I’ve noticed so often that urbanist policy suggestions or case studies are treated as universals. That is, with a presumption that a good idea or policy can be replicated pretty much anywhere. Clearly, there are a number of items like bike lanes and trails that would appear to be widely applicable, and for which the best practice standards would appear to work without much modification in most places. On the other hand, this isn’t true of everything.
Where do most urban progressive policy ideas come from? From what I’ve seen, these tend to get wide currency when the come from one of the major urbanist citadels like London, New York, Washington, San Francisco, or Portland. This doesn’t always mean that was the place that came up with the idea, but it often is. But these cities are very different from your average, workaday type place.
One problem with our analysis of these things is that they seldom take into account the amount of marketplace leverage a particular place has. Let’s take New York, for example. That’s a city with immense marketplace leverage, meaning that people and businesses are willing to put up with enormous cost and hassles to live, work, and do business there. In particular, the finance industry, which remains heavily centralized in New York as one of the two top global finance centers, generates tons and tons of cash. Most places don’t have that. It’s similar for tech in the Bay Area, government in Washington, DC, etc. These places have high value industries that are bound to the geography they are located and generate immense wealth and tax revenue. That means these places can get away with a lot of things other cities can’t. They’ve got a cash register that never stops ringing.
One current case study is Seattle’s raising of the minimum wage to $15. First the small city of SeaTac raised its minimum wage to that level. SeaTac has 27,000 residents, but also includes SeaTac airport as the name implies. Airports employ a large service class who can benefit from a minimum wage increase. And most airport service businesses don’t have the luxury of moving off airport. That gave SeaTac marketplace leverage to raise the minimum wage significantly without huge risk to its employment base. SeaTac airport isn’t going anywhere.
The city of Seattle itself has followed suit with a graduated increase to $15/hr. Again, Seattle is, like San Francisco, a city of the elite or on its way. The cost of doing business there is such that most businesses that are cost sensitive are already gone or on their way out the door. The coffee shops and other establishments with lower paid workforces mostly can’t move without losing their customer base. So in my view Seattle also has more leverage than your average city in setting this policy.
It would be tempting to look at the Seattle case and say that other cities should raise their minimum wage. But for places without the concomitant marketplace leverage, it could prove to be economically disastrous.
So understanding that degree of marketplace leverage you have is critical to evaluating local policies where the result could affect competitive positioning. Cities with greater marketplace leverage will have more flexibility to have local specific policies that might otherwise disadvantage them by raising costs, regulatory hurdles, etc. They can afford to be in the vanguard of policy experimentation.
Places that fail to take stock of this do so at their peril. One place that has clearly done that is Rhode Island. It has basically acted like it’s entitled to put into place the same sorts of policies as next door Massachusetts and Connecticut, but without the captive high value industries to finance it. Massachusetts has the global power of greater Boston with its unmatched universities, tech, and biotech clusters. Connecticut has access to New York money. Rhode Island doesn’t have anything like this.
Unfortunately for the Ocean State, it doesn’t seem to get it. I think in part that’s because the state’s intellectual elite – its cultural 1%, so to speak – live in a different reality. Many of them have lived and worked elsewhere like Manhattan and chose to move to Providence for lifestyle. Or they are affiliated with Brown or RISD, two atolls of actual competitive advantage in the state. They look around and see that they are in Rhode Island and they can compete at the global level, so they push for the same sorts of ideas that they used to have back when they actually did live in Manhattan or wherever, without realizing that the other 99% of Rhode Island can’t compete at that level.
Back in early 2013, I summed it up like this:
The basic problem of Providence (and by extension the rest of Rhode Island) becomes obvious: it is a small city, without an above average talent pool or assets, but with high costs and business-unfriendly regulation. Thus Providence will neither be competitive with elite talent centers like Boston, nor with smaller city peers like Nashville that are low cost and nearly “anything goes” from a regulatory perspective.
One reason it’s unlikely they’ll escape from this dilemma is that in my view they aren’t ready to face up to the reality of where they stand in the market competitively.
Acting like you have leverage when you don’t can be a serious problem, but you can also “leave money on the table” when you do have leverage and fail to take advantage of it. Just as one example, Indianapolis has a “beggar’s mentality” when it comes to development. It just so happens that because of the tourism/sports business and the locals penchant for chain dining that upscale national chains have some of their best locations anywhere in downtown Indianapolis. It’s literally one of the most profitable places in the country for that kind of business – not that you’d know it from the way the city treats them.
As one example, a BW-3 was built on Washington St. downtown a couple years back. As it turned out, they built something contrary to their approved plans and which violated numerous design guidelines of the city. Did the city make them fix it? Nope. So BW-3’s insult to streetscape humanity was allowed to stand. The city had a lot of marketplace leverage in this case, but didn’t recognize it or wasn’t willing to use it.
The lesson here is that you need to take stock of the amount of marketplace leverage you have, and tailor your approach accordingly. This is part of coming up with an urban solution set that is right for a specific place and not just a bunch of imported ideas from elsewhere pursued without thought.
Also, cities should also be asking what they can do to add to their marketplace leverage. Hopefully over time as they continuously improve, their intrinsic attractiveness will go up, which will accrue leverage benefits right there.