Friday, July 08, 2011

Nashville's ranking is suited to donut suburbia outside Nashville

The reason the news media keeps heaping various rankings on our brains is that they get promoted. Whether it's due to the innate human penchant for ordering and serializing or because of some ingrained competitive need we have for comparing and contrasting self to others, the demand for "best of" and "worst of" lists is real. Thus, the media keeps up the onslaught. And large segments of their audience pass it on as gospel truth, even when warned about taking rankings with a grain of salt.

Hence, the latest rankings putting Nashville high on the list of the "next big boom towns" is getting a lot of play in the local news media and with the candidates running for office:

Perhaps less expected is the No. 3 ranking for Nashville, Tenn. The country music capital, with its low housing prices and pro-business environment, has experienced rapid growth in educated migrants, where it ranks an impressive fourth in terms of percentage growth. New ethnic groups, such as Latinos and Asians, have doubled in size over the past decade.

Two advantages Nashville and other rising Southern cities like No. 8 Charlotte, N.C., possess are a mild climate and smaller scale. Even with population growth, they do not suffer the persistent transportation bottlenecks that strangle the older growth hubs. At the same time, these cities are building the infrastructure — roads, cultural institutions and airports — critical to future growth.

Several curiosities stand out in the narrative written by Joel Kotkin. The rise of new ethnic groups is not one of them. Robust community development depends more on diversity than on the built environment or industrial expansion.

However, given that Middle Tennessee has been in housing market doldrums for consecutive months, are low prices due to low demand or our growth-oriented environment with a partiality to developers? I don't see how the potential boom is legitimate if prices are dropping with demand. And, "a mild climate"? Really? Given the last few years of droughts, floods, and tornadoes? The climate here seems to me more extreme than mild.

The claim about the lack of "persistent bottlenecks" on roads and highways is puzzling as well. Anyone who has tried to drive into or out of Green Hills has experienced the Hillsboro Road bottleneck. Whenever I drive surface roads crossing inner loop interstates in North Nashville and East Nashville weekday afternoons & evenings I see bumper-to-bumper traffic either below me or above me on the highway. Where did the writers of these rankings get their data on Nashville's bottlenecks? This particular finding sounds like it assumes the premise that if you build more lanes on more roads for more cars, traffic jams will dissipate. That is a suburban myth. Building bigger roads attracts more cars and produces more bottlenecks.

It bears noting that Forbes' pitch man for this ranking is Kotkin, a well-known apologist for suburban development. Here is an example of Kotkin in action elsewhere:

the Obama administration seems almost willfully city-centric. Few top appointees have come from either red states or suburbs; the top echelons of the administration draw almost completely on big city urbanites—most notably from Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. They sometimes don’t even seem to understand why people move to suburbs.

Many Obama appointees—such as at the Departments of Transportation and of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—favor a policy agenda that would drive more Americans to live in central cities. And the president himself seems to embrace this approach, declaring in February that “the days of building sprawl” were, in his words, “over.”

Not surprisingly, belief in “smart growth,” a policy that seeks to force densification of communities and returning people to core cities, animates many top administration officials ....

the president’s stimulus—with its $8 billion allocation for high-speed rail and proposed giant increases in mass transit—offers little to anyone who lives outside a handful of large metropolitan cores. Economics writer Robert Samuelson, among others, has denounced the high-speed rail idea as “a boondoggle” not well-suited to a huge, multi-centered country like the United States. Green job schemes also seem more suited to boost employment for university researchers and inner-city residents than middle-income suburbanites.

Is it purely coincidental that the rankings' top cities tend to be in metropolitan areas where the Downtown cores are more reliant on regional development and suburban sprawl than being strong entities, reliant on themselves? Kotkin writes like he would love to see areas with stronger Downtown cores give way to places like Nashville, where the boom is exurban, where neighborhoods are pass-through, and where commuters spend hours in cars. Nashville's rapid transit system seems to lag behind the robust rails systems of other cities. That seems perfectly fine with Kotkin, who mentions Nashville for its roads but otherwise seems hostile to mass transit.

According to others, cities of Nashville's scale are at a disadvantage to large-core cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco precisely because of their bias for region-wide sprawl for community development and economic growth. The healthier downtowns have diverse industry clustering in the Downtown core with "360 degree transit access" enabling relatively easy commutes and wide accessibility. Nashville makes its own choices, but those choices also lock it into a development pattern that may not allow for the town to become a boom town. Instead Davidson County may be more likely to become a boom county with wealthier Williamson County to the south providing most of the peak amplitude in the boom of the region.

Do candidates for office think through the implications of these rankings or would they just prefer to preside over growth in places other than Nashville proper?

UPDATE: the Nashville Chamber of Commerce confirms the consistency between the regional factors the rankings prioritized and its own commitments to focus on the region rather than on Nashville proper. They also say they intend to stay the course and lobby government to suit:

[The ranking] further reinforces the strength of the regional approach we have taken to growing jobs and our economy over the past 20 years. All of the factors used to determine this ranking align closely with the goals of Partnership 2020, a new five-year economic development strategy that takes effect July 1. P2020 marks the newest phase of this regional, strategic, public-private initiative that was initially implemented in 1990.

Over the next five years, you will see the implementation of P2020 through the development of the strategic goals established by the Chamber and the region’s business and community leaders. The P2020 strategy capitalizes on Middle Tennessee's strongest opportunities, addresses challenges and improves the region’s overall competitiveness ....

the goal of effective regionalism will broaden our economic development efforts to include support of transportation solutions, regional planning and collaboration on legislative agendas.


  1. I would add:

    City leaders not only become obsessed with growth, but they become preoccupied with city image.

    That is understandable to a degree, but rather than building on the inherent character of a town or city, many politicians decide they need to change it, or cast parts of it aside.

    The Nashville Fairgrounds and Raceway is a perfect example of this.

    Few could argue the fairgrounds is not an inherent part of our city. However, since it does not fit the image of "arts, culture, greening and diversification," it has become a target for those who seem more concerned with the aforementioned lists than building upon our own inherent, civic culture.

  2. I'd like to invite Megan Barry to my house for dinner. I work for Vanderbilt, but I don't make big bucks like she does and i live in the neighborhood. I like how things are improving but i want fairgrounds to stay. I have no problem with racing and the new mufflers make it so I didn't even here the race last weekend. I hope megan likes the 5 for $20.00 meat i buy at the belmont BuyRight. She is my council person but I have never met her. And i live just six blocks from her. Figures.

  3. Ha I had to laugh at that "mild climate" line when I read that article, too. How many days in a row have we been above 90, now?? Not to mention the cold and snow and ice we had this past winter, far outside the norm for this area of the country. Mild, my foot.

    And yes, the traffic COULD be worse, but it's by no means smooth. You'll find "traffic" in any major city though, and Nashville definitely isn't as bad as others (Atlanta, anybody?).

  4. Uh yeah, now it makes sense why Phoenix was on the list...