Opportunity vs. Livability in America—What Kind of City Do You Live In?

I made a 2x2 that seemed to resonate with a bunch of people so I thought I’d explore it a bit more deeply. It’s a 2x2 of livability vs. opportunity in US cities.

This pattern occurs in a fractal manner—it applies at the higher U.S. state level, and on lower levels all the way down to neighborhoods and individual city blocks.

Motion across this 2x2 is always clockwise—let’s begin our journey in the lower-left.

Death Spiral: low livability, low opportunity

We’ll start with the quadrant I have the least commentary on—the Death Spiral. These are cities where everyone who has the ability to leave has left, is actively planning on leaving, or is daydreaming about leaving. There is no convincing reason to move to these places: there is neither comfort nor the potential for growth.

A classic example of a city that seems stuck in quadrant is Gary, Indiana. Home to booming steel factories in the early 1900’s and 178,000 people at its peak, the population has now crumbled to 75,000. At its peak a single company alone, U.S. Steel, employed 30,000 people in Gary—almost half the current population.

If you’ve ever driven east from Chicago and stopped in Gary, you know how dramatically bleak it is.

Death Spiral -> Stagnant Retirement

Ironically, as a city spins in a Death Spiral certain aspects of its livability increase. Most notably, home prices go down. Who among us has not looked at the cheap homes in Detroit? As you inch your way out of the death spiral not only are home prices low, but traffic is decreased, parking is a cinch, and the amenities that do exist don’t suffer from long lines and overcrowding. If enough of these perks line up, a city moves its way into Stagnant Retirement.

Stagnant Retirement: high livability, low opportunity

This quadrant is home not only to vacation towns, but also small cities, and those on the rebound from a spiral.

There are jobs, but very little movement between them. You get a decent job, a comfortable home, and then lock it in for life.

This quadrant is where the right half the graph fantasizes about living. Everything seems so easy when you visit. And for the most part things are easy. But they’re also stagnant. News, and those who make it, don’t usually live in Stagnant Retirement.

This stagnancy is what causes teens and college grads to move out of these places. Cities in the Death Spiral take brain drain for granted, cities in Stagnant Retirement complain about it and try to prevent it.

This lack of dynamism is both a blessing and a curse. There will always be residents fighting to keep things the way they are, and those fighting for more growth. These growth campaigns have two main flavors: monetary, and social. The monetary strategies take the shape of tax breaks and incentives. The social strategy mostly involves crowing about a “livability score” that some magazine or website arbitrarily assigned to your city.

“Don’t you want a higher quality of life for half the price??” they ask companies and employees. Sometimes these incentives, mixed with other factors, can push a city into the Growing Pains quadrant.

Stagnant Retirement -> Growing Pains

Sometimes it’s a local industry hitting explosive growth, sometimes it’s a few local companies becoming hugely successful, and sometimes the quality of life is just too damn high. Any one of many things can start pushing a city into the Growing Pains quadrant.

Growing Pains

An example of a city that’s arguably on the edge of this transition is Madison, Wisconsin. I live in Madison, so this quadrant feels the most familiar in certain ways.

Growth starts because people move to town for specific opportunities. There isn’t an endless supply of jobs, but there’s enough that if one gig falls through you can manage to make it work in the same city. In Madison this growth is largely fueled by the University of Wisconsin and Epic Systems (the medical record one, not the Fortnite one).

As the name suggests, this is the quadrant of maximum grumbling. Housing is getting too expensive, public transit is insufficient, there’s too many new people in town, wages aren’t keeping up with the cost of living, etc.

Growing pains are not only physical, but also psychological. The identity of a lot of places leaving Stagnant Retirement is based on their ease of living. When your commute time doubles due to traffic, that identity comes into question.

Growing pains also mark a shift in how the city approaches economic growth. Right now in Madison there is a heated debate over whether new F-35 fighter jets should be stationed at the local airport. Boosters for the program point at the economic gain. Protestors point out that it increases disruptions in an already increasingly challenging city to live in. Viewed from this 2x2, those in favor of the F-35s are coming from a Stagnant Retirement mindset (incentives are the way to grow the economy), while detractors are coming from a Growing Pains mindset (the growth flywheel has already been kickstarted, don’t inconvenience people more than you already have to).

In Madison you can find panels at events roughly framed as: “how do we avoid becoming the next Austin?” The bad/good news is that success will inevitably push you to facing the same issues as any city making the transition out of Growing Pains.

Growing Pains -> Successful Hub

Two of the most notable American cities beginning to make this move in the last decade are Austin and Portland. There’s not too much to say about this transition. You know you’ve reached it when the growing pains have turned into chronic pain.

Successful Hub

In a Hub, the old easygoing Stagnant Retirement version of a city is fully dead. People have accepted that it’s never coming back. Traffic is never getting better.

It’s no accident that Successful Hub is right next to Death Spiral—there is no jumping from Successful Hub directly to Stagnant Retirement. Success comes with a vertiginous sense of peril that you might tumble down to ruin.

This is related to the second surefire sign that a place has become a Hub: people move there with no clear plans. Moving to Los Angeles without a plan is an accepted narrative; moving to Fresno without a plan is not. You can move to a hub because there is just that much opportunity.

This creates a constant churn of people coming to the city for those opportunities. The drawback of this churn is that there is no sense of ownership over the city’s problems. People who don’t hit it big build their network and career, and then move elsewhere, taking most of the network value they generated for themselves with them. The people who do hit it big often stay, but now have enough money to buy their way out of the problems the city has.

Why fix public transit when you have a driver? Why clean up streets when you live in the fancy part of town? Why fix public schools when your kids go to private school? Etc. This same feedback loop is what inches a hub closer to a death spiral every year. Some would argue this is the situation San Francisco finds itself in. If everyone is in a place just for the opportunities, and those opportunities dry up, no one is attached enough to the city to actually sit down and fix anything. They’ll all just move to the next hub.

Conclusion

A quick word on this model: please don’t take this graph as judgement of the people within the cities that inhabit each quadrant. There is an implicit social status associated with each quadrant, but my goal isn’t to validate that status as much as explore it. To be explicit, the lowest status cities are in Death Spiral, then status increases clockwise until you reach high status Successful Hubs. Each of these quadrants has wonderful people in them.

Let me also emphasize that this model is imperfect, flawed, and limited. Chicago, for example, is a city that I genuinely don’t know how to fit into this graph. It seems to inhabit every quadrant of the graph at once, depending on specific neighborhoods and industry. This could in large part be because I lived there and I understand it somewhat better than other cities (which should also bring into question my ability to place any city on this 2x2).

Cities are a fascinating superorganism. They exist outside of any individual’s will, yet they grow and shrink from the sum of their inhabitants actions. This all feeds into the self-enforcing clockwise flow of opportunity vs. livability. The very things that bring a city to their height, make them most vulnerable to brutal collapse; the fallout of a crushing spiral is what creates opportunity for the next generation. Around it goes.


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