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Are workers ready to flee big cities? It’s not that simple. – Seattle Times

In the news lately: Some superstar cities and metropolitan areas are losing population. Unfortunately for fans of longtime local newspaper columnist Emmett Watson’s “Lesser Seattle,” the Emerald City is not one of them.

A Bloomberg analysis of census data found that last year an average of 277 people were leaving Greater New York City every day; 201 departing Los Angeles; and 161 leaving Chicago in the rearview mirror. (At least part of this is a result of fewer immigrants arriving, partly driven by the policies of the Trump administration.)

The Wall Street Journal headlined its story, “Workers are fleeing big cities for smaller ones — and taking their jobs with them.”

It profiled a health-care IT worker who left LA for a suburb of Boise. She “joined a group of workers fueling a renaissance in U.S. cities that lie outside the major job hubs. People who do their jobs from home, freelance or constantly travel for work are migrating away from expensive urban centers such as Los Angeles and San Francisco toward cheaper cities including Boise; Denver; Austin, Texas; and Portland, Ore., according to economists and local residents.”

The New York Times reported, “Superstar cities, the nation’s economic powerhouses, hotbeds of opportunity at the cutting edge of technological progress, are losing people to other parts of the country.” It even claimed that King County lost 4,868 people from 2017 to 2018 (a decline I don’t find in the census report).

If demographics and economics were simple comic-strip morality, some might be tempted to see this as payback for the “back to the city movement,” which has made some of the most coveted places also the most expensive, along with rising urban challenges. That “winner take all urbanism,” as urban scholar Richard Florida calls it, is facing its comeuppance.

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We’ll see. The data are based on the year ending in July 2018 and it’s too soon to extrapolate them into a trend. As the accompanying chart shows, the view from 2010 through the middle of this past year shows a continued renaissance in many cities.

(And I’m measuring cities — metro areas, especially ones as mammoth as New York or LA, are heavily suburbanized, so movement from the city itself doesn’t necessarily mean a turn from cities; many of those residents already want a single-family house lifestyle).

During those years from the start of the decade, the city of Seattle saw an astounding 22.4% increase, especially for a land area of only 84 square miles. Phoenix, by contrast, grew by nearly 15% — but in 517 square miles.

Cities in the Northwest did well, especially Portland. But so did some of the priciest cities, including San Francisco and San Diego. The losers were the same urban tragedies that have played out for decades, such as Detroit, St. Louis and Cleveland.

If an inflection point has indeed been reached, it’s yet to benefit those loser cities and scores more like them.

We should all be fortunate enough to get to “flee” to Denver, which has a roaring economy, high quality of life and wonderful downtown. Dayton, Ohio, not so much. The home of the Wright brothers has fallen from 262,000 people in 1960 to around 141,000 last year.

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As for housing affordability, this is a complex issue best addressed in another column. But it’s a challenge nationwide, not just in superstar cities.

And workers who can work remotely, as profiled in the Journal story, are a small slice of the overall workforce — hardly representative of an exodus.

It would be healthy if Americans resumed their historic mobility, moving to places that offer better opportunity. Such relocations have been at historic lows for years, and one year’s census estimates don’t prove that the situation has changed. At least not yet.

Population growth is a crude measure of economic health. Sure, it likely means a larger tax base. But it also brings costs, such as infrastructure, and externalities such as more pollution and farmland lost to sprawl.

This is a particular problem in Sun Belt cities with high resistance to taxes or development-impact fees. They typically underinvest in such economic engines as universities and often lack major headquarters, real downtowns, “cool” neighborhoods, world-class cultural institutions, economic diversity and transit. (Exceptions are Dallas and Houston, which are doing well far beyond population growth).

Happy is the city that sees growth in high-paying jobs, college graduates, startups, major headquarters, diverse sectors that support middle-wage jobs, transportation options, and other measures of quality.

Seattle’s dilemma remains that it is “inexpensive” compared to Silicon Valley, yet it offers the amenities that attract top talent. Thus, high-end operations from the likes of Apple, Google and Facebook continue to grow here. They might put data centers in flyover country — taking millions in tax incentives in exchange for relatively few long-term jobs — but not the headwaters of the technology economy.

That cost differential also benefits a few other winner cities such as Austin and Denver, but not Dayton, St. Louis, Cleveland, Detroit, etc.

“The decade’s recession-shadowed main theme has been concentration and winner-take-most with population too,” Mark Muro, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Studies Program, told me. “But now, as usually happens late in the business cycle, movement is up and people are spreading out — within metros into sprawl, but also into new regions.”

How far will such an expansion spread and would it continue in a recession? We’re likely to find out in the near future.

But what the numbers don’t show is any end to the rise of quality cities. And the superstars will continue to shine, for better and worse.

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