Cities of Aspiration


Drew Klacik’s recent post on how he ended up in Indianapolis got me thinking about the unique status of what I’d describe as “cities of aspiration.” Pretty much all cities seem to be reasonably good at attracting people in the following cases:

1. Recruiting someone to a specific career or other opportunity. In this case, the value of the opportunity is really the question at stake. The attractiveness of the community itself is generally a secondary consideration though may have an impact pro or con.

2. Luring residents based on a family connection. This would often be the case for “boomerang migration” – people who left and came back, ordinarily after marriage and children. More broadly we could think of this as retaining or attracting those with a historic connection to a place, such as being born there.

3. Drawing people from a city’s natural catchment area. The size of this area depends on a variety of factors, but pretty much every city has some natural hinterland from which it draws people.

I call this the “normal model” of attraction. Clearly, a place like Indianapolis does well on all of these types of attraction, as do most similar sized cities I’d argue. That’s how Drew ended up in Indy.

However, there’s another basis of attraction. This is what I call “aspirational attraction” – it’s people deciding to move or desiring to move to a city from outside of its natural catchment area despite a lack of a job offer or historical connection. I see this as based in one of three primary motivations:

1. Desire to work in a particular industry that is centered in a particular location. Want to be a country musician? Moving to Nashville helps. Similarly, if you want to be an actor, New York, LA, or Chicago are basically your only options.

2. Desire to live in a particular city for lifestyle reasons. Portland would be the paradigmatic example here. People sure don’t move there for its job market.

3. Desire to live in a city because of its reputation for a rapidly growing economy or superior job market. Many of the Sun Belt boomtowns might fall into this category. They’ve got similar quality of life to many other places, but their robust job markets (and perhaps a bit of nicer weather) draw people in.

Clearly, there are comparatively few places that function as a aspirational cities in a meaningful sense.

Back to Drew’s piece, I don’t want to put words into his mouth, but my impression was that he sees Indianapolis having a strong “normal model” of attraction but not functioning as an aspirational city. I agree. More than 80% of Indy’s net domestic in-migration comes from elsewhere in Indiana, the city’s natural catchment area, and it isn’t hard to believe that specific opportunities and boomeranging account for almost all the rest. Perhaps the implication of his notion of tradeoffs is that if a city like Indy isn’t aspirationally attractive, you have the luxury of compromise since you probably already have a lock on the market you’re currently capturing. That’s a perfectly valid conclusion to reach, IMO.

A very serious question cities that function nearly exclusively as normal attractors need to ask themselves is whether they desire to become aspirationally attractive. If so, then some exploration of the basis of that, and a realistic assessment of whether or not it is possible is important to undertake. Included in this would be the implications of not becoming aspirationally attractive. It seems to me that not having some type of aspirational component to your city’s attractiveness ultimately puts a ceiling on what it can achieve. On the other hand, it is far from clear that it’s easy to consciously create an aspirational value proposition where none currently exists.

Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs and the founder of Telestrian, a data analysis and mapping tool. He writes at The Urbanophile, where this piece originally appeared.

Photo: sparktography