Triumph of the city: the data

As we explored in my last post, Edward Glaeser in his terrific new book, Triumph of the City, compellingly makes the case that vibrant central cities that anchor big metros are the geographic engines of economic growth across the planet, not just here in the US. They are the most productive places and the places where the innovations that create the future happen.

But as Glaeser makes clear it is not all central cities. The ones that drive the economy are what he calls smart cities. Places where college educated adults concentrate. The book includes a chapter called Why Do Cities Decline? which features Detroit. In it he compares Detroit’s decline over the past four decades to New York City’s stunning revival.  As he writes:

Cities thrive when they have many small firms and skilled citizens. … Detroit’s twentieth-century growth brought hundreds of thousands of less-well-educated workers in vast factories, which became fortresses apart from the city and world. While industrial diversity, entrepreneurship, and education lead to innovation, the Detroit model led to urban decline. The age of the industrial city is over, at least in the West.

Consistent with Glaeser’s work, Don Grimes and I have found in our research that one of the core characteristics of almost all prosperous states is a big metropolitan area anchored by a central city with a high proportion of its residents with a four year degree. In 2009 for the 12 metros of one million or more with the highest per capita income, the central city college attainment rates are:

  • San Jose: 35.7%
  • Washington DC: 48.5%
  • New York: 34.0%
  • Hartford: 12.3%
  • Boston: 44.7%
  • Seattle: 56.0%
  • Houston: 40.8%
  • San Diego: 41.3%
  • Denver: 40.4%
  • Philadelphia: 23.2%
  • Minneapolis: 42.4%
  • Chicago: 33.1%
The national college attainment rate is 27.9%. Clearly Hartford, and to a lesser degree Philadelphia, are exceptions to the pattern. San Francisco, which is part of the San Jose metro, has a college attainment rate of 52.0% The city of Pittsburgh – which anchors the model big metro that is successfully transitioning from a factory-based to a knowledge-based economy – has a college attainment rate of 32.6%. Detroit by comparison is 12.4%.

As we demonstrated in our Young Talent in the Great Lakes report having a central city that is an attractive place for college educated adults to live is a terrific asset in creating high prosperity metros and states. It is a lesson we are having a hard time in Michigan learning. But it is a lesson we need to learn quickly: Michigan’s future prosperity will be greatly enhanced by a vibrant Detroit and to a lesser degree Grand Rapids and Lansing. Vibrant central cities matter!

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