Apropos of my recent discussion with Kevin Drum is this long feature that begins on the front page of today’s WaPo:

In a Darwinian fight for survival, American cities are scheming to steal each other’s young. They want ambitious young people with graduate degrees in such fields as genome science, bio-informatics and entrepreneurial management.


[A]n elite intercity migration . . . is rapidly remaking the way American cities rise and fall. In the 2000 Census, demographers found what they describe as a new, brain-driven, winner-take-all pattern in urban growth.

“A pack of cities is racing away from everybody else in terms of their ability to attract and retain an educated workforce,” said Bruce Katz, director of the Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy at the Brookings Institution. “It is a sobering trend for cities left behind.”

The long economic downturn has stalled growth and increased unemployment in almost every U.S. city, and has brought a sense of near-desperation to the intercity fight for young talent. Mayors, business leaders and university presidents are scrambling to secure new technology companies and entice young people to live downtown.

“In our business, you have to cannibalize,” said Ron Sims, the county executive of King County, which surrounds Seattle, and a Democratic candidate for governor of Washington state. “Many cities don’t fight back very well.”

In addition to Seattle, the largest brain-gain cities include Austin, Atlanta, Boston, Denver, Minneapolis, San Diego, San Francisco, Washington, and Raleigh and Durham, N.C.


Brain-gain cities are hardly immune to the economic cycle. In the tech-driven recession, Seattle, like San Francisco and Austin, endured wrenching levels of business failure and unemployment. The Seattle area lost more than 60,000 jobs in the past four years, as average wages declined and population growth stagnated. But this city and those like it remain national leaders in the availability of venture capital, and demographers say they appear to have kept most of their educated young people, who hang on even without good jobs.

The winner-take-all pattern of the past decade differs substantially from the Rust Belt decline and Sun Belt growth of the 1970s and ’80s. Then, manufacturing companies moved south in search of a low-wage, nonunion workforce. Now, talented individuals are voting with their feet to live in cities where the work is smart, the culture is cool and the environment is clean.

Migrants on the move to winner-take-all-cities are most accurately identified by education and ambition, rather than by skin color or country of birth. They are part of a striving class of young Americans for whom race, ethnicity and geographic origin tend to be less meaningful than professional achievement, business connections and income.

The Sun Belt is no sure winner in this migration. Such cities as Miami and El Paso are struggling to keep college graduates, who are flocking to such foul-weather havens as Minneapolis, Seattle and Ann Arbor, Mich.


Talent helps make these top-tier cities diverse, tolerant and rich with the cultural amenities that help them steal still more talent.

These cities tend to have a high percentage of residents who are artists, writers and musicians, as well as large and visible gay communities. They often have pedestrian neighborhoods, with good food, live music and theater. The percentage of foreign-born residents is also high in these cities, reflecting a significant population of college-educated imports.

“The great advantage of places like Seattle is that they have become the kind of place where young people want to freaking be,” said Richard Florida, a professor of regional economic development at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Florida is author of “The Rise of the Creative Class,” an influential book among big-city politicians and urban planners. It tells them they can secure the future of their cities by tending to the care and feeding of smart young people.


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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Rick DeMent says:

    I was at a confrence in Detroit a few weeks ago where this was a big topic being addressed by the Gov. herself. Cities are taking this very seriously. The funny part is I am trying to leave Atlanta not stay here, I don’t see much of a “draw”. (maybe I’m not the demo they want.)

  2. James Joyner says:

    The main problem with Atlanta–as with DC–is the traffic, which is just nightmarish. Both have pretty good public transportation, though, for those who live in the city itself. Atlanta does have great universities, shopping, clubs, and all that sort of thing, though.

  3. bryan says:

    Unless things have changed since the last time I was there, Austin’s traffic sucked too.

  4. Come to Milwaukee. The traffic’s good, the beer’s cold, and the cold weather is the perfect excuse to snuggle up with a member of the opposite sex.

  5. If I were 20 years younger I’d be looking for a city where I could use my car as little as possible. Someplace where I could walk from home to a restaurant, and pick up a few groceries on the way home. A city with cool pedestrian centers.