Friday, November 30, 2007

A Reply To Joel Kotkin

In the Wall Street Journal this week, Joel Kotkin once again seemed like a man with an opinion in search of a statistic. We normally disregard his trenchant complaints – although we have decided that Richard Florida must have poisoned his dog – but since he seemed to refer to our “Young and Restless” research and to Memphis as a place that has “danced to the tune of the hip and the cool, yet largely remain wallflowers in terms of economic and demographic growth,” it’s hard to stay quiet.

First off, if we’ve been in a dance, it’s been an awfully strange one. More often than not, Memphis barely acknowledges the factors that can attract and retain young professionals, much less try to get out on the floor with strategies to address what they want and need.

As we’ve often noted, it didn’t have to be this way, since Memphis was the pioneer in the talent issue that is now on every city’s agenda. It’s ironic that five years from the time that we applied Richard Florida’s research to Memphis – pre-publication of his incredibly popular book, Rise of the Creative Class – to produce the Memphis Talent Magnet Report, he’ll be back in town next week to talk to the Regional Chamber’s annual meeting.

The year after the Talent Magnet Report, Mr. Florida was back in Memphis to co-host with Carol Coletta the Memphis Manifesto Summit that she developed. More than 125 “creatives” from across the U.S. were involved in crafting a manifesto for cities wanting to attract them. The document has been widely used and is included in the paperback copies of Mr. Florida’s book.

The bad news is that we’re still listening to speeches and too little has been done, but the good news is that there is a heightened understanding of the importance of this issue, and better still, there’s a expanding cadre of young, active leaders who are anxious to have a say in shaping our city’s destiny.

While it’s tempting to wring our hands over five lost years which could have been used to put Memphis firmly on the forefront of this issue, it’s more productive for us to use Mr. Florida’s speech as a wake-up call for what we’ve now known for five years – to be competitive in the global economy, we have to produce, recruit and retain young talent.

But, back to Mr. Kotkin’s column in the Wall Street Journal this week, he was customarily dismissive of this emphasis on young professionals. Settling more and more intohis role as the Ozzie Nelson of urban commentators, he says that cities’ attention to young urban single professionals is misplaced, and success is about about families and the suburbs. Actually, we’re not aware of a city that’s checking marriage licenses at the door before clearing singles to enter, but he missed the point, as Carol Coletta points out in her blog at CEOs for Cities:

In his opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, "The Rise of Family-Friendly Cities," Joel Kotkin sets up an either/or set of economic development and lifestyle choices that simply doesn't exist.

Where, exactly, does Kotkin think these married couples he extols come from?

Hint: The median age of first marriage among all U.S. women is now 26, older for college-educated women. A typical young woman today spends at least five years after college, usually pursuing a career, before a first marriage. By the time she's in her late 20s or early 30s she -- and her partner--have typically put down roots in a particular metropolitan area.

The reason Raleigh and Charlotte score so well in gaining families is that they are the biggest gainers of younger, well-educated adults, particularly singles.
It is plainly a lot easier to hang on to the young adults who live in your city rather than recruiting them from other places. That's why cities should pay particular attention to young singles when they are at their most mobile and also build on their family friendliness as a way of retaining these talented and energetic people.

But does being family friendly require a fundamentally different set of urban attributes? Not really.

Schools certainly move up on the priority list. But in a national survey of college-educated 25 to 34 year-olds for CEOs for Cities, we found that the top five attributes they seek in cities are these: clean and attractive; opportunity to live the life I want to lead; safe; green; and availability of the type of housing I want at an affordable price. That sounds pretty family-friendly to me.

And does anyone really believe that one loses one's taste for latte when one starts pushing a stroller?

We can do a lot more to advance the discussion about the kind of community attributes that we all value - singles and married couples alike - without creating phony and divisive distinctions.

Family-friendly cities are not terribly different from other cities. Ask business and civic leaders around the nation what’s driving their concern about whether their city appeals to young people, and they will first tell you they are needed for the labor force. But what really worries many of them hits much closer to home. They worry their own kids won't return after college. Being family-friendly has a lot of surprising dimensions.


Brian J. Kelsey said...

Well said. While this whole Kotkin vs. Florida debate turned overblown long ago, it does bother me to see the term "family-friendly" making new inroads into the world of community and economic development. It's ridiculous enough to see it dominate national politics, but let's do what we can to limit its reach. I would really like to avoid the day when we'll be talking incentive policies for attracting Chuck E. Cheese.

Smart City Consulting said...

Good point, Brian, and given more clout by your expertise in the field.

irène said...

Great response. And,just a snarky remark to your rhetorical query about young parents and lattes? Tried to navigate the strollers at any cafe in the last few years? Yipes!

I, too, am more than a bit disturbed that something as vague as "family-friendly" is becoming an exclusive descriptor and that there are again people attempting to ghettoize those adults who have chosen not to have families from those that have; not to mention, the gross assumption that all families wish for a separate, suburban lifestyle.

Too much to get into now when I am barely awake, but the entire message is troubling on a larger scale than simple economic/community development.

Anonymous said...

i admit that i am not fully aware of the history of the debaters. the article in the journal is not in disagreement, in my opinion, but a challenge. i read that the mere luring of young, professionals is not enough to sustain a city, in this case city referring to (urban core) not the surrounding burbs. the real need (challenge) posed by the author is how do you retain these people inside the city - defined as the urban core. it seems that is the very same argument that i have read on this blog. i would tend to agree with the author of the journal editorial, if you are defining (city) as an urban core than it is only fair to measure the real growth of the urban core. let's say, memphis did an amazing job at recruiting the creative class, dream with me here, and those young people left for the suburbs when they hit the age of 33. would memphis the city (urban core) be any better than before the recruitment of the creative class? i would argue that this is what happens now. memphis has many young professionals in this age demographic but very few live in the city. i know the premise is the "creative class" is not solely defined by the age demographic but the editorial makes a good point. the "creative class" are still people with fears, prejudices and safety concerns. i think the author was pointing out the aforementioned concerns as the reasons people leave for the burbs. noone, "creative class" or other wants to be a part of a social experiment with their children. if we want to attract people to the urban core then we need to provide all of the services that go along with healthy communities, not just greenways and bike trails.