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(Photo: GS+/Flickr)

Suburban Sprawl Spurs Innovation

• December 30, 2013 • 11:47 AM

(Photo: GS+/Flickr)

How the ‘burbs make room for risks.

Dense cities do not beget innovation. Likewise, a younger workforce does not spur more entrepreneurship. Using correlation to imply causation:

In a current study analyzing the most recent Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) survey, my colleagues James Liang, Jackie Wang and I found that there is a strong correlation between youth and entrepreneurship. …

… The importance of youth is illustrated by the stark contrast between two neighboring countries, Japan and Korea. Using the GEM survey data, we found that Japan’s rate of entrepreneurship (the proportion of individuals who own a business that they founded in the past 42 months) is just 1.5%. In Korea the rate is a much higher, 8%. The median age in Japan is 43; in Korea it is 34. The U.S., with an entrepreneurship rate of 4.4% and a median age of 36, is in the middle of the pack on both entrepreneurship rates and median age.

More surprisingly, our analysis of the GEM survey finds that a country with a population that is just three years younger—Brazil as compared with Argentina, for instance—has about 21% more entrepreneurship. For Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, cutting the median age by two years (like the difference between the younger U.S. and older U.K.) implies about a 10% increase in new business formation.

If a country gets younger (e.g. via immigration), then entrepreneurial activity will increase, right? Wrong. Age also correlates with geographic mobility. Young adults with college degrees are the most likely to migrate. Immigration also correlates with entrepreneurial activity. Why that is remains a question to be answered.

The same goes for the correlation of innovation with dense cities. One can hypothesize why that is and test it. It’s an open question. Cities of innovation also correlate with high domestic in-migration and immigration. Richard Florida would remark that these places are diverse and then proceed to make some dubious claim about the importance of tolerance in attracting the Creative Class. Alternatively, opportunity entices a diverse population to move to New York. (People follow jobs.) A large population has to cope with being an outsider, resulting in a more tolerant attitude. But that migration model would demand city leadership generate more economic opportunity instead of opening a welcome center and flirting with the foreign born. Assuming jobs follow people is politically expedient.

Author Jonathan Raban offers up his own theory about urban spaces and their creative potential:

Yet in Soft City I was trying to write about metropolitan life as it had existed since the 18th century – as a theatre in which the newly arrived could try on masks and identities more daring and extravagant than any they had been allowed in their villages or small towns, as a place that guaranteed a blessed privacy, anonymity and freedom to its inhabitants and, most of all, as somewhere where every citizen created a route of his or her own through its potentially infinite labyrinth of streets, arranging the city around them to their own unique pattern. That was why it was soft, amenable to the play of each of its residents’ imagination and personal usage. A town, even a large one, imposes on its people certain fixed patterns of movement and, with them, a set of rather narrow expectations of what kind of character you’re permitted there. If I live in Worksop, Worksop largely defines me; if I live in a great city like London or New York, I can make the city up as I go along, shaping it to my own habits and fancies. In an article published a few weeks ago in London’s Evening Standard, David Sexton cited Soft City and nicely summed up its essential argument in one sentence, writing that the book was about “how we all construct our own different versions of London, in our imaginations joining up the streets and places each of us knows, so that associations and familiarities matter more than the map and thus we all mould for ourselves a different city in which to live”. Aboard his newly bought bicycle, Sexton was busily discovering the intricate geography of his own soft city.

I’m delighted to learn that that’s still possible for him, for cities have become harder, less humanly plastic in the past 30 years. My London was far seedier than it is now – an immense honeycomb of relatively inexpensive flats and bedsits, mostly contained by the perimeter of the Circle Line. It was a place where immigrants and the impecunious young could still afford to live within walking distance of Hyde Park Corner, quarrying out nooks and crannies for themselves in Victorian houses originally designed for large families and their servants. The Earls Court square on which I lived when I was writing the book was as diverse and cosmopolitan as any place I’ve known: it was home to Arabs in dishdashas; gays in leather gear, waiting for the Coleherne pub to open; out-of-work actors; titled diplomats; jobbing plumbers; microskirted prostitutes in fishnet stockings; Australian students; Italian waiters; and the most famous American poet of his age. I see that a rather poky-looking one-bedroom flat on Redcliffe Square is now on the market for a cool half-million pounds, which would put it impossibly beyond the reach of nearly all the characters I knew when I was there. The £10-a-week rents in districts like North Kensington and Ladbroke Grove have mushroomed to around £400 (had rents followed the declining value of the pound, £10 then would be a fraction less than £50 now).

The inevitable consequence is that diversity is being driven from the central city to its remote peripheries – a trend that is reflected in metropolitan areas around the world. Here in Seattle, for instance, to find good Indian, Chinese or Korean restaurants one now has to make a 20-mile drive into the suburbs, which is where immigrants, along with artists, students, freelance writers and other natural denizens of the soft city are increasingly moving because they can’t afford the alpine rents of downtown. The densely populated inner-urban honeycomb – what Henry James, writing of London, once called “the most complete compendium in the world” – has become so expensively reconstructed, so tarted-up, that only people with a merchant banker’s income will soon be able to live there, outside of the steadily diminishing supply of low-rent public housing.

Emphasis added. Staying in your hometown is limiting. Moving to a new place and being anonymous expand possibilities. But Raban’s Soft City opportunity is getting priced out of the urban core. If you want the London or New York City of the 1970s, then move to the new immigrant gateways in the suburbs:

Growing up in the suburbs long meant being uncool by definition. From Bob Dylan to Broken Social Scene, artists born in the burbs have generally fled for the city as soon as possible. Things were worse for immigrant kids, what with our foreign cultural references and mortifyingly strict parents. The only recourse was to adopt mainstream (white, and maybe African-American) slang, style and attitudes while very young, move downtown quick-fast, and develop opinions on classic literature and classic rock. Real culture and public life was urban and white (and maybe African-American) – any deep love for Korean soap operas was a “family” thing, a guilty pleasure enjoyed at home with your elders and their eminently mockable accents. But now, when authenticity is the value of the moment, nothing seems more authentic than lining up to eat hand-pulled noodles at a downtrodden strip mall, or scoring a sold-out ticket to a Ravi Jain play in Brampton.

For me, this shift was kicked off in 2000 by British author Zadie Smith, whose debut novel, White Teeth, didn’t automatically apologize for not being set in the city centre. Sure, Irie Jones exuded the expected insecurity, but Smith’s loving depiction turned child-of-immigrant shame into a nostalgic inside joke, especially since Irie’s bff was Millat Iqbal, a revelatory pot-smoking Muslim hottie that his white classmates couldn’t get enough of. Since then, Smith has taught at important universities, opined on ponderous non-fiction subjects, won a bunch of awards and generally become part of the respected literati. But instead of abandoning the outer limits, she chose in her most recent book, last year’s NW, to return to London’s periphery. This time, she used physical descriptors only for the white characters – flipping the assumption that everyone who matters has a skin tone within the range of “nude” pantyhose, and only those with single eyelids or Afro puffs need extra adjectives to explain their exotic looks.

That type of subtle but meaningful experimentation is easier done in a story about the suburbs, and in the actual suburbs themselves, because hierarchies and legacies aren’t as entrenched as they are in the centre. At the same time, the Internet has handily eliminated lots of the isolation that suburban artists of yore – now, niche genres can connect over time zones, eliminating the mandatory escape to find a scene. Yes, downtowns generally have better transit, and prettier buildings. That’s why rich people want to live there. But if the key ingredients to exciting art are affordability, diversity and the space and time to take risks, the suburbs are holding their own.

Emphasis added. British author Zadie Smith covers the same territory as Jonathan Raban. The “affordability, diversity and the space and time to take risks” have migrated from the city center to the suburban periphery or out of the region entirely, down the urban hierarchy. Suburban sprawl spurs innovation. Concentrated urban development kills it.

Jim Russell
Jim Russell is a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development.

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