Whether tech companies and their workers actually do better in and prefer cities

A recent Chicago Tribune article echoed a theme I have now seen numerous times: companies must have downtown campuses to compete for tech workers.

To lure data scientists and other tech workers, companies in industries from fast food to insurance have opened outposts in the heart of the city, where tech employees want to work. Having hip, downtown spaces has proved worth the extra cost to suburban companies, even as rents have increased…

When suburban companies first started catching on to millennials’ desire to live and work in the city, managers had a new culture to learn, Reaumond said. Employees in the downtown innovation hubs didn’t want to be chained to desks 10 hours a day…

Tech-focused downtown spaces feel different than their suburban counterparts, and that’s how it should be, Arity President Gary Hallgren said. Allstate’s Northbrook campus has a barber, a pharmacy and a doctor, but the Merchandise Mart space isn’t trying to be a campus, Hallgren said. Its goals and culture are different, and the space is too. Arity’s office has a pingpong table and the same fizzy water dispenser featured in the HBO show “Silicon Valley.” It hosts meetups that draw tech workers from outside the company.

The underlying premise in these articles is that tech workers prefer to be in urban settings. However, I do not believe I have seen much data that measures this claim. When Americans as a whole are asked where they prefer to live, they tend to say either small towns or suburbs.

If tech workers do tend to prefer urban settings, is this due to the work itself actually going better in cities (higher productivity, more innovation, more efficiency, etc.) or other factors? For example, these stories often do not distinguish between the work activities of these firms and the age (younger) and generation (millennials) of the featured tech workers. Will the tech workers of today be the suburban parents of ten years from now? There is evidence that cities are innovation centers (see the scaling effects of patent production chronicled in Geoffrey West’s Scale) yet tech innovation is possible in the suburban office park (see the Route 128 area outside Boston, Silicon Valley around San Jose, and Bell Labs research centers in suburbia after World War Two).

And while this is often pitted as an either/or issue – tech firms must be in the big cities or must be elsewhere – I suspect there could be some benefits to each as well as some mixing of locations.

True for Chicago and elsewhere: “cities don’t just crop up in random places”

At Instapundit, Gail Heriot explains how Chicago came to be:

FATHER JACQUES MARQUETTE AND LOUIS JOLLIET: On this day in 1673, a 35-year-old Jesuit priest and a 27-year-old fur trader began their exploration of Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River, leaving from St. Ignace at the north end of Lake Michigan. From there, they went up the Fox River and then overland (carrying their canoes) to the Wisconsin River, which took them to the Mississippi River. Out of fear of running into the Spanish, they turned back at the Arkansas River. By then, they had confirmed that the Mississippi does indeed run to the Gulf of Mexico.

The route back was different. And this becomes important to the history of the country and especially of the City of Chicago: Friendly Native Americans told them that if they go up the Illinois River and the Des Plaines, rather than the Wisconsin, it would make the trip easier. That’s because the portage distance from the Mississippi watershed and the Great Lakes watershed was shortest there. The Chicago River, which dumped into Lake Michigan was only a short distance away.

If you’ve ever wondered why Chicago grew into a major city so quickly, this is why: Location, location, location.  In the modern world it’s easy to miss how much topographical issues like that mattered (and in different ways continue to matter).  But cities don’t just crop up in random places.

The locations of major population centers may seem fairly obvious now: a large population has been there for a long time and the city by its own large inertia continues to draw more people. This may be particularly true for cities outside of North America where there may be centuries or millennia of accumulated settlement.

Yet, looking at the founding of major cities in the United States often shows that there are located at places that provided major transportation advantages for people of that time. Even though this might be less obvious now since we do not think much about sea travel and shipping, a number of major coastal cities have protected ports. Inland, many cities are located on key bodies of water, primarily rivers. Even more recently, communities developed around railroad junctions and highway intersections where a lot of traffic converged.
Perhaps in a “perfect world,” major cities would be spread out at fairly even intervals. But, development does not typically work this way: it often follows earlier transportation links or patterns of development.

Walkable + suburban = desirable “surban” places

Homebuyers may still desire to live in the suburbs but they now may want a different kind of suburbia: a walkable, denser, vibrant place.

No longer are McMansions, white picket fences and sprawling square footage topping suburban buyers’ most-wanted list. Instead, proximity to a suburb’s downtown and easy access to restaurants, schools and parks are priorities. For many, walkable suburbs reign supreme…

The shift toward more walkable suburbs started over the past two decades, thanks to planning efforts concentrated on creating mini-downtowns to revive traditional suburban centers, said Kheir Al-Kodmany, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs…

A 2017 study by the National Association of Realtors found that walkers span the generations. Sixty-two percent of millennials and 55 percent of those born before 1944 prefer walkable communities and brief commutes, even if it means living in an apartment or town home. And 53 percent of Americans would give up a home with a large yard in exchange for a home with a smaller yard that’s within walking distance of the community’s amenities, according to the study. That figure is up from 48 percent in 2015…

A 2016 study from realty site Redfin seems to support Dunne’s point. The study took into account more than 1 million home sales between January 2014 and April 2016 and found that homes with higher walk scores tend to have higher sales prices than comparable homes in less walkable areas. One walk score point can increase a home’s price by an average of $3,250. In Chicago, the study found an increase of one walk score point can bump a home’s price by $2,437.

I intentionally cited the broader data from the article (and not just the anecdotes from buyers, realtors, and local suburbs) because there should be an open question involved with this article: do we have a certified trend toward more walkable suburbs? Do we have clear population data showing people moving to walkable suburbs rather than other places? For a variety of reasons, including enhancing local tax bases and environmental concerns, this has indeed been an emphasis in a number of suburbs across the United States in recent decades. But, I would also guess that it is primarily in suburbs that have more traditional downtowns and mass transit options. In the Chicago region, this means the “surban” experience is easier to create in communities founded before World War II and along the major passenger railroad lines.

This possible shift also does not fit easily into the common narrative that suburbs and cities are locked in mortal combat and there are clear winners and losers. What if in the long term Americans want some of both city and suburban life: a little less density, a single-family home with a yard, a smaller town or city where they feel they can influence local government or organizations if need be, and also walkable and not just a bedroom suburb? Arguably, this tension has been behind the American suburbs for over a century: Americans want a mix of urban and country life. A denser suburbia may just be the newest manifestation of this ongoing balance.

Does it matter if Roseanne is set in a real place?

After thinking about whether Roseanne is set in Elgin, Illinois and the inconsistencies of the show’s location, I arrived at a broader question: does a fictional television show really need a location? And a second question follows: does it serve the writers or the viewers better to have a clear location?

To answer the first question, I think the answer is no. As noted in the earlier posts, much of the action in television dramas and sitcoms takes place among a limited number of characters in a limited number of locations. In some shows, the characters hardly ever leave their residence or work. In other shows, character are out and about more but they are often in generic locations that may signal something about a particular city – skyscrapers! lots of traffic! – but do not necessarily depend on a particular location. Think Friends: they are clearly in New York City yet the unique daily life of the city rarely is part of the plot (perhaps outside of the ongoing question of how people with those kinds of jobs can afford apartments like that). Could the show easily be set in Seattle or London or Houston without substantially altering the key relationships between characters and the narrative arcs? Many shows just need enough information to slot into a typical narrative that fits a location: the big city story, the suburban life, small town doings, etc.

To the second question, I think both the writers and viewers could be served well with some idea of where the show is taking place even as this geographic identity may mean little for the show. Our everyday lives are highly impacted by the spaces in which we operate, even if critics would argue suburbanization has rendered all the American suburbs the same or globalization has homogenized experiences within and across cultures. It might be hard to truly invest in a story or narrative arc if it literally could take place anywhere. Having a recognizable place or name at least gives people something to work with in their imaginations, even if the shows do not fully explore their geographic context. The small nods to geography can also serve to help differentiate shows from each other: the New York version is slightly different compared to the Los Angeles or the Chicago version. (Again, we usually do not get a broad palette of American locations but rather easily identifiable locations.) If anything, the restricted number of possible locations helps studios who can make backlots look like many places. (And you can see this on studio tours: we took a tour a few years ago of Warner Bros. where the set for Gilmore Girls, small town Connecticut, Desperate Housewives, suburban everywhere, and the big city were all a short distance from each other. And once you have viewed these sets up close, you see them all over in commercials, shows, and films.)

Coming back to Roseanne: I do not think it really matters that it is modeled on Elgin, Illinois or uses an exterior shot of a home from Evansville, Indiana. It could easily be set outside of Milwaukee, Cleveland, Buffalo, and dozens of other locations where working-class Americans live. Having a rough approximation of a location outside of Chicago may have helped writers and viewers place the show but it is not terribly consequential for the themes of the show or the characters.

 

The geographic inconsistencies of Roseanne and the placelessness of TV shows

Roseanne may be based on Elgin, Illinois but the show draws on various locations in Illinois and Indiana:

“Roseanne” is filmed on a studio lot in Los Angeles, but is set in the fictional Illinois town of Lanford. Where in Illinois is Lanford supposed to be? Some conflicting clues about the town’s location are sprinkled throughout the series, which originally aired from 1988-97.

Consider Season 1, Episode 20. Amid fierce winds, Dan Conner turns on the radio for the weather report: “As of 5 p.m. Central Standard Time, a tornado watch is in effect for Fulton County.” Darlene Conner bursts into the room: “Hey, that’s us!” In real life, Fulton County is west of Peoria.

Now Season 8, Episode 7. While in the car with her sister, Roseanne Conner suggests going to “that big outlet mall up in Elgin.” Jackie Harris sniffs, “Elgin? That’s an hour away.”

A representative for the ABC network, which aired “Roseanne” in the ’90s and will air the new season starting March 27, said Elgin is used as the reference for Lanford, both geographically and demographically…

The exterior of the Conner home is also not an authentic representation of Illinois. The series features shots of a house in Evansville, Ind., about 325 miles away from Elgin.

Geographic inconsistencies are not unknown in Hollywood. Television shows use various devices – verbal suggestions, establishing shots and some exterior images, fandom for local sports teams, architecture, attempts at accents or local eccentricities – to suggest a location but rarely pinpoint a real life location or community. What we see is more of a pastiche of a location. Most of the action takes place inside in interior settings or generic outdoor settings that could be anywhere. The shows want to both hint at a particular place and be generic enough to appeal to a broad audience. Roseanne may claim to be about Elgin, Illinois but it has to roughly match hundreds of working-class locations (or match perceptions of working-class places) across the United States.

More broadly, this suggests television shows may be more or less explicitly attached to particular cities and locations (crime shows often are) and yet they often exist in a placeless world much of the time. If anything, the biggest cities in the United States – New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago – are the most depicted on television while other cities or smaller communities are anonymized. But, even these big cities are not really the focus of the action; the characters swoop in and around recognizable locations while certain parts of cities or everyday urban life never are on the screen. This is depicted effectively on The Simpsons where the location of Springfield is not clear, the city itself and its surrounding area can change according to the whims of the writers, and the action ranges from the mundane to the absurd.

Five variables to determine “The Best Cities for Living the American Dream”

SmartAsset released their 2018 rankings for “The Best Cities for Living the American Dream.” Here are the top cities and the factors they used to develop the rankings:

Best Cities for Living the American Dream

Diversity score. To create this statistic, we looked at the population percentage of different racial and ethnic groups in each city. A lower number represents more diversity. Data comes from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 1-year American Community Survey.

Economic mobility. This metric looks at generational change in economic position for families. A higher number shows greater mobility. Data comes from The Equality of Opportunity Project.

Homeownership rate. This is the percent of households who own their home. Data comes from the Census Bureau’s 2016 1-year American Community Survey.

Home value. This is the median home value in every city. For this study, a lower home value is considered better as we use it as a measure of affordability. Data comes from the Census Bureau’s 1-year American Community Survey.

Unemployment rate. This is the unemployment rate by county. Data comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and is for January 2018.

Several quick thoughts:

  1. The five measures seem to make sense. You could quibble with different aspects, such as measuring the unemployment rate at the county level rather than the city or metropolitan region.
  2. What would make sense to add to this list of five measures? There is no measure of educational achievement on this list and it might be interesting to consider the foreign-born population in each place (particularly since the foreign-born population is at a high in American history). Do lower taxes matter?
  3. The list is skewed away from two areas: (a) the East and West coasts and (b) the biggest American cities. I would imagine the coastal cities have difficulty with home values. However, it is less obvious to me why the biggest cities, particularly those in the South and Midwest, do not make the top of these rankings.
  4. How many Americans would give up where they currently live to move to one of these places that supposedly offers a better chance at finding the American Dream? Some experts suggest Americans should simply go where there are opportunities, whether these are jobs, cheaper housing, or less taxes. Yet, it is not necessarily easy to just pick and go, particularly to places like these that might not be very well known. (And, it could also be the case that a large influx of people to each of these top-ranked locations would influence these places.)

City vs. suburbs in Nashville transit vote

An ambitious transit plan in the Nashville metropolitan area was roundly defeated by voters:

Had it passed, Let’s Move Nashville—the boldest municipal transit plan in recent memory—would have launched five light-rail lines, one downtown tunnel, four bus rapid transit lines, four new crosstown buses, and more than a dozen transit centers around the city. Depending on how you do the math, the scheme would have cost $5.4 billion or more like $9 billion, funded by a raft of boosted local taxes. More than 44,000 voters across Metro Nashville’s Davidson County came out in favor of the referendum, with more than 79,000 voting against it…

That’s a simplified version of the city’s politics, of course; while the vote fell broadly along urbanite versus suburbanite lines, a map reflecting the vote tally, and not just the vote result, would look more purplish. But not all that purplish. In the end, a vision for transforming transit in Nashville could not transform the politics of the city.

“There were a host of reasons [the proposal failed], like the cost ($9 billion), the scale (20 plus miles of light rail), the funding source (sales tax increase) and the financing structure (a decade of interest-only payments),” writes Emily Evans, managing director for healthcare policy for Hedgeye Potomac Research, in an email. Evans previously worked as a municipal financial analyst and served on the Nashville City Council for nine years.

A complicated plan like this has a lot of moving parts that voters could either support or vote against. At the same time, it can be a difficult sell for those outside the city core or in the suburbs to support mass transit plans that (1) they feel are not as necessary since they are able to drive where they need to go and (2) that might bring new people to their neighborhoods. When given a choice and their own personal resources, many Americans would prefer not to use mass transit, particularly if they would have to pay more for something they do not perceive helping them.

I would suggest this gets back to larger issues of whether regions really want to work together. Can cities and suburbs both thrive due to joint projects and shared resources? Or, is this a zero-sum game where resources can taken from one area and given to another in the same region is seen as a loss? The voters of Nashville remain to be convinced that mass transit is a big enough boon for themselves, let alone everyone.