Wednesday, January 18, 2006

City identity and attracting educated youth

Steve recently pointed me to a potentially disturbing report by CEOs for Cities titled "The Young and Restless in the Knowledge Economy." The gist of the report is that educated 25-34 year olds are the long-term lifeblood of a city, because they usually don't move after that age, so if you can attract them during that time, you can probably keep them long-term. Conclusions from their executive summary:
  • Young educated people are the most mobile people in the U.S. population.
  • Young educated people are an indicator of a city's economic vitality, but they are also a key contributor to economic vitality.
  • People in the 25 to 34 year-old group are the most entrepreneurial in our society.
  • For the first time, women in this age group are better educated than men, making them key to developing a base of talent.
  • Place matters: young educated people are being disproportionately drawn to certain cities, and once in them, they are more likely to choose vibrant, close-in neighborhoods than other Americans.
Unfortunately, Houston does not seem to be a member of CEOs for Cities, so our data points in the report are pretty thin. On the surface, they're a little scary, showing that, while we are holding on to youth over all, our college attainment rate lags substantially behind most other cities. We're not alone - this trend is noted among most Sunbelt and immigrant cities. On further thought, I'm not sure the news is as bad as it seems, because it seems to penalize us for attracting non-educated youth. So, for a made-up example, if Austin attracts 10,000 college graduates and 10,000 non-college grads, and Houston attracts 30,000 college grads and 60,000 non-college grads, we look worse than Austin the way they calculate their stats on a percentage basis, even though we gained numerically more college grads. At least that's my interpretation of their statistics. Why is it bad to be an attractive city of opportunity to both college-grads and non-college-grads? An engine of social mobility for all, rather than exclusionary and elitist?

Another problem I have is simply the age of the data, which is based on changes between the 1990 and 2000 Census. That is way-old news - we've been through an Internet boom and bust since then (artificially pumping up all the tech city rankings in the report) - and recently inflated a massive housing price bubble on the East and West coasts which dramatically reduces the attractiveness of those cities to young people. As an example, Boston considers itself in crisis because it has such an incredibly rich higher education environment, but holds on to so few of them after graduation - with most fingers pointing at outrageous housing costs. When housing supply is constrained, a young single or married couple simply can't compete with a baby boomer in their peak earning years for housing.

One additional stat: about a third of our 25-34 population is Hispanic, 4th out of 50 top metros in the nation and substantially ahead of the 10% national average, but well behind San Antonio, LA, and Miami - and comparable to San Diego.

Although I consider the report a clear wake-up call that we need to do better on higher education rates, I am heartened by their final recommendations, which seem to fit Houston pretty well:
Competing for Talent
  1. Make people the focus of economic development
  2. Become a city where women and ethnically diverse young people can achieve their goals
  3. Openness and engagement are key to rooting talent in place (a Houston strength)
  4. Investing in higher education is important, but it won't solve the problem (must attract and retain or they will simply move elsewhere)
  5. Vibrant urban neighborhoods are an economic asset
  6. The economic importance of being different
I wonder if we're headed towards a world where cities recruit on college campuses senior year the same way companies do? A booth at the senior job fair where Houston promotes its amenities, employers, and neighborhoods? Could be pretty effective, especially at schools within about a day's drive (a good draw-zone for us). How about it, GHP?

I found the last couple of paragraphs, which elaborate on that sixth recommendation above, extremely inspirational:
Although we identified some common elements that were attractive to many well-educated young adults, we would not say that there is one single ideal community. An important element of authenticity is distinctiveness. We live in a nation (and a world, thanks to globalization) where culture has become increasingly homogenized, where one suburban community, strip mall, freeway exit looks exactly like every other. But a reaction is brewing, emerging from the ground up. Many people want choices and a sense of place that moves past the bland of the national brand.

The essence of this notion is that every community will have to find its own unique identity. Just as quality of life means different things to different people, so too does sense of place. We know tastes differ regarding climate. Many people will find the quality of life eroded by "bad"” weather. Some will think Minnesota too cold, Portland to wet or Phoenix too hot. Just as there are many dimensions of climate, there are many dimensions of community. No city can offer the best quality of life to everyone. The challenge is to find one's niche. The Twin Cities, for example, can'’t be cheaper than Mississippi, or sunnier than Phoenix or more aggressively entrepreneurial than Silicon Valley, but they can offer their own distinctive combination of attributes that a significant set of knowledge workers will find attractive. As Michael Porter reminds us, strategy is about being different: What do you choose to be or to offer that is different than others? (Porter, 1996) This notion stands in stark contrast to our traditional view of economic development, which has asked simply whether one place was cheaper than another. The challenge for every community is to decide what kind of place it wants to be.
On a superficial level to the temporary visitor, Houston may not seem very distinctive, but those who have been here longer know better. We have a lot of loyalty by locals, as evidenced in the Houston Area Survey. The lack of zoning alone creates an eclectic feel that is not found in a lot of other, more-controlled cities - not to mention a constant dynamic renewal that gives us an energetic atmosphere (and some of those vibrant, close-in neighborhoods cited above). We do have a distinct identity, although I think people sometimes have a hard time articulating it. I made my best attempt right here a couple days ago, summing up our friendliness, hospitality, entrepreneurial energy, minimal regulations (including no zoning), open-mindedness, diversity, affordability, social mobility, optimism, and charity as "Open City, USA" - or, for a little more detailed articulation/branding, "Texas' Open City of Global Opportunity." I think it's a distinctive identity we could really rally around to sell ourselves to businesses and talent around the world, not to mention building up our own local pride so we help sell ourselves to friends, relatives, and associates who live elsewhere.

How about it? Comments on our identity? Alternate proposals?


At 9:54 PM, January 18, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good post...

Regarding Houston's distinctiveness, it's funny but I too find myself saying that Houston (or at least the more central portion of Houston) is undoubtedly distinct, but yet it's subtle at times and as you say hard to articulate. Gee, that doesn't help with a marketing campaign, now does it?

An interesting sidebar discussion to your post is to follow the thread about women becoming the base of the 25-34 year old talent pool. I wonder what factors make a city more attractive to women. A few thoughts loaded with stereotypes: women hate to drive, so that doesn't bode well for cities too oriented towards cars. Yet women often end up running the household errands, and they'll not want to waste time on a bus or subway if a car is faster, if it's inconvenient, if it's uncomfortable, etc. Women are much more security conscious than men, so cities with crime issues will have problems attracting women. Women are community-oriented, so strong neighborhoods will be important. Women are also more environmentally-minded, so environmental quality is also an issue. They won't be as impressed by major league sports teams, but perhaps more impressed by cultural attractions, parks, festivals, etc.

So that's a mixed bag for Houston.

Anyone else have thoughts about this? Disagreements? Additions? Better insights?

At 11:25 PM, January 18, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The best way to figure out how to improve Houston is to find the commonalities between the best cities according to this ranking schema and compare it to our own.

Apparently the most desireable cities to live in are (in alpha order): Atlanta, Austin, Charlotte, Dallas, Portland, Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill.

So whatever these cities have in common (theyre not all college towns like I thought), and what makes it different than Houston (our educational achievement was in the bottom 5) is the difference.

At 8:03 AM, January 19, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

RJ: good points. All areas where Houston can improve. I think women also tend to be more aesthetically sensitive than men, which has been a weak point for Houston vs. Austin, Denver, Portland, Seattle, SF, San Diego, etc. I think we're making slow but steady progress there, certainly not expecting to reach the level of those cities, but at least not being so bad that we drive people away.

I think the Heights is our most young-female-appealing neighborhood - a small piece of Austin in the core of Houston.

That said, I think Houston will always be a city that is more appealing to men than women, which probably comes from our energy-industry cultural roots.

Anon: On your list. First, Dallas has the same problem as Houston with college attainment. They're good at attracting young people (similar to Houston), but lagging on college. I think some of Dallas' ranking might also be related to the telecomm tech boom there in the nineties that has since busted pretty hard.

The others are more mixed. Austin, Portland and RD are popular college towns. The best I think Houston can do there is keep pushing for UH to become a Tier 1 flagship school, with UCLA as their model.

Atlanta and Charlotte have become the regional college-grad magnets of the South. I think that might have more to do with the regional rise of the South than any particular characteristics of those two cities. Essentially, if you get a college degree in the southeastern US and are maximizing career opportunities while staying within a day's drive of your parents and extended family, you probably want to head to one of those cities.

At 8:16 AM, January 19, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am sorry, I must call bunk. The suggestion that 25-34 year olds move to a city because it is distinctive and THEN look for a job is largely backwards. They, like everyone else, look for a job, then live where the job is. They tend to stay because it is expensive and counterproductive to pull up stakes and move to another city, leaving their network behind.

Since most people get their first real jobs between 25-34, it only makes sense that the city that gets them their first job will likely keep them, assuming the economy of that city can support them.

Now, knowing that the cities with the JOBS gets the talent kids, it seems the more important demographic to attract is those that move the companies. The talent will follow. This older talent probably wants many of the same amenities as the younger talent, but to say that if we don't taylor our city to 25-34 year olds we're doomed is silly.

Besides, they make the same mistake everyone else does, by lumping a 10 year age group of million of young people together. How can you look at a group containing artists, stoners, anti-war activists and Young Republicans together and say they want the same things and live in the same places?

Houston and other cities will do well by striving to have a friendly business environment, while improving the quality of life for ALL of its citizens. The younger crowd is not demanding special treatment. That group is known as "Baby Boomers".

At 9:06 AM, January 19, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I mostly agree, although I do think young people take the appeal of different cities into account when choosing their first job offer to accept. And I think you'd be surprised these days by how many grads just pick a city and go, expecting to find a job when they get there (esp. non-science/engi majors). I think the primary criteria are job opportunities, friends, and family - particularly staying within half or one-day driving distance of the family (although maybe my personal data points are biased here).

Additionally, I think employers pick cities at least partially based on how easy it will be to attract talent to that city without having to throw massive amounts of money at them to lure them here (something that Austin certainly has).

There is a trend in our society towards a deeper experience of personal identity, which has gone beyond just "What do my clothes and car and home say about me as a person?" to "How does my city reinforce my identity?" Again, anybody who's spent any time in Austin can see this effect writ large - there's a reason it's the headquarters for Whole Foods. David Brooks is a very astute social observer, and has noted how people move to a city based on its identity/brand and reinforce its culture, so "Boulder becomes ever-more Boulder-ish" over time.

I think those priorities fade somewhat once somebody is married with kids as parenting becomes the primary identity - but, like the report says, you chooose your city well before you reach that stage of life.

At 11:20 AM, January 19, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

According to their website, the reason Whole Foods is headquartered in Austin is because it was founded there.

While I wholeheartedly agree that cities, especially Houston, should strive to make themselves worth living in, and there may be an ever so slight movement by younger adults toward a meaningful existence over an uber-consumer one, to suggest that young adults are drawn to or are driven from any city in large numbers due to a city's specific targeting of them is still more anecdotal than real.

If Houston continues on it's belated, but appreciated, attempts to clean the air, reinvigorate the inner core, and otherwise make it a city that locals enjoy living in, the young adults will not leave.

Many of these studies seem to leave out or diminish the most important element of the human existence...interaction with other humans. Houston may be well liked by Houstonians because we like each other. We are friendly. Combine that with a good job and a decent cost of living, and it may not be paradise, but it will do.

At 12:16 PM, January 19, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Well said.

And Whole Foods was successfully founded and grown from there because of the hyper-supportive culture of Austin. It may never have gotten beyond one or two stores if it had been founded in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, or many other cities.

At 6:06 PM, January 20, 2006, Blogger John Wagner said...


I don't doubt that young graduates are drawn to a more urban lifestyle because that's where the clubs, restaurants and other happenings are typically located.

But when these folks get married and start a family -- something many people do in their 20s and early 30s -- they immediately begin focusing on school choices, homeownership, safety and other suburban lifestyle benefits.

So while it may be important to have a strong inner-loop core for 20 somethings, it's also important to remember that Houston's affordable suburban housing and strong suburban school districts are critical to keeping them as 30-somethings.

At 9:36 PM, January 20, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Absolute agreement. I've made similar points in the past, inc. an editorial a few years back in the Chronicle. Here's a paragraph from that editorial:

"One last plug for Houston's cost of living and low-density advantage. To a young, single professional with plenty of disposable income, living in an expensive, high-density city with lots of other young singles can seem pretty attractive. But plenty of people lured down this path build a career and a personal network in that city, then get married and start a family -- eventually waking up one day to find themselves living in central New Jersey with a two-hour-plus train commute each day, just so they can live in an affordable home in a family-friendly neighborhood with good schools. Just like me in my 20s, I'm sure that marriage and a family are not even on the radar screen for many recent college grads, but those who stick it out and build a career in Houston may find the payoff well worth it in their 30s and beyond."

At 2:20 AM, January 21, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The thing is, the most rapidly growing young cities (Atlanta, Charlotte, Portland, Raleigh-Durham, Austin) all are outside the traditional urban centers and have affordable urban and suburban housing. Portland is the least affordable of these cities, but is probably the most affordable big city on the west coast.

So I think young people are already focusing on property ownership, which is why New South cities like Atlanta and Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham are flourishing. Plus, as these cities grow, the young people who purchased property will watch their investments in their property grow.

At 9:02 PM, January 21, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem I see with Houston's inner core and attracting recent grads is price. It is far cheaper to live in a safe neighborhood within a few miles of downtown Austin than Houston. How is a recent grad supposed to enjoy a $1800/mth apartment in midtown or $400K condo in Montrose? The trend for inner loop properties is double digit growth for years now.

Also, why don't we focus on making a city that WE like? Nothing attracts people to a place more than hearing their friends or family tell them how much they love where they live.


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