How Rochester’s urban revival ranks

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A new series of articles by Richard Florida, noted author of “The Rise of the Creative Class,” examines the economic performance of America’s biggest cities by tracking key indicators of the nation’s urban revival—the movement of affluent and educated people, and of knowledge and tech jobs, to urban centers hit by suburban flight a half-century ago.

The articles, posted on CityLab, in some ways reflect the trends I looked at in a recent piece on how Rochester compares to the nation’s “superstar” metropolitan areas. However, Florida focuses chiefly on core or principal cities—versus metros—and he examines a different set of metrics. The benchmarks I used were per-capita personal income, median household income, economic output and tech workers’ pay; his yardsticks include population and job growth, college and advanced-degree graduates, and income inequality.

How do we fare in terms of these metrics? The city of Rochester does not rank among nation’s largest cities, but I used Florida’s data source—the U.S. Census’s American Community Survey —to dig up comparative numbers.

Population and employment

Florida’s research shows a sharp divergence between fast- and slow-growing large cities nationwide. “The most rapidly growing large cities are not sprawling, unregulated Sunbelt ones … but two relatively expensive tech hubs, anchored by leading research universities—Seattle and Austin.” Their populations grew 14.2 percent and 12.8 percent, respectively, from 2012 to 2017. Other tech-focused cities—Denver (11.1 percent), Charlotte (10.8 percent), and Washington, D.C., and Raleigh (both 9.7 percent)—also make the top 10.

The largest superstar cities rank in the middle of the list: Boston is 21st and San Francisco 22nd, both with roughly 7 percent growth. Los Angeles (3.7 percent) is 34thand New York (3.4 percent) ranks 35th.

At the bottom end of the list are Milwaukee (-0.6 percent), Baltimore (-1.6 percent) and Detroit (-4.1 percent).

And Rochester? In the 2012-17 period, the city’s population slipped to 209,463 from 210,967, a 0.7 percent decline. So, compared with the 50 large cities Florida examined, Rochester outgrew only two.

In terms of employed population, Rochester gained ground, with an increase of 3.2 percent. But among the largest U.S. cities, that performance again would rank near the bottom—tied with Wichita at fourth-slowest growth. Only Albuquerque (3.1 percent), Memphis (2.9 percent) and Tulsa (2.6 percent) grew more slowly.

College graduates

With technology at the forefront of the “new economy,” education is a key factor in the economic growth of cities, regions and even nations. So, Florida looked at where highly educated people—those with college degrees and those with advanced degrees—live. He found they are “increasingly concentrated in a relatively small number of cities.”

And as with population growth, there’s a sharp divide between the top and bottom of the list: “In the six top cities,” he writes, “more than half of adults have a bachelor’s degree or higher; in the lowest ranked city just 15 percent do.”

The top three—ranked by population share with four-year degrees in 2017—are Seattle (62.6 percent), San Francisco (57.8 percent) and Washington, D.C. (57.3 percent). At the other end are Milwaukee (23.6 percent), Fresno (21.3 percent) and Detroit (14.6 percent). 

Richard Florida found people with bachelor’s and advanced degrees are “increasingly concentrated in a relatively small number of cities.”

Rochester, whose metro area is home to more than a dozen colleges and universities, beat the three laggards—but just barely. At 24 percent, it would place fourth-lowest on Florida’s list. Rochester’s performance in growth in share of college-educated adults from 2012-17—a decline, actually—trailed every city on his list.

When the focus is narrowed to advanced degrees, Rochester does somewhat better: With 9.9 percent, it would rank 10th from the bottom, tied with San Antonio, on Florida’s list. Washington, D.C., is No. 1, with 33.4 percent of its population holding advanced degrees; Detroit once again brings up the rear, with 6.2 percent.

Over the 2012-17 period, however, Rochester headed in the wrong direction, falling 0.4 percentage point. By contrast, all 50 large cities increased their share of adults with graduate degrees.


In cities where the tech sector has fueled population and employment growth, gentrification and rising inequality often have resulted. Florida calls this the New Urban Crisis—and has written a book about it. To measure which large cities are most and least unequal, he uses the Gini Coefficient standard; it ranges from 0 to 1, with 0 representing the highest level of equality and 1 representing the highest level of inequality.

By this measure, income inequality is highest in Atlanta (0.578), New Orleans (0.562) and Philadelphia (0.558); it’s lowest in Arlington, Texas (0.429), Virginia Beach (0.433) and Raleigh (0.436). 

On the inequality yardstick, Rochester falls right in the middle: 0.502. Inequality here has been creeping up, though—in 2012, the city’s Gini index was 0.486.

Rochester revival

As recent as a decade ago, downtown revitalization in Rochester was more a dream than reality. Today, signs of new vitality are easy to see. A number of downtown residents is growing steadily and it may be on track to top 10,000 by within five years. Since 2000, more than $2 billion has been invested downtown.

At the same time, progress elsewhere in the city seems slow at best. By Florida’s metrics, the urban revival occurring in many cities nationwide is barely discernible in Rochester. Perhaps it’s just a matter of time; in the not-too-distant future Rochester may join the ranks of cities with healthy growth in population, employment and share of college graduates.

Let’s hope so, even if it means we need to wrestle with gentrification and related issues. Because although the city is just one part of metropolitan Rochester, it’s the heart of our region—and we need it to be healthy in order for the metro area to thrive. 

Paul Ericson is Rochester Beacon executive editor.

2 thoughts on “How Rochester’s urban revival ranks

  1. I offer three observations informed by living in metro Charlotte and the many years that I lived in Rochester’s Park Avenue neighborhood and in city-like Brighton.

    First, the City of Rochester is losing (or, may have already lost) the scale needed to be an efficient and vibrant core city. As you noted, Rochester was not part of Richard Florida’s analysis since it is not one of the fifty largest cities. North Carolina, with 10 million residents, has five cities (Charlotte, Durham, Greensboro, Raleigh, and Winston-Salem) that are larger than Rochester. Cary, a fast-growing city in the Research Triangle, has over 160,000 residents and will likely pass Rochester in the next decade. Size matters for tax base, resident vibrancy, housing variety, and neighborhood commercial success. This should remind Rochester leaders of the urgent need to return the community to growth.

    Second, Richard Florida’s comparative analysis of cities is difficult to interpret because the cities vary widely in population and geography. Consider a few examples, using 2016 data from The City of Rochester is 36 square miles with 208,880 residents resulting in population density of 5838 per square mile. Austin, Charlotte, Raleigh, and Seattle are among the positive city examples in the Richard Florida analysis. Seattle with 84 square miles and density of 8391 is most similar to Rochester. Raleigh, a state capital, is four times as large geographically (143 square miles) and more than twice as populous (458,880). Austin and Charlotte are examples of cities that have annexed most of their respective counties. Each city includes 298 square miles, eight times the Rochester area. With 947,890 residents in Austin and 842,051 in Charlotte, each city dwarfs Rochester.

    It is an old story that New York’s decision in the 1920s to prevent annexation by Rochester and other cities has many consequences nearly a century later. What if Rochester had been able to grow as Austin, Charlotte, and Raleigh have grown? A Raleigh-size version of Rochester would add Brighton, Gates, Greece, and Irondequoit yielding 129 square miles with 419,000 people. Thinking bigger, Rochester could match the Austin or Charlotte geography by also adding Chili, Henrietta, Penfield, Pittsford, and Webster for 298 square miles (coincidentally identical to Austin or Charlotte). Total population for “Big Rochester” of 602,000 is considerably below Austin and Charlotte, but in this imaginary world, “Big Rochester” might have been on a different growth trajectory. I am not proposing a politically infeasible change to annexation laws, but this does illustrate the competitive necessity of metro Rochester operating as one coherent entity.

    Finally, I offer support for gentrification, a word that often creates negative images. Gentrification is almost always associated with investment as well as displacement. Rochester has an asset that is in short supply in Austin, Charlotte, Raleigh, and other fast-growing cities: an extensive supply of interesting, older residential and commercial buildings. There is ample evidence that these structures, when improved, are often more inviting than newly built buildings. If Rochester can generate growth, the existing stock of buildings will become competitive assets difficult to match in newer, high-growth cities. Gentrification would be beneficial to everyone in Rochester since it would be evidence of a city that has economic value. It would lead to jobs for construction workers, an improved tax base, and residents with the financial resources to purchase a broad range of services. I am confident that the Rochester community will address displacement concerns equitably if you are fortunate enough to generate growth that leads to gentrification.

  2. As a 22 year downtown resident, I am happy to welcome new residents downtown. I mourn the loss of Hart’s Local Grocer’s and hope that we reach a critical mass soon that will attract and can support a downtown grocery and pharmacy. I’m also encouraged by initiatives like Arts in the Loop, Composer’s Crossing and ROCO’s Current Seen Biennial that recognize the important contribution our creative class makes to our economy and quality of life. To attract and retain talent we need to focus on educational opportunities for children downtown. The Center City Community Coalition is starting the discussion at its upcoming program – Center City Education: Current Options/ Future Possibilities on Wednesday, September 18th at 5:30-7 at Hatch Hall at the Eastman Theater. Come join the discussion. The event is free and open to the public. Our city has much to offer its new and existing residents. To grow successfully, we must work together to build a healthy, diverse, well educated and involved community.

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