Redefining Our Cities

city with world over itMost companies and marketers obsessively examine demographics and trend shift data to make their strategic decisions in a linear fashion.  Often, we forget to research and examine realities that redefine who we are.  Some companies go further by defining psychographics that are need-based, which is very helpful…but who is defining realities based on social and cultural change?

I have found a fascinating report from The Brooking Institution, with support from the Rockefeller Foundation titled, “State of Metropolitan America: On the Front Lines of Demographic Transformation”. This report shows that the United States now faces five “new realities” that will redefine who we are, where and with whom we live, and how we provide for our own welfare, as well as that of our families and communities.

These “new realities” are:  Aging population; Income polarization; Uneven higher education attainment; Growth and outward expansion, and Population diversification.  See the “who we are – our 5 new realities” article for more information on these 5 new realities.

This country hit important demographic milestones in each of these five realities, reinforcing that our cities are rapidly changing. And if we don’t recognize and understand this, it will be at our own peril. This change is prominent in the large metropolitan areas…..the collections of cities, suburbs, and rural areas that house two-thirds of America’s population.

If we are to see what the country’s demographic future is, a close look at these metropolitan areas is necessary because that is where the action is happening. But the Brooking Institute warns that our perceptions of these cities are no longer valid. The Institute shows that categorizing cities along traditional regional lines, such as Sun Belt or Snow Belt cities, will provide a misguided view. Instead, the Institute drilled down and has identified seven types of metropolitan areas.

The seven types of metropolitan areas in the country, identified by the Brooking Institute, are:

New Frontier: Metro areas growing faster than the national average in terms of population growth, diversity and educational attainment. With the exception of Washington, D.C., the other eight are west of the Mississippi River.

New Heartland:  These metro areas are also fast growing but whose Hispanic and Asian populations are lower than the national average. The Institute has identified 19 cities in this category including many in the “New South” like Atlanta and Charlotte, where African-Americans are the dominant minority, as well as largely white areas throughout the Midwest and West, such as Indianapolis and Portland, Ore.

Diverse Giant:  The country’s three most populous cities – New York, Los Angeles and Chicago – are in this group, as well as Miami and San Francisco. There are nine regions in this category, which is defined by its above-average educational attainment and diversity, but below-average population growth, partly due to its large size.

Border Growth: These 11 metro areas are defined by a significant and growing presence of Mexican and other Latin American immigrants and are found in Southern border states from east Texas through Arizona and Nevada and up to California’s Central Valley. The only exception is Orlando.

Mid-Sized Magnet: Like many of the Border Growth centers, these 15 mid-size areas are mostly found in the Southeast.  They experienced exceptional growth for several years, but were hit hard by the housing crash. These areas also do not have as significant numbers of Hispanics and Asians and have lower levels of educational attainment.

Skilled Anchors: These 19 metro areas are defined by their higher-than-average levels of educational attainment. These areas are slower-growing and less diverse, but many have significant medical and educational institutions. Of the 19, 17, including Boston and Philadelphia, are in the Northeast and Midwest. Other examples of Skilled Anchor areas include Akron and Worcester.

Industrial Cores: The 18 metro areas are generally the older industrial centers of the Northeast, Midwest and Southeast. Most have lost populations and the residents are less diverse and educated than national averages, and generally older as well.

This study helps us understand that grouping cities by region is simplistic and can lead to false assumptions. Conventional wisdom says that Atlanta and Portland are more different than alike, but this study would beg to differ.

There are many studies like this.  And most companies with a good research team already have access to most of this information.  If you don’t, ask your agencies.

I’d like to point out that in recent years, cities and suburbs grew more alike in many ways. The cool and groovy restaurants and shops in the urban areas started growing franchises in the suburbs….outdoor malls replicated the city look in the suburbs…..affluent yuppies moved to the urban areas while ethnic and minority groups moved to the suburbs.  In a way, cities grew at the suburbs’ expense.  Did you know that the majority of members of all major racial/ethnic groups are now suburbanites?  And the suburban poor population grew about five times the rate of the city poor over the past decade?  The suburban life, as we know it, is changing.

Think about this next time you are looking to align your demographic information with categorized city definitions.  It may shift some of your major strategic decisions.

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