Life as a Second City


Imagine someone writes a newspaper story about you and prints the picture of your older, well-known sibling next to the column. It is clear to you why this was done: your sibling is more famous and recognizable. But how does that make you feel?

Following the January 28th State of the Union address, PBS interviewed a number of civic leaders. One of those interviewed was the mayor of Tacoma, a city with many of the challenges and attributes of a second child.

The older sibling (that is, Seattle) has a nationally recognizable architectural landmark and a larger economy, and there is a higher likelihood that people around the country have heard its name rather than Tacoma’s.  Should we be surprised, therefore, that when Mayor Marilyn Strickland was being interviewed, “(D) Tacoma Washington,” was written at the bottom of the screen, but behind her was an image of Seattle’s skyline? The Tacoma Dome, Downtown Tacoma, the Museum of Glass, and other Tacoma landmarks were notably absent on the screen. Instead of using the Seattle image and perhaps to suggest where the program was being taped, PBS had an opportunity to educate the public (and to be factually correct) by showing a picture of Ms. Strickland’s town, Tacoma. Instead, PBS reinforced Tacoma’s “second city” image by visually identifying it with a picture of its more famous sibling. You cannot imagine how bothersome this is to people who live in Tacoma. A local columnist lamented that with Seattle’s picture as the backdrop, it was hard to focus on what the mayor was saying.

The “second city” phenomenon is not exclusively a Tacoma issue. Glasgow, Melbourne, Milan, Montreal, St. Paul, Long Beach, California and many other cities around the globe face a similar challenge. Either their identity has not been well-articulated, or it has not been understood by external observers. This is not a logo problem. It is not about a catchy phrase, and it is not about another cultural event. Unique architectural landmarks can create memorable identities, but these phallic symbols already dot cities the world over. Whether in Dubai, Barcelona, or Beijing, starchitects would be happy to add the next jaw-dropper to any city willing to deposit a large sum of public funds at their altars.

But for smaller cities, this level of economic competition is not affordable. This is where the notion of “urban branding” comes in. Cities need an internally generated and well-articulated narrative of identity before they can be recognized externally. At the beginning of the twenty first century, many cities, including Tacoma, are finding themselves struggling with this notion at local, regional, and international scales. How does a city get out of the shadow of another city? How do you broadcast who you are? Creating hipster colonies or 24 hour entertainment districts does not always work. Cities like Tacoma already house museums, artist colonies, hip hangouts, and, yes, waterfront condos with killer views. Nevertheless, the glitzy brother 20 miles north casts a long shadow that may stunt growth and contribute to a feeling of self-doubt.

To get out of this position, cities like Tacoma need more than cultural fairs and gimmicky tourist attractions. They need an inclusively created branding strategy. It is important that they know what works and what doesn’t, but strategies need to be based on a vision that gives the city the self-confidence it needs to move forward. Tacoma cannot be and should not be Seattle, in the same way that Long Beach is not and should not be Los Angeles. The identity of a city does not arise out of a formula calculated by the latest intellectual fashion, but from an inclusively-created vision that seeks input from the public, and asks help from experts, not the other way around. Perhaps one the worst ideas of the last twenty years has been an excessive reliance on “best practices” and “experts.” We need to learn about each other, but we need to do it our way and articulate a clear vision of who we are. The second child can also succeed.

Table: Tacoma is about a third of Seattle in population. With a lower density, less expensive housing and a more affordable cost of living, its households are on average slightly larger than those living in Seattle. Its small city charm, stunning views and history rival any urban area in the nation.

Tacoma & Seattle Quick Facts Seattle Tacoma Washington
Population, 2012 estimate     634,535 202,010 6,895,318
Population, 2010 (April 1) estimates base     608,660 198,397 6,724,543
Population, percent change, April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2012     4.30% 1.80% 2.50%
Persons under 5 years, percent, 2010     5.30% 7.00% 6.50%
Persons under 18 years, percent, 2010     15.40% 23.00% 23.50%
Persons 65 years and over, percent,  2010     10.80% 11.30% 12.30%
White alone, percent, 2010  69.50% 64.90% 77.30%
Black or African American alone, percent, 2010  7.90% 11.20% 3.60%
American Indian and Alaska Native alone, percent, 2010      0.80% 1.80% 1.50%
Asian alone, percent, 2010      13.80% 8.20% 7.20%
Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander alone, percent, 2010      0.40% 1.20% 0.60%
Two or More Races, percent, 2010     5.10% 8.10% 4.70%
Hispanic or Latino, percent, 2010      6.60% 11.30% 11.20%
White alone, not Hispanic or Latino, percent, 2010     66.30% 60.50% 72.50%
Foreign born persons, percent, 2008-2012     17.50% 13.50% 13.00%
High school graduate or higher, percent of persons age 25+, 2008-2012     92.90% 88.00% 90.00%
Bachelor's degree or higher, percent of persons age 25+, 2008-2012     56.50% 24.70% 31.60%
Housing units, 2010     308,516 85,786 2,885,677
Homeownership rate, 2008-2012     47.30% 52.80% 63.80%
Housing units in multi-unit structures, percent, 2008-2012     50.50% 35.00% 25.70%
Median value of owner-occupied housing units, 2008-2012     $441,000 $230,100 $272,900
Households, 2008-2012     285,476 78,447 2,619,995
Persons per household, 2008-2012     2.06 2.46 2.52
Per capita money income in past 12 months (2012 dollars), 2008-2012     $42,369 $25,990 $30,661
Median household income, 2008-2012     $63,470 $50,439 $59,374
Persons below poverty level, percent, 2008-2012     13.20% 17.60% 12.90%
Land area in square miles, 2010     83.94 49.72 66,455.52
Persons per square mile, 2010     7,250.90 3,990.20 101.2
Source: US Census Bureau State & County QuickFacts
Downloaded: February 8, 2014

None of this, however, diminishes the responsibility of media outlets. Tacoma is not Seattle. A major news outlet should educate itself and the public by using accurate images. The next time a TV station invites the mayor of Tacoma to participate in a program, here’s hoping they don’t show the Space Needle in the background. 

For now, people will be sleepless in Tacoma until they figure out their way out of being the second city.

Ali Modarres is the Director of Urban Studies at University of Washington Tacoma.  He is a geographer and landscape architect, specializing in urban planning and policy. He has written extensively about social geography, transportation planning, and urban development issues in American cities.

Tacoma photo by Flickr user Michael D. Martin.

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"Kick Me" is not a good brand.

I'd guess that many inhabitants of second cities are quite happy with their offstage status, and would move if it changes. I doubt they care about branding, or image, or about the kind of parasitic sandcastle growth the center cities are enjoying. Like any rational person, they're quite content with a decent job and a good place to raise their families--two things that the center cities don't provide very well. These days, being in the spotlight is unhealthy.

I know that a lot of people in St. Paul, MN are glad they're not in Minneapolis--and that a lot of Minneapolis is every bit as suburban as the suburbs, and that the proud "urban" inhabitants of those neighborhoods would scream and flee if that changed. I live in a suburb of Minneapolis, and if a group of armed men (it would take more than one) compelled me to choose either Minneapolis or St. Paul as my future habitation, I'd choose St. Paul without a second thought.

(I don't know about or Melbourne, but I can't imagine why a Montrealer would wish to live in Quebec City, and I doubt many Milanese wish they were in Rome. I'll give you Long Beach and Glasgow.)

I'm originally from a neighborhood in Brooklyn where the old timers refer to Manhattan as "New York." I could go back if I wanted, but now that Brooklyn has become New York, I'm very, very glad I'm out of there.

It's not that I'm easily satisfied with respect to cultural matters. On the contrary, I've got a lot invested in that aspect of life, and I find it much easier to enjoy, and to use for the good of others, when someone else's problems aren't constantly coming through the walls.