It’s hard to believe that there was a time 35 years ago that there were some pundits and columnists who predicted that with the rise of technology, places would come to matter less and less.

And yet, just the opposite has happened, and today, place is a major driver of economic growth, because it is a prime influencer for where 25-34 year-old, college-educated people decide to live.  As Carol Coletta and Joe Cortright have shown in their work, 64% of the men and women in this demographic say they first choose the place where they want to live and then they look for a job.

There had been a foreshadowing in 1979 by MIT Professor David L. Birch who was focused on the big changes taking place in U.S. cities.  He pioneered research to determine where jobs were locating and why, but he also concluded (we should have been listening more closely at the time) that the key to economic success was no longer low labor and material costs, because quality matters and high-innovation firms locate in an environment that creative and highly educated people find attractive.

As a result, he predicted that high cost areas like San Francisco, Denver, Dallas, Boston, and Atlanta would prosper because their competitive advantage was brains, not land or raw material.

The Perfect Place

Prophecy has become reality.  Today, people don’t follow jobs.  Jobs follow people.  And jobs are strongly following college-educated workforces and the trend is accelerating so much that the country is on the brink of dividing its cities into winners and losers.

So, when we talk about place in this context, what kind of place should we be talking about?

We should be talking about a place known for its high quality of life.  A place where its WalkScore means more than the score of its sports teams.  A place with a vibrant downtown core and flourishing close-in neighborhoods.   A place with density, that’s walkable and bikable, with access to effective public transit.  A place known for peak experiences and street life. A place that is mixed use and mixed income, and a place that is clean, green, safe, and receptive to different kinds of people, lifestyles, and sexual orientations and identities.

For young adults, the most important places more and more are within three miles of downtown.  In fact, as Mr. Cortright’s research shows, college-educated young adults are more than twice as likely to have a preference for living in these close-in neighborhoods than other Americans.  And it is a preference gaining steam.

A City’s Greatness Is About People

The good news is that progress improving place is all around us – Shelby Farms Park is becoming America’s great 21st century park; Overton Square is booming again; Overton Park is being renewed; Tennessee Brewery, against all odds, is being converted into residential, commercial and retail space; Central Station will become a new hotel, apartment, and movie theater; Crosstown Concourse will anchor a neighborhood reboot; St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is embarking on a $2 billion expansion and will spark the rebirth of the Pinch Historic District; the $40 million Main to Main project will add bike/ped lanes to Harahan Bridge connecting downtown to Arkansas; Graceland is making a $132 million investment; Shelby Farms Greenline is expanding and with the Wolf River Greenway and the Greenprinting plan, will create a one-of-a-kind outdoor asset; and that’s not even mentioning Bass Pro Shops, International Paper’s new tower, and University of Memphis and University of Tennessee Medical District expansions.

In other words, there is an awful lot going on that is creating momentum that we haven’t seen in 20 years.  It’s making this a better place, and this couldn’t happen at a better time, because good places attract and keep good talent.  Ultimately, the test will be whether we can connect the marquee projects in ways that improve the neighborhoods between them.

In the end, great cities aren’t about how high the buildings are or just how much construction is under way.  Great cities are about how they treat the people who live there, and how living in those cities improve their lives. It’s about opportunity, neighborhoods that are magnets for new residents, public services like transit that advance and open up options, quality schools that are levers for successful lives, and public spaces that bring people together and cement the spirit of community.

Opportunity Denied

Most of all, great cities are places characterized by social mobility.  Among the 50 largest ­­­­metro areas, we are last in social mobility, which means that too many Memphis children are born into poverty with a birthright to remain there.  Here’s the bad news: a child born into the bottom fifth in income in the Memphis area has only a 2.6% chance of rising to the top fifth in income.

If we ever needed a wake-up call about this issue, we should have gotten it with a New York Times article May 4, 2015, which said Shelby County is “very bad” for  children in poor families and suggested it would be better if they lived in DeSoto County.  “Shelby County is very bad for income mobility for children in poor families,” the article said.  “It is better than only 9% of (all American) counties…Every year a poor child spends in DeSoto County adds about $30 to his or her annual household income at age 26, compared with a childhood spent in the average American county…Not only that, the younger you are when you move to DeSoto, the better you will do on average.  Children who move at earlier ages are less likely to become single parents, more likely to go to college, and more likely to earn more.”

Simply put, this is economically – and morally – untenable.  Because of it, while we have to be dead serious about getting more people to choose Memphis, we have to be equally serious about improving the circumstances for every person who lives here.  They are in fact two sides of the same coin.

That’s why when we talk about talent and quality of place, we can’t be talking about certain people who live in a certain part of the city and region.  We have to be talking about every person in every neighborhood, because personal opportunity denied is regional potential squandered.

Rising To The Occasion

Our region’s leaders proved in the Greenprinting planning process spearheaded capably by Paul Young that we can work together.  Now, the task is to pivot with the same depth of regional cooperation to deal with the inequality that is the single greatest barrier to our economic future.

Just think, if the income disparity in this region could be closed, it would be a $21 billion boost to the gross domestic product.   In other words, breaking the link between race and poverty matters to every major region in the U.S., but it especially matters here.

For the past three years, a majority of all babies born in the U.S. were children of color, and 14 years from now, a majority of the workforce will be as well.  By 2044, the U.S. population will be majority of people of color, and by 2040, the Memphis region will be 66.1%.

Clearly, no place has more reason to honestly face these disparity issues and embrace fully the opportunity to become the laboratory for America’s urban future than our region.  After all, while other regions have been moving toward the diversity that will define the entire nation in 25 years, our region has been there for years.

Getting On The Hot List

Real, sustained progress takes courage, collaboration, and commitment, and most of all, it takes a willingness to treat our diversity as a strategic asset and leverage it to our advantage.  It requires an ability to see the future as more than a mere extension of the present or economic growth as merely an amplification of what has gone before.   It also requires doing things differently and pursuing a clear, ambitious vision backed by new ideas and new resolve to achieve it.  Most of all, it is about ending the bragging about being a low-cost community, because in the end, you get what you pay for and it’s generally not a more skilled workforce.

The indicators for success would be in greater opportunity for our children and a larger percentage of our population that is college-educated millennials and gen xers.   They are the gold standard for fast-growing companies and the dream team for cities looking to attract new jobs and growth.  In truth, opportunity and talent are opposite sides of the same coin.

If perception is reality, the Memphis region doesn’t exist for many of the young adults we covet across the U.S.  We lack a national perception of vibrancy and a high quality of life that gets us on the list of “hot” cities to be considered for relocation.   Polling suggests that our strengths for millennials and gen xers are individuality, community, creativity, authenticity, affordability, generosity, energy, and accessibility, and experience suggests that once we get people here, we have a good chance of them staying.

That said, our economy’s reliance on blue-collar jobs and its image as a distribution center does little to attract and keep the kinds of workers we need to compete for jobs of the future.  Jobs that attract millennials and gen xers are high-tech and high-status and entrepreneurial.  All of this is why the branding initiative is so important to our future as well as Russ Williams’ concept for a compact downtown creative district, the “Summer of Acceleration launched by EPIcenter and Start Co., and the work of ZeroTo510, Creative Works, undercurrent, and more.

These are two’fers, because they not only create jobs but they reposition Memphis nationally in new, vital ways.

Yes, They Do Matter That Much

Today, all of the people in the 25-34 year-old demographic group today are millennials and that will remain the case for the next 10 years.  In other words, they are about to drive everything in their path in a way not seen since Baby Boomers. Some people may already be tired of hearing about them, but Memphis has a window to attract and retain them and whether we are successful will prove crucial to our competitiveness.

That’s why our obsessive competition within the region is distracting and self-destructive.  The barriers to economic progress are structural and they demand serious, determined, and comprehensive responses.  As we have written before, regionalism has not served Memphis well in the past.  Memphis routinely gave more than it got. But the fact remains: challenges facing Memphis are the same facing the region, and fighting with each other only diverts our attention from the factors that matter most: talent, place, and opportunity.

To quote the dictum, we need to think regionally and act locally.  That especially means that Memphis needs to capitalize on its own distinctiveness and to invest in it to grow a skilled workforce and attract new workers higher paying and higher skilled jobs.

While most major economic indicators for the Memphis region languish toward the bottom, it’s worth remembering that the GDP of the Memphis MSA is larger than 11 states and at least 21 countries.  As long as we are competing with each other or see the region as “we versus they,” we are taking our eyes off the ball.  The battle is not between Shelby County and North Mississippi.  It is between the Memphis MSA and regions around the world.

Admitting Defeat?

The essence of our challenge is to make sure the reality of Memphis matches up with its resonance.  All of this underscores the importance of a strong, prominent, appealing brand, one anchored more on green and growth than on grit and grind.

If we are not up to the challenge, we need to wring our hands and admit that we are prepared to live in a community that is perpetually struggling for jobs and growth, or worse, we are prepared to manage a region in decline.

Here’s the thing: no future of any city is written in stone, and that includes Memphis.  But there is much to do and so little time to do it.

We are encouraged today by men and women between 20 and 40 who are making so much happen in Memphis today.  What we like most is that they ask no one for permission, they don’t wait for approval, they express their opinions honestly, and they offer others the opportunity to join them.

This is the most exciting story line in the Memphis region today, but more to the point, it is also the most important place-making development in recent history.  In a sentence, these young adults have set out to create the place in which you want to live.  The outstanding question for the rest of us is how can we help them succeed.


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