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MAS Summit: City Vitals shows New York's strengths (talent, innovation) and weaknesses (percentage of voters, separation of rich/poor)

A couple of years ago, I remember asking a couple of then-colleagues whom they were voting for in local elections. They had no interest in voting.

Indeed, while New York certainly comes out high in several lists of key urban attributes, it's quite low--43rd out of 50--when ranking the number of votes cast in the November 2004 presidential election divided by the voting age population of the metropolitan area.

That's one intriguing finding in City Vitals, a report that documents four key elements-- talent, innovation, connections and distinctiveness-- that drive prosperity in urban environments.

So it gives some perspective on how New York City can in many ways thrive even as citizens and communities feel a disconnect with government, such as when projects like Atlantic Yards are "done deals" despite formal opportunities for public input.

Another dismaying finding: New York ranks 37th on a measure of the geographic separation between high- and low-income households.

That gives some perspective on how Atlantic Yards could have been cast by proponents as a battle between the "rich" gentrifiers already living in and around Prospect Heights and the poor for whom the "affordable" housing was supposedly aimed.

(That leaves out the fact that much of the subsidized housing would go to moderate- and middle-income families, and that there would be far more market-rate housing than subsidized housing.)

The role of cities

Joe Cortright, president and principal economist for the consulting firm Impresa, spoke about City Vitals and his work for CEOs for Cities at the Municipal Art Society's Summit for New York City Oct. 21-22.


Citing the importance of creating economically valuable new ideas, Cortright noted, "and new ideas don't get created randomly, they get created in particular places. Jane Jacobs really put her finger on this." He showed a slide of the cover of Jacobs' book The Economy of Cities.

So what enables cities to be effective in a knowledge-based economy? He cited the four-part formula, the City Vitals framework and explained how "we've benchmarked each of the nation's 50 largest cities against each other."

New York scores high in having a "great [higher] education system" to attract talented young people.

He noted that New York scores high in innovation, ranking second in patents after Silicon Valley.

He cited the importance of distinctiveness and avoiding faddism, chasing things like e-commerce or biotech. "The secret to economic success if figuring out what your city is good at," he said, again citing Jacobs, who said, "The greatest asset a city can have is something that's different from every other place."

He noted a significant change in the housing market, given that many developments were "predicated on cheap gasoline." Close-in neighborhoods have held their values or appreciated, while outlying areas declined in value.

What about manufacturing, he was asked. He said knowledge-based industries still hold their own. "While we have fewer and fewer manufacturing jobs, the jobs we are hanging onto, are the ones that embrace knowledge," he said, "and structure work that front line workers have to have more knowledge, creativity, teamwork."

He also might have mentioned, as author Roberta Brandes Gratz describes, the importance of custom manufacturing outlets in cities, as well as ethnic foods and other niche businesses.

Some statistics

Below, I've listed the rank of the New York metropolitan area among the 50 areas benchmarked.

Percentage of the metropolitan population 25 years old or older who have completed a four-year college degree: 10 (33.6%)

Percentage of the metropolitan population that are 25 to 34 years old who have completed at least a four-year college degree: 10

Percentage of metropolitan workers who have a college degree and are employed in private sector businesses excluding health care and education: 6

Percentage of metropolitan population 25 years and older who have completed a college degree and were born outside the United States: 4

Number of utility patents issued per 1,000 population: 24

Amount of venture capital raised per 1,000 population: 16

Percent of the adult population who are self-employed: 11

Number of firms with fewer than 20 employees per 1,000 population: 4

Percentage of the metropolitan area population who reported volunteering for a community activity in the past year: 49

Percentage of non-poor households that use public transportation at least once per week: 1

Number of foreign students enrolled in institutions of higher education in the metropolitan area per 1,000 population: 11

Percent of the population reporting taking a trip outside the United States: 4

Number of wi-fi hotspots per 100,000 population: 50

Average of the extent to which the metropolitan area’s 10 most distinctive consumer behaviors exceed the national norm for each behavior: 14
(this suggests that places like San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Denver, and Seattle are more distinctive)

Ratio of persons attending cultural events to number of persons regularly watching cable television: 11

Ratio of ethnic restaurants to fast food restaurants in the metropolitan area: 2 (first is San Francisco)

Variance of local movie attendance from national movie attendance for the top 60 motion pictures nationally in 2005: 16

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