I recently moved to Memphis and, in a nutshell, I was brought here by the overall character of the city. I was curious how many other transplants were drawn here recently. Turns out, from 2000-2008, while the total population grew thanks to births and international migration, domestically, Memphis actually lost 2,176 people.


There are nearly endless different metrics you can use to judge a city, each one trying in some way to quantify a qualitative question: how “good” is the city? What causes people to move to a new place? Forbes attempts to measure this in their annual Best Places for Business and Careers list.

The wisdom that the metrics they focus on add up to a good place for business, or that being a good place for business makes a good city, can certainly be challenged. However what is true is that the cities doing better in these rankings are generally doing better at attracting new people. This chart shows the percentage along with the actual population growth (counting only domestic migration,) from 2000-2008, compared to the overall rankings in Forbes’ list.

smart city chart 1

Certainly not an exact correlation and this is a limited data set, but within the confines of this blog post, it is enough to prove a point. This isn’t a groundbreaking discovery; people here know that Memphis has serious problems. What we are trying to get at is how to take Memphis further – which problems should we focus on that will make the most impact? One way of assessing that is comparing the Forbes matrix of Memphis to those of these three competing cities. The chart below shows how these four cities stack up, with what I consider some of the major areas Memphis needs improvements in highlighted, followed by my brief reflections on the data.

smart city chart 2

The index highlights some of the problems we are all too familiar with in the Bluff City. We have a high crime rate, low educational attainment, slow job and income growth, and a very high percentage of subprime mortgages. We also have several advantages: a high number of accredited colleges, a low cost of living, and a good amount of culture and leisure. However, at least in this index, it is clear that our negatives are currently outweighing our positives.

When you look at all the data, you can see how the desirability of a city is part of a fluctuating picture. One or two bad things don’t write you off. For example, Little Rock has a similar crime rate to us, but it has a lower cost of living and a lower cost of doing business. It is likely that these factors have helped them achieve improved job and income growth rates. As a result, they are ranked 22nd and more importantly, they have attracted almost 30,000 domestic migrants (a 4.7% increase in population) to relocate there over the past 8 years at a time when Memphis has lost over 2,000.

Looking at Nashville is a little depressing: their cost of living is almost twice ours, but their cost of doing business is nearly half of ours. The cost of doing business is an index value based on cost of labor, office space, taxes, and energy. I wish I had the raw numbers to analyze this further, but taken at face value – how is Memphis supposed to attract a new business when the cost of doing business here is so far above all of the nearby regional competitors? Nationally we’re in the top half of the list, but regionally we are falling behind.

This is a big picture post, and the problems here are too big to neatly wrap up in a conclusion. In addition, there are obviously many other issues, such as the poverty rate and the condition of our public schools, but those are outside the direct scope of this study and are things that are contributing factors to some of the other metrics studied.

Bottom line, Memphis is an amazing, unique city that has much to offer, but we need to capitalize on it. We have problems, but it is never too late to improve upon them and you only need to look at cities like Charlotte and how fast they have grown (by nearly 75% since 1990) to see how quickly we can change our trajectory. We need to create a city where people want to be, and where businesses want to be. You might not be able to directly affect some of these factors, but if you believe in them you can join your voice with other concerned citizens to lobby those who can change them. More on this in a later post.