Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Big Hot Suburban Blues

By Alex Pearlstein, Vice President

With the recent release of 2014 Census American Community Survey (ACS) estimates, those of us in the economic and demographics biz dove in eagerly, as always, to dissect the data and try to discern broad and finer-grained trends that can help inform our analysis and recommendations. What seems to have captured the fancy of thinkers in the worlds of urban economics, geography, and planning are telltale signs that the “return to the city” movement breathlessly touted by many boosters as evidence that well-heeled, educated residents are sorting into dense urban cores is far outweighed by continuing patterns of suburban and exurban migration characteristic of post-World War II America. These movements are most specifically focused on Sun Belt communities that grew like crazy before the Great Recession and are slowly returning to pre-downturn levels of expansion. 

A recent headline in The Atlantic snarkily captured the presumed takeaway from this new data: “Americans Love Big Hot Suburbs.” The article contends that, “The neighborhoods outside of sunny metro areas are gobbling up the country, just like they were before the Great Recession.” 

I feel like I’ve got some personal perspective on, at the very least, the “big, hot” aspects of these decades-long trends. I grew up in Los Angeles, went to school in San Diego, lived in the Bay Area, got my master’s in Atlanta, and then picked up and moved with my wife to Des Moines, Iowa so she could attend medical school. Our first “real” winter was a beast – the highest three-month snow total in Des Moines’ history. Blizzards, ice storms, days-long stretches of sub-zero hell. Four subsequent winters each had their share of “how can people take this?” moments. Having recently relocated south of Atlanta for my wife’s residency and spending pleasant Februarys in the park with my two-year old, I couldn’t help thinking about my house-bound former neighbors up north. So, bottom line, you can’t blame people for gravitating towards better weather. 

As for “big,” living in my current city (population of roughly 150,000) and struggling to find vegetarian restaurants for the wife, a zoo or children’s museum for the toddler, independent movie theaters, venues with the hottest touring bands, and many other amenities one takes for granted in larger metros, I can also not begrudge people for wanting a more varied supply of “stuff.” Mind you, everyone’s preferences are different, and tons of people prefer the slower lifestyles of a smaller community – don’t care if they can’t find farm-to-table frou frou, artisanal cheese shops, or poetry readings by bearded anarchists with tattoo sleeves. And it also depends on your stage of life; a “night out” in your 20s looks nothing like the equivalent in your 40s with a minivan full of fidgety offspring. 

Regarding “suburbs” – again, a choice. I’m a city guy but I’d be fine and happy if I had to carve out a niche for myself and my family outside the city proper. Big houses are nice, big yards are good, safe streets are preferable, good schools are necessary. 

Professionally, what all the rhetoric of residential and community preference always gets me thinking of is the near-ubiquitous modern trend of talent attraction. It is becoming increasingly, almost universally pervasive for our economic development clients to now attract talent as intentionally as they have always pursued companies. Every community needs smart, talented people – even a region like Austin where people flock by the thousands. In fact, a group of tech execs hopped a plane to Silicon Valley a couple years ago to lure niche talent to the Texas capitalThe plain fact remains that there aren’t enough people (by a long shot) for the jobs we’re creating in this country. The topic is so overwrought that complaining about it is almost passé, but the primacy of talent capacity for economic vibrancy has bubbled to the top of so many regional agendas that talent development – attraction and retention – has become a de facto component of nearly all programmatic toolkits. 

So, back to big, hot, and suburban. What to do if you don’t fit that bill? The answer: be realistic. Cold-weather communities have to acknowledge the odds are slim you’ll lure someone who’s never owned a parka. Smaller places shouldn’t think of mega-cities as hotbeds for potential recruits. Don’t post a video of your bike paths and sidewalk cafes set to a New Wave soundtrack and think it will lead to a stampede of new migrants. 

Frankly, I think the odds of successfully attracting talent are similar to successfully attracting companies – not great, especially compared to growing incumbent firms or holding on to talent that’s already there. That doesn’t mean talent attraction shouldn’t be an investment, just not your largest investment. Target ex-pats, but make no assumptions. People who chose to leave did so for a reason and getting them back will take an even more compelling reason. I wouldn’t return to L.A. for anything less than the job of a lifetime. Think about your own situation. If you happen to live and work in a place that’s not your hometown and someone came up to you and said, “Come back, we need you,” what would your answer be? Probable something along the lines of, “There’s nothing you can say to me my Mother hasn’t already tried.” 

However, if you’ve sowed your oats in some mega-city, met someone, had a kid, and are looking for the same type of environment you grew up in. Well, maybe that erstwhile environment shows up on your geographic radar. Even more so if you can get a mini-mansion for the same amount you’re doling out monthly in rent, and feel good about junior walking to the neighbor’s house without getting mugged. That’s why I personally feel that quality of place matters. I’ve heard it time and again doing public input for strategic processes; an ex-pat who left for “bright lights, big city” will come home and find a downtown slowly transforming, or a riverfront being rediscovered, or the attitudes of elected officials evolving to reflect modern realities, or a new coffee house that wouldn’t be out of place on the streets of Bushwick or Back Bay. They start to picture themselves coming home – start to do the community calculus of birthplace versus current place. Just planting that seed is progress because it has the chance to grow over months and years and maybe take root in hometown soil. Just getting a handful of ex-pats to boomerang back can be the start of a small but growing voice for community change that can bring to bear the wisdom of outside perspective and experience to challenge local parochialism and status-quo stubbornness. 

There will likely be no “cure” for our current talent crisis. Its roots are bigger than one community or one local economy. They are tied to the very nature of the American DNA – most of us came here to work, not to learn. So communities must absolve themselves of the notion that they can fully address skills deficits with a state-of-the-art program or “all-in” declaration of war against an underperforming education system or leaky talent pipeline. But there must be progress, even if incremental, because the alternative is an exodus of jobs to where they can be filled. Even if that location has different faces on its money.