Metro Ages and Stages

Human development ages and stages.  Source:

I didn’t do much writing here over the holiday season, but I did my share of reading.  One thing that caught my eye at the end of 2013 was a piece by Joel Kotkin at New Geography, examining his choices of metro areas with the most and least economic momentum going into 2014.

His analysis, done with the Praxis Strategy Group, comes with a set of assumptions:

Our assumption is that strong local economies attract the most people and create the best conditions for family formation, which in turn generates new demand. Strong productive industries drive demand for such things as heath care, business services and retail, as well as single-family houses, a critical component of local growth and still the aspirational goal of the vast majority of Americans. This, of course, depends on economic factors, which drive perceptions of better times and provide the income necessary to qualify for a mortgage.

Kotkin then uses a variety of indices (GDP growth, job growth, population change, unemployment rate, median household income growth, domestic migration rate, birth rate, and change in educational attainment) to see which of the nation’s metro areas with a population greater than one million meet his economic momentum criteria.

Perhaps not suprisingly, Sun Belt metros dominate the top of the list.  Austin, TX headed the list, and Texas metros comprised four of the top six (#2 San Antonio, #4 Houston and #6 Dallas).  The highest-ranked non-Sun Belt metro was #11 Minneapolis/St. Paul (which has an economy similar to Sun Belt metros), and the highest-ranked traditional Rust Belt metro was Baltimore at #17.  As is often the case, the larger Rust Belt metros are clustered at the bottom of the list, with Philadelphia, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit all in the lower third of the list.  There are a few Sun Belt metros at or near the bottom, like Miami, Riverside/San Bernardino and Las Vegas, largely due to the exceptional hit and lagging recovery their economies have endured since the onset of the Great Recession.

My overriding thought while reading this?  It’s time for us to stop comparing apples and oranges.  Comparing economic momentum among metros in this manner is like comparing the physical capacity of young adults with that of middle age people.  They don’t measure up and they never will.

I’ve been working on a theory that metro areas are products of certain ages and exist within a variety of stages.  If you saw my so-called Big Theory on American Development, you’ll remember that I envisioned three development eras (Early Era, Industrial Era and Auto Era) since the founding of our nation, with each era made up of four development periods.  I see cities, and by extension metro areas, as being products of periods within an era.

I haven’t yet arrived on a definitive approach to identifying the “age” of a metro yet, but my guess is that the census year that a core city of a metro reaches about one-quarter to one-half of its peak population, the city has effectively set the tone for the surrounding area.  I think there’s a certain time at which, when land has been platted, subdivided and developed, the core city establishes the development precedent for the entire metro area.  Development types from subsequent eras and periods are certainly added, but they simply become part of the established milieu.

Relatedly, I see metro areas as existing within one of several stages, just as we humans go through childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle age and elder stages.  Even though I don’t believe they meant for it to be interpreted in this way, the Brookings Institution’s State of Metropolitan America from 2010 pointed out categories in a similar fashion.  Grouping metros as being either high or low in terms of their growth, diversity (as determined by foreign-born population) and educational attainment (as determined by the percentage of adult residents with a bachelor’s degree or more), Brookings identified seven metro area types.  You can see how they’re categorized below:

  Growth Diversity Educational Attainment
Next Frontier H H H
New Heartland H L H
Diverse Giant L H H
Border Growth H H L
Midsized Magnet H L L
Skilled Anchor L L H
Industrial Core L L L

You can probably envision how the metros fit within the categories.  Examples:

Next Frontier: Austin; Dallas; Washington, DC
New Heartland: Atlanta; Charlotte; Portland
Diverse Giant: New York; Los Angeles; Chicago
Border Growth: Las Vegas; Phoenix; San Antonio
Midsized Magnet: Jacksonville; Oklahoma City; Tampa/St. Pete
Skilled Anchor: Baltimore; Boston; Pittsburgh
Industrial Core: Buffalo; Cleveland; Detroit
I see metro areas as being dynamic places that have differing ages and differing places on the developmental spectrum, preventing us from accurately and adequately comparing them to each other.  Urbanists should be considering policy strategies that take into account these differences, rather than trying to enforce a singular model on all.

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