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The Rise of the Aspirational City

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Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox have introduced the concept of the “inspirational” city — cities to which people move “to change their circumstances and improve their lives.” These are cities on the rise — restless, growing and entrepreneurial magnets of opportunity.

I was pleasantly surprised to find Richmond ranking No. 7 on the list of the Top 15 Aspiration Cities — one notch above Washington, D.C.! Austin led the list, followed by New Orleans, Houston, Oklahoma City, and Raleigh.

Here’s a description of how the list was compiled, as described in the New Geography blog:

To determine America’s current aspiration hotspots, we focused in large part on economic indicators, such as employment growth, per capita income, and unemployment. But we also took into account demographic factors, such as the growth of domestic migration and the movement of college-educated people and the foreign born.

Finally, we considered quality-of-life factors such as traffic congestion, housing affordability, and crowding—which are keenly relevant to young families hunting for the places with the best “inventory of the possible.” In a sense, we believe aspirational cities reflect a kind of urban arbitrage, where people look for those places that provide not just economic and cultural opportunity but a cost structure that allows them to enjoy their success to the fullest extent.

Kotkin and Cox made an interesting statement that I have long believed (and have expressed in Bacon’s Rebellion):

Both No. 1, Austin, Texas, and No. 2, New Orleans, are places where people can enjoy the cultural amenities and attitudes of “progressive” blue states but in a distinctly red-state environment of low costs, less regulation, and lower taxes. These places have lured companies and people from more expensive regions, notably California and the Northeast, by being not only culturally rich but also amenable to building a career, buying a home and, ultimately, raising a family in relative comfort.
Red state governance system + blue state culture may be the winning combination.

If you believe Kotkin and Cox, the long-standing dominance of the Northeast and California may be coming to an end. The list is dominated by Southern cities, with a strong representation from the Midwest. Only one West Coast city, Seattle, makes the cut.
Kotkin and Cox have sparred spar frequently with Richard Florida of “creative class” fame, but this is the first analytical framework I’ve seen that may be able to compete with Florida’s as an explanation of why some regions succeed and others fail. It doesn’t matter how hip or cool a region is, it won’t grow if business isn’t hiring. Young people won’t move there if they can’t find jobs, and they may not marry and raise families there if costs are so high that they live at subsistence levels. In thinking about their future, regions would be well advised, I think, to adopt a synthesis of both views.

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