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Brainy Cities

Published in Dallas Morning News, Nov. 1, 2006

There was a time when the sea was the great creator of cities. Ports such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Newport and Charleston arose on the eastern coast of what would become the United States. Then it was inland waterways that took urban America westward and led to the birth of Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Lexington, Louisville and St. Louis.

Next came the railroad and the astonishing growth of Chicago, eclipsing even New Orleans despite its lovely perch on the Gulf of Mexico as well as the Mississippi River. It was the railroad that brought Dallas into being, and DFW International Airport that made this city matter.

But shipping and transit of people and goods are no longer the key to urban success. Building massive populations is not any more the answer either. The future, said Richard Florida, in the October issue of Atlantic, belongs to brainpower places.

Countering Tom Friedman’s argument that the “earth is flat,” Mr. Florida, a professor at George Mason University, sees a world of spikes, denoting creative clusters that will shape the future of the planet. He has also applied this thinking to America and a “means migration” in which ambitious, talented people are flocking to a handful of “superstar cities.” They can be spotted readily by their housing prices which have soared in recent years in settings such as “San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston and Denver; the affluent suburbs of Manhattan; innovation centers such as Silicon Valley, Austin, and the Research Triangle in North Carolina.” They may have had a housing bubble that  burst, but still it signaled rising demand for a place in some highly significant suns.

Mr. Florida cites research showing that in 1970, “11 percent of the population over 25 years old had a college degree” and this “human capital was distributed relatively evenly throughout the United States.” By 2004, college graduates numbered 27 percent of Americans. But they are not spread all over the country now. Instead, “half the residents of Washington, D.C. and San Francisco” have college degrees–versus “14 percent and 11 percent in Cleveland and Detroit, respectively.” In downtown Chicago, in 2000, it was more than two-thirds. The same thing was true for midtown Manhattan.”

Another way to look at the situation is the number of college graduates per 100 people over the national average. Mr. Florida came up with this assessment of the following metropolitan areas, including suburbs: San Jose, 16; San Francisco-Oakland, 14; Boston, 13; Seattle and Atlanta, 12; Denver, 11. But Dallas? It is 6–exactly the same as in 1970. Steven Pedigo of the Greater Washington Initiative added that Dallas-Fort Worth ranks 22nd in the country in college graduates among metropolitan areas with more than one million people and 33rd in those with advanced degrees.

It is shocking to see Dallas in a league with Milwaukee, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Memphis, Pittsburgh and Buffalo which range from minus 1 to 3 above the national average in college graduates per 100 people. But the situation is better than these measurements would indicate. In an e-mail, Mr. Pedigo said that Dallas-Fort Worth ranks 7th in his brain index while Austin is 6th. And Mr. Florida responded that Dallas scored well on his revised creativity survey prepared for the paperback edition of his book, The Rise of the Creative Class.” It does well across all three Ts — “technology, talent and tolerance,” he wrote. The same is true of Houston and Austin. All three cities looked good in terms of “brain gain”.

“Dallas'” he added, “is quite closely linked to Austin. They make up a mega-region I sometimes call ‘Dustin.’ Austin is off the charts on my creativity and talent measures so Dallas is in a sweet spot to attract talent. . . .” His conclusion: Dallas needs “to continue to improve its downtown. It needs to leverage its technology and people like Mark Cuban. It also needs more great neighborhoods. . . . It needs to be open and tolerant to gays, bohemians and everyone. It needs to be a place where people, whoever they are, can self-express, self-actualize and be themselves.”

Bright people sometimes are reluctant to move to Dallas. But once here, they seldom want to leave. Even so, the next mayor might well consider an active campaign, such as the one launched in the nation’s capital by the Greater Washington Initiative, to make sure they stay.