David Frum and Matt Yglesias both take exception to a bit in the Washington Post's report about the growth of Tyson's Corner, an exurb of Washington, in which urbanologist Joel Garreau argues that new technology is leading to fast growth in pretty little parts of the country:

With broadband, employees no longer need to physically be transported to work. He sees Americans moving to scenic, ideal locations such as the mountains of Montana or the hills of Santa Fe...

“What you’re seeing now is what I call the Santa Fe-ing of the world, or the Santa Fe-ing of America,” he said. “The fastest growth you’re seeing is in small urban areas in beautiful places, because now you’ve got e-mail and Web and laptops and iPhones and all that jazz.”

Frum points out that the fastest-growing cities in America in the last decade were actually big, urban snarls like Houston (#1) and Dallas (#2). Yglesias argues that this is because online and offline interactions are complements rather than supplements, so it may be that new technology is actually increasing the value of urban density, not allowing us to escape from it.

They're both right to point out that what highly portable knowledge workers (such as writers) might do isn't the same thing as what the American workforce write large does. But Garreau has a half-point. I can recognize it because my working life is structured in the way he describes (although not for the reason he describes). That is, I'm a journalist writing about Texas and the southwest, so I'm based in Austin, even though Austin is rather far from The Economist's offices in DC, New York, or London. E-mail and the internet and so on have largely obviated the need for me to be in face-to-face contact with colleagues, although, in my experience, in-person interaction is highly worthwhile. (Also in my experience, it's somewhat difficult to write about things like "in-person interaction" without fa

When I need to be in a different city for an interview or an event, I can get there without too much trouble; Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio are all within a few hours' drive.

My particular situation may be unusual, but I can see that variations on this approach are workable. Already, for example, it's relatively common for people to work in Austin and live in San Antonio or vice versa as a routine matter. That's a long commute, about 90 minutes door to door, but it's not that much crazier than driving 60 minutes in Houston traffic to get to work. These arrangements are more attractive when the long commutes can be cut from five days a week to four or even three. That will never happen in jobs in, for example, the service sector, but people are differentially focused on location when seeking those jobs anyway.

The problem with Garreau's comment here is that for some reason he's tipping Santa Fe as a cultural exemplar, which is silly; I suppose if you live in Santa Fe you could occasionally have meetings in Albuquerque or Las Vegas, but there isn't much so much overlap between the industries of those cities that you're going to see a critical mass of people doing that. If the point is just that technology can facilitate a more decentralized workforce and the development of urban nodes rather than concentric circles, he's on stronger ground. 

09/26/2011 11:09

Should read "complements rather than substitutes." Mistake is his, but I'm not sure what "supplements" means exactly (it seems to me that it means "complements"), whereas complements and substitutes have very specific meanings in economics jargon. Cream complements coffee; tea substitutes for coffee.

09/29/2011 02:18

You are arguing over known issues.

The big cities are getting bigger. It is a common networking scaling effect. The sprawl is clearly a factor of what methods of transportation are available and at what cost.

Rural America is dying on the vine. In general small towns are drying up and going away unless they are a bedroom community of a larger urban area.

None of this would keep certain small lovely spots from doing very well. But the only way their number is going to be meaningful is if they can attract the 3% of the U.S. economy that owns everything. General wherever Bill Gates is is going to have a very high average net worth.


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