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.
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).
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.
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.