Enterprising Cities

Former Senior Director for Emerging Issues and Research

Where we live and work matters.  That’s why we choose to settle down in one place over another.  It’s not random to us.  When faced with a choice of living anywhere in America’s vast expanse, we increasingly choose to put down roots in our nation’s cities. The greatest of these are what I will call “enterprising cities.”  By building on the power of place and the strength of their people, they form the roots of our national prosperity.

Why is this so?  In one sense, cities magnify the strengths of humans as social creatures.  Cities create value because they break down the barriers of distance between people.  We grow more when we exist in community with others.  We nurture and exchange ideas with those we live nearby.  This lack of distance is what ultimately defines a city.  Once people are drawn into close proximity, cities then provide the conduits and institutions for a healthy free market.  The fruit of this proximity in turn make us more prosperous. 

None of this is entirely new.  Cities throughout history have been the center of commerce.  They have been at the forefront of economic growth and prosperity as well as innovation and culture.  What is new is the extent to which cities have come to dominate the global economy.  America is no different.  According to Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution, our top cities hold over two-thirds of the nation’s population (and they are disproportionately bright and young), more than three-quarters of our economic output, most of our export capacity, and over ninety percent of our venture capital.  Cities contribute a significant share of growth both in states and across the world.  Brookings estimates that “in forty-seven out of fifty states, metropolitan areas generate the majority of state economic output.”  The McKinsey Global Institute in turn forecasts that over the next fifteen years, America’s large cities will contribute over ten percent of the world’s economic growth

Cities come in all shapes and sizes.  To be clear, they are more than just downtowns.  The best way to capture a city’s dynamism is to talk about its entire metropolitan area.  For instance, the economy of Washington, DC actually encompasses much of northern Virginia and southern Maryland.  While this article will refer to metros and cities interchangeably, the object is the same: the entire economic hub of a city, from suburbs to downtown.  With this in mind, we see that New York City stands as a global city with nearly 20 million residents in its metro area. Regional capitals, such as St. Louis, Missouri, with over 2.8 million people in its metro area, act as hubs for miles around, if not always an entire state. Smaller cities, such as Burbank, California, are key parts of an overall metropolitan economy, or like Erie, Pennsylvania, represent waypoints for economies past and present.

Enterprising cities are formed from two essential, interrelated ingredients: people and place.  “Place,” as it were, refers to the power of density, the concentration of people and industries that bring knowledge spillovers and shared labor, the unique culture and amenities of city that form its quality of life, and the cost of living.  “People” refers to human capital writ large, meaning our individual skills and education once combined and deployed.  Scholars since the turn of the last century—Alfred Marshall, Jane Jacobs, Robert Lucas, Edward Glaeser, Enrico Moretti, and others—have found that with greater density and ample sources of human capital, cities can become more productive and prosperous.  The hope for America is that more people in more productive places will mean more prosperity.

That is not entirely the case today.  America’s economic recovery has been spotty at best.  Unemployment rates remain high, especially in the metro areas hit hardest by the collapse in housing prices.  Our cities and our national economy are simply not reaching their potential.  Indeed, it seems as if today’s policies and planning are uniquely inclined toward discouraging urban growth, even as our overall economy grows increasingly centralized.  We too often discourage people and businesses from capitalizing on opportunities as they see fit.

Investing in America’s most enterprising cities should be one of the biggest no-brainers out there.  Our national economy rests on cities remaining the primary processors of information and engines of growth.


Contrary to conventional wisdom, we do not live in a “flat” world.  Location matters more than it ever has thanks to globalization and information technology.  Ironically, these were the very forces expected to spell the death of distance.  The urban ecosystem has simply become more dynamic and people-based instead.  Information travels so quickly that it’s become a commodity.  Greater value then is placed on being physically close to other people and their unique knowledge (hence the rise of the “knowledge economy”).  One piece of evidence for this is seen in salaries.  The wage premium for living in a city has grown from twenty four percent in 1980 to thirty-three percent today.  Part of this is a reflection of the greater productivity experienced in cities, which is as high as it’s ever been.  Where we are located and how many other people live around us still has a profound influence.

At the corporate level, we see that most company’s assets, infrastructure, and supply chains all remain dependent on regional economies.  They benefit greatly from being close to their suppliers and customers, and this creates even further value and employment locally.  A diverse portfolio of firms and suppliers can also create a wide range of jobs.  As Edward Glaeser of Harvard University points out in Triumph of the City, “Cities create a virtuous jobs cycle in which employers are attracted by a large pool of potential employees and workers are drawn by abundance of potential employers.”

Markets are ultimately place-based and focus in on metropolitan areas.  Place and prosperity are then closely linked and depend on a number of key factors: the density of a metro’s population, the grouping of its companies, its level of competition, the quality of life, and the cost of living.  These characteristics impact a city’s growth prospects for decades to come.

The best way to look at the value of place is to step back and consider the city as a productive ecosystem.  The more that this environment is tightly woven and interrelated, the more prosperous it is.  Doubling density increases productivity by anywhere from four to six percent at a minimum.  Boost the number of college graduates in a city by just one standard deviation from the norm and the rate of productivity growth doubles.  Nearly half of the variation in productivity between American states comes down to the density of a city’s ecosystem.  In fact, new research by Geoffrey West and Luis Bettencourt shows that nearly every indicator of economic activity, from patents to income to construction spending, increases by fifteen percent per capita when a city doubles in size.

Clearly, city density has a tremendous impact on growth.  Michael Porter of Harvard Business School found that firms and people tend to aggregate into clusters of productive activity.  Companies often locate near other firms that have similar attributes and needs, not to mention ready suppliers and customers.  As Porter puts it, “Clusters arise because they increase the productivity with which companies can compete.”  Having just one sort of industry cluster won’t make much of a difference though.  A diversity of industry is critically important as well for long term growth as it cross-fertilizes technologies and insights, not to mention protects against economic shocks.  The noted urbanist Jane Jacobs saw New York City as the quintessential example of a city with a diverse, dynamic ecosystem of industry clusters, where more than a quarter of residents are new at any given time and once-dominant industries, such as shipping, helped spawn first the fashion industry and then finance.  On the other hand, a specialized city like Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, had to deal with wrenching change after World War II to adjust to a more complex, diverse local economy after its central industries moved away. 

These diverse clusters of industry are the foundation upon which enterprising economies are built.  On one level, they encourage efficiency, especially in dense, creative places.  Companies have more opportunities to find synergies that previously did not exist.  When they are not working together, competitive pressures between firms enhances their productivity and pushes them to innovate.  Communication is also made easier.  While technology has enabled faster communication, it has also increased the amount being conveyed while simultaneously decreasing the ability to effectively transmit complex information.  This is where being around the corner from a colleague or a competitor helps. 

Indeed, scholars have found ample evidence that dense clusters (and cities in general) enable what they call “knowledge spillovers.”  Ideas tend to spread more readily from person to person and firm to firm the more concentrated these clusters are.  Robert Lucas, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago, found that these spillovers may be the fundamental economic difference between rich and poor countries.  Knowledge spillovers prime a city’s economic engine, especially in the high-tech fields, and encourages others to tap into the resulting growth. 

“Bringing one high-tech company to a city eventually results in having more high-tech companies locate there,” according to Enrico Moretti of the University of California, Berkeley, “as dense high-tech clusters make high-tech firms more innovative and more successful.”  Moretti goes on to point out in his book, The New Geography of Jobs, that this “urban agglomeration” of industry has a multiplier effect on job creation as well.  While Apple directly employs some 12,000 workers in Cupertino, California, the company can also be thanked for generating an additional 60,000 jobs in the regional area.

While many places in California boast innovation hubs like these and have the jobs and patents to show for it, they are not the only examples of clustering and knowledge spillover.  Hartford, Connecticut, for instance, harbors a number of interrelated firms building airplane engines.  Over eighteen percent of all jobs in this field are found in Hartford.  At the same time, the city is the traditional home of the American insurance industry, plus serves as a statewide healthcare hub.  Michigan’s traditional strength in automotive manufacturing has led to the formation of a number of advanced battery makers.  My hometown of Dallas, Texas, has a significant cluster of telecommunications firms centered on the presence of Texas Instruments.

An enterprising city consists of more than industry alone.  When we consider moving to a new city, it is natural to ask whether we’d want to live there in the first place.  Many of our most productive cities have a certain quality of life that makes people want to go there and stay.  Our wealth has bought us a focus on amenities and aesthetics that our predecessors could only dream of.

When we think of what makes a city a pleasure to live in, a number of factors come to mind.  It ideally has a decent climate.  Perhaps the city hosts a vibrant culture matched by unrivaled art galleries and restaurants.  Maybe its social scene is uniquely suited for young persons just out of college or offers a diverse school system for families.  A lot of different elements form a city’s quality of life and, as the late University of Washington academic Charles Tiebout argued, when we move to a city we are selecting a particular bundle of these amenities.  We are “voting with our feet.”   

Skilled workers especially are electing to live in places with the greatest quality of life.  A city’s average temperature is one of the greatest predictors of economic growth and average skill level today.  The same goes, though to a lesser degree, for museums and theaters.  Quality of life is not just driving growth but incomes as well, with high-amenity counties consistently running ahead of other cities in wage growth.

Richard Florida has famously argued that culture and creativity is more than just an element of quality of life, but the fundamental driver of growth.  “Creative cities” with large “bohemian” populations and a tolerance for diverse lifestyles directly fosters innovation and a labor market thick with skilled workers.  Whether his argument represents a correlation with or a cause of economic growth doesn’t undermine the point that the culture and amenities of a city form an essential component of its quality of life, and that these factors are a part of what makes the 21st century city tick.

The flip side to quality of life is the cost of living.  Let’s face it: cities are expensive!  There’s a cost to enjoying what a city has to offer.  As Glaeser points out, high wages and high prices go hand-in-hand most of the time, and we’ve already seen that you’re more likely to make a higher salary in a city.  Greater productivity though is usually more than enough to offset these costs for companies, and wages have (until recently) outrun the cost of living for a city’s residents. 

The only problem is that the supply of housing and office space has not been able to keep up with demand in many of our most productive places.  This imbalance has made some metros increasingly out of reach for the average person.  While many people may clamor for the quality of life and well-paying jobs found in California’s Silicon Valley, for instance, that area’s supply of homes has not increased enough to keep up with demand.  This trend is exerting a profoundly upward pressure on home prices throughout the area.  Elsewhere, high prices in general mean that an average family in Houston, Texas, is some fifty-eight percent richer in real dollars than an average family in Queens, New York.  With affordability in decline, many have chosen to move elsewhere.  These areas are often less expensive because they are less productive.  Ryan Avent of The Economist, writing in his book The Gated City, found that “Americans are moving away from the places where the jobs of tomorrow are being created—or would be if the market were more flexible.”  A city that no one can afford to live in has ultimately been robbed of its promise. 

Enterprising cities are not afraid of growth.  Healthy markets ensure that the demand in goods and housing is at least somewhere met by the supply.  Average families are able to move in and make a living.  Affordability is within reach, even to those who make sacrifices in order to pursue the opportunities and amenities that a city has to offer.  Companies have access to an elastic supply of office space and are not caught up in a web of regulation emanating from city hall.  Since the character and history of a city is part and parcel with its quality of life, there needn’t be a choice between growth and sustainability as some have worried.  What you want to avoid is a city becoming embalmed and turned into a relic of past opportunities that are no longer available to the average resident, entrepreneur, or business. 



Cities bring people together in order to foster collaboration and creativity.  Economies thrive on the knowledge and innovation that results from what’s known as our human capital.  In his paper The Human Capital Imperative, Nick Schulz describes human capital as “the stock of talent, skill, know-how, intelligence education, and experience embedded within individuals that help them to produce income.”  The wealth of a city isn’t just held in its buildings then, but in its people and their talents and abilities.  The Bureau of Economic Analysis estimates that the value of America’s human capital exceeds that of our physical capital by 16-to-1. 

Human capital is nearly perfectly correlated with economic growth.  Dense metro areas that have an especially educated or skilled population are likely to be far wealthier than average.  Using a college education as an imprecise measure of human capital helps give us a picture of these gains.  For every ten percent increase in the number of a city’s college graduates, GDP goes up by twenty-two percent.  The median household income of Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, for instance, a metro area bursting with degrees, is nearly $12,000 higher than in the rest of the state.  Of course, it matters how and where these degrees are used.  The “knowledge industries” of information technology or the life sciences are often best situated to capitalize on an investment in talent.  Enrico Moretti found that a college-educated worker living in what he called “brain hubs” earned about fifty percent more than those at the bottom of the list in the share of college graduates.  Even still, Moretti established that this greater wealth benefits even unskilled workers:

“I found that workers who live in cities where the number of college graduates increases experience faster salary gains than workers who live in cities where the number of college graduates stagnates.  Thus the same individual can make a very different salary depending on how many skilled workers surround him.  This relationship holds for all sectors, but it is particularly strong for workers with high-tech jobs.”

Cities need to continuously build up their supply of human capital in order to succeed.  Draining a city’s human capital is the single fastest way to undermine its long-term prosperity.  That’s why even basic K-12 education is an important part of economic development.  A private foundation in Kalamazoo, Michigan, now offers to pay for the college education of the city’s high school graduates.  The “Kalamazoo Promise” is intended to catalyze growth and better the city’s educational opportunities.  Recent studies from the W.E. Upjohn Institute are showing signs that the Promise is in fact achieving its goals.  Enrollment levels have increased by at least eighteen percent across the school district since 2005.  The average Kalamazoo student has seen his or her performance improve by one to two grade levels.  That same student also now stands a better chance of graduating from high school and attending college.  The private sector has responded, with a maker of aluminum products, a drug testing company, and a plastics manufacturer all moving to Kalamazoo within the first years of the Promise’s implementation.  On the other hand, cities that don’t effectively meet the demand for basic education see their unemployment rates increase by one-and-a-half percent on average.  

Institutions of higher education are undoubtedly a top resource for cities.  Today, America boasts many of the world’s best universities, which in turn incubate the ideas and innovators needed for a successful city.  Businesses are increasingly forming partnerships with these institutions in order to find the workforce they need to grow (and perhaps even to capitalize on some of the ideas found therein).  Investing in human capital produces lasting dividends that enable enterprising cities to stay competitive in the 21st century.  Once a city has developed a skilled workforce, numerous studies have found that it proves much easier then to attract and retain additional educated workers. 

Perhaps the most valuable skilled worker to a city is the entrepreneur, build demand as much as they supply it.  They are like gardeners to a city’s ecosystem, trimming back old growth, cultivating new ground, and fertilizing the most promising opportunities.  That’s one of the central ways that a city remains dynamic and resilient in the face of an increasingly turbulent economy.  All the while, young firms act as our national economy’s key job creators. 

The Kauffman Foundation found that nearly all of the net job growth in the United States from 1977 to 2005 came from firms less than one year old.  It shouldn’t be too surprising then that Edward Glaeser and William Kerr also established that cities with numerous start-ups enjoyed a higher than average rise in job growth over a similar period of twenty-three years.  Unfortunately, successful entrepreneurs are a scarce resource that our cities and education institutions are hard pressed to capitalize on.  Jim Clifton of Gallup estimates in his book The Coming Jobs War that only three people out of every thousand have the “potential to develop an organization with $50 million or more in revenue.”

Human capital is the key input in today’s knowledge-based economy.  Cities that first grew up around fertile soil, waterways, or raw materials must now capitalize on the ultimate resource: people.  Those with the right know-how and ingenuity are proving hard to find and nurture though.  Demand for skilled workers today is far outstripping supply.  Companies are finding it increasingly difficult to find the workers that they need, even in the midst of high unemployment.  Up to thirty-four percent of all employers worldwide are struggling to find the talent necessary to fill their open positions.  Educating, attracting, and retaining skilled workers is the key the competitiveness for today’s enterprising cities. 


Enterprising cities are more than sidewalks and skyscrapers.  They are places built on intangible strengths that enable people to become more productive.  Dense pockets of industry and knowledge interact with a high quality of life and low cost of living to form a city that is more prosperous and resilient. 

Economies ultimately grow or falter depending on what happens in the neighborhoods where we live.  That remains true even if you live far away from a city.  Nevertheless, cities will continue to be the incubators of future growth and America’s key assets in a knowledge-based global economy.  As such, America’s national prosperity in large part depends upon how we capitalize on our local strengths, something that policymakers today would do well to remember.  The markers of an enterprising city will ultimately serve to light the path toward growth.