impressive, they were likely heavily influenced by residential location decisions and demographic trends, such as aging populations requiring more health care services.
A more thorough analysis of this issue will have to wait for another day, but for me, the important takeaway is this: We can’t just focus on job numbers when talking about decentralization – or really any aspect of economic development for that matter. We also must consider what types of jobs are being created and lost, how much they pay, and who is filling them.