I was honored to speak at a conference in Milwaukee over the summer called Milwaukee’s Future in the Chicago Mega-City. Chicago and Milwaukee are about 90 miles apart on I-94. There’s an Amtrak link that makes the journey in about 90 minutes. The two cities have been sprawling such that there’s now more or less continuous development along the lakefront between the two cities. Milwaukee has been a challenged city economically and demographically. Chicago has had its own serious problems, but has seen its already muscular core boom in terms of residents and investment. High end business seems to be doing well in Chicago, and the city gets pretty good press nationally.
If you are Milwaukee, the idea of somehow tapping into Chicago naturally presents itself. Local leaders clearly see Milwaukee’s future as, if not a giant suburb of Chicago, at least a city for which Chicago’s cachet and prosperous zone somehow provides them with a leg up. As Richard Longworth put it, “Once an independent economic power of its own, Milwaukee now belongs to Greater Chicago.”
The notion that proximity to Chicago or another mega-city* represents an unambiguous good seems nearly universal. While the mechanics and value basis of greater collaboration are often illusive, it’s assumed that such value must be present and such collaboration desirable. Not just Milwaukee, but places like South Bend, Indiana and Grand Rapids, Michigan look towards Chicago as an economic engine for them.
But what if it this is actually backwards? What if proximity to Chicago or another mega-city is actually a curse, not a blessing?
My friend Drew down in Indy has a model of this, clearly targeted as his own city but relevant to the discussion. He says that the Midwest is like a solar system with Chicago as the sun. As he see is it, Indianapolis is Earth – it’s the perfect distance from Chicago. A place like Cleveland is too far away – it doesn’t get enough heat and light. But Milwaukee is like Mercury – it’s too close to the sun and gets burned up.
I suggested at the conference that one reason Milwaukee should want to active engage in shaping the interaction between the two regions is that the natural development could actually be negative. I had in mind here Providence, which is in a similar situation. Providence is 50 miles from Boston – that’s closer than Milwaukee is to Chicago, but Boston is also smaller than Chicago. Like Milwaukee, there’s a rail connection between the cities, with commuter service taking a bit over an hour.
Providence, like Milwaukee, has struggled. In fact, it’s struggled far worse. Sticking with solar system thinking, my immediate gut take here has been that Providence is a brown dwarf of a city. Maybe at one time it generated real economic life force, but today is a shell of a metro region in many ways.
Another similar example is New Haven, Connecticut, which is about 80 miles from NYC, and is a notoriously troubled city. And even being in the same state hasn’t helped Springfield, Mass at 90 miles from Boston. It too has struggled.
Is this actually the pattern? Is proximity a negative indicator not a positive one? Does proximity drain vitality instead of creating it? Let’s consider further.
I believe a lot of the thinking that being close is positive comes from the example of two very successful twin cities: Dallas-Ft. Worth and Minneapolis-St. Paul. Two things jump out at me about these, however. One, in both cases the cities are significantly closer than Milwaukee and Providence are to Chicago and Boston. Dallas is about 35 miles from Ft. Worth. Minneapolis and St. Paul actually abut each other, and the downtown-downtown trip by freeway is 14 miles. These actually are part of the same metro area by any standard.
Two, the cities in these cases are reasonably balanced in size. Dallas is bigger than Ft. Worth and Minneapolis bigger than St. Paul, but it doesn’t have the feel of the vast disparity of say a Chicago vs. Milwaukee. Indeed, the difference is clear in how we compare the cities. With a Chicago and Milwaukee, metro area seems the way to go, but with the others municipal population seems a reasonable proxy.
Another positive example might be Washington-Baltimore. The distance here is about 40 miles. These are separate metros, but overlap considerably and could potentially be combined. Also, Washington is only about twice as big as Baltimore, which is pretty hefty in its own right at 2.7 million people. Contrast Chicago at over six times as big as Milwaukee and Boston at almost three times as big as Providence, a number I think is understated since part of Southern Massachusetts that’s in Providence metro arguably has a strong Boston orientation as well. In any case, while the city of Baltimore remains infamous in many ways, the overall metro area has done well.
So the idea that proximity is a positive could have originated in models that aren’t applicable. Being close works: but only if you are really, really close – say about 40 miles or better – and your size ratio is no more than about 2:1.
Or maybe the latter might not even be necessary. There are a few examples of old industrial cities turned into suburbs in Chicago – Aurora (41 miles), Elgin (42 miles), and Joliet (44 miles) being the prime examples. These were once independent cities of sorts, and now are clearly suburbs. They aren’t nirvana yet, but proximity to Chicago has clearly invigorated them to a certain extent. The size ratio vs. the overall Chicago region or even just the city would obviously be huge. So perhaps the only question is whether you could plausibly be a true suburb.
Interestingly, Detroit and Ann Arbor fit this and are only a bit over 40 miles apart, so also follows this rule. It may seem ludicrous to credit Detroit with injecting life into Ann Arbor, but I don’t think it would be as successful if it were isolated in the middle of the state. (Madison, Wisconsin succeeded on its own, but is a bit bigger and also the state capital).
But it may even be worse than this. Back to my provocation a few paragraphs back, is it possible that not only does anything other than true suburban style proximity not help you, it might even hurt you? The examples of Milwaukee, Providence, New Haven, and Springfield suggest it’s at least possible. Now all of these are post-industrial cities that have clearly struggled for reasons other than proximity to a mega-city. Many similarly situated places (or even more badly troubled ones) are not near a much bigger city. But it’s worth considering the point.
I hypothesize about it in terms of attempting to reboot a high value economy. If you are a high value business – say a biotech startup or some such – looking to locate in New England, why would you ever pick Providence over Boston? You wouldn’t – not unless they paid you a ton of money a la 38 Studios (a Curt Schilling backed video game company that went bankrupt after receiving $100 million in loan guarantees from Rhode Island). Not only is Providence itself an expensive place to live and do business, it’s talent and ecosystem disadvantaged. Why subject yourself to that when you can move 50 miles up the road to one of the world’s premier innovation areas? The kicker is that this applies to business ideas in Providence as well. You can launch your business in Boston and still basically stay where you live.
I’m not a believer in the oft-repeated claim that these tier one cities are sucking all the talent out of smaller places. The numbers don’t back it up. Chicago has the second highest college degree attainment among large Midwest cities, but at 34.2% hardly towers over other regional cities, most of which are at least in the 30s, including Milwaukee. And Chicago’s growth in population with degrees is actually in the bottom half of large Midwest metros.
However, perhaps there is a “dead zone” of sorts around mega-cities. This zone extends from the edge of their suburbs to some unknown outer radius. In that zone, perhaps black hole like, high value functions really are sucked into the mega-city. Or perhaps negative aspects of the mega-city like traffic and pollution act like kryptonite on the economy of cities in this zone. I don’t know for sure. It’s just a hypothesis to consider based on a few observations. I would love to see some research done into this. In the meantime, small cities near a very large one shouldn’t be too quick to celebrate their location as boon.
Milwaukee photo by Bigstock.