Reconnecting America People * Places * Possibility

Are We There Yet? Staying Competitive

Editor's Note: This week’s excerpt from Are We There Yet? introduces a growing tension in America. The shift in the American economy from manufacturing and production to services and information has been decades long, and have major implications for our economic success. Attracting talent, through investing in complete communities is one method for region’s to capture some of that elusive “talent” that drives economic competitiveness, but the challenges facing the shrinking middle class (as those jobs that were once the backbone of the American middle class disappear) are real and growing.

In order to address the growing income disparity, and stay competitive in this 21st century reorganization of markets, labor and resources, the American landscape is likely to change at least as much as it did in the years following World War II. Then the U.S. built a national highway system that opened up new markets and propelled the country into decades of prosperity. Now the same factors that are changing the housing market — rising gas prices, the recession, the high rate of housing foreclosures in suburban locations, the loss of construction and real estate industry jobs that had emerged during the housing boom — are changing the commercial real estate market too.

While jobs in virtually all industries have moved out to the suburbs over the last several decades, there is anecdotal evidence that this trend is reversing as corporations compete with each other to attract and retain talent. At the same time, there’s increasing interest in retrofitting the suburbs so that they remain strong during this time of changing consumer demands, demographic shifts and market forces.

This is a hugely important task because two-thirds of working-age residents live in the suburbs, as well as the majority of low-income households, according to the Brookings Institution’s 2011 “Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America” report. Moreover, the suburbs are home to twice as much office space as central business districts, according to a 2010 story in the Wall Street Journal that cites statistics from the real estate data firm Reis, Inc. Ensuring that these places continue to attract residents and workers and remain financially stable will help ensure that the U.S. as a whole remains globally competitive.

Opportunity areas — neighborhoods or parts of neighborhoods with smaller blocks and moderate density housing and/or jobs — can and should play a significant role in this reorganization. Opportunity areas in both urban and suburban locations can provide the foundation for high transit ridership and streets filled with pedestrians and people on bikes. This is good for business and helps support a thriving economy.

Opportunity areas offer density and an intensity of activity that is the kind of environment that has been shown to attract “talent.” The Memphis Smart City Consulting blog put it this way in a 2010 post: “Talent remains the top priority for Memphis . . . downtown redevelopment, neighborhood revitalization or economic growth [can] keep us from the hardest work [which is] to create, attract and retain talent. It’s easy to build big projects. It’s not as easy to build the creative ecosystem, the culture of innovation and the connectivity that joins creatives into a force for a stronger future.”

According to Reconnecting America’s research, 25 percent of all jobs in the U.S. are located in opportunity areas, while only 10 percent of all jobs are located within walking distance of fixed-guideway transit — suggesting we could be doing a much better job of siting new transit lines to connect people to jobs. See map at left. Top 25 Regions with jobs in opportunity areas.

However, planned transit projects would connect another 3.5 million people, a 26 percent increase, to jobs across the U.S. These fixed-guideway transit projects — rail or bus rapid transit lines on a dedicated right-of-way set apart from traffic — connect downtowns with major job centers and residential neighborhoods. Reconnecting America’s research only considered fixed-guideway transit but people are connected to many more jobs when you factor in high-frequency bus.

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