Geography Still Matters

Michael Lewyn's picture

Some commentators think that Internet technology will liberate us from the constraints of place; for example, one book review of Joel Kotkin's The New Geography states "Because today's connected workers can live anywhere they want, they will live anywhere they want."  Kotkin himself is a little more circumspect, but writes: "Telecommunication allows people who want privacy, low-density neighborhoods and good schools to live in small towns in a way never before possible."(1)  There is a tiny amount of truth to this claim: the Internet does make it easier to run a home-based business, which means that some people can sell stuff from their homes without worrying about commuting.

But most businesses of any size will eventually need employees.  And many of those employees will actually need to see their bosses and coworkers, rather than telecommuting.  In fact, while part-time telecommuting has increased in recent years, the number of full-time remote telecommuters has decreased from 14.7 million in 2006 to 13.5 million in 2008, just under ten percent of American workers.(2)  And I suspect that even some of these telecommuters must be in the same metropolitan area as their bosses.  In other words, the overwhelming majority of workers still need to go where the jobs are.

For example, I moved from Washington, DC to Jacksonville, Florida three years ago.  Did I do this because I was in love with Jacksonville?  Hardly.  I did it because I am a law professor, and a school in Jacksonville offered me a job.  Of course, law schools are an unusual business; there are only about 200 law schools in the United States, due to state accreditation rules that limit entry into the law school market.  But even when I practiced law, I found that I could rarely live in my ideal city: my last law firm was in Buffalo, New York.  Buffalo, like Jacksonville, was not my first (or second or third or fourth) choice- but it was where I had a job offer.

And in both teaching and practice, I actually had to show up at work now and then.  As a teacher, I only have to be physically present to teach six hours a week.  However, my boss strongly encourages faculty to be on-site about 30 hours a week, so we can be more accessible to students.  So I can't just live in a faraway city and fly to classes twice a week.

And I have additional (admittedly self-imposed) constraints that limit my options.  I want to be within walking distance of a synagogue.  That limits me to just one neighborhood in Jacksonville (unless I want to live 20 miles away in Ponte Vedra).  And since I want to be able to use public transit to get to work, Ponte Vedra is off the table.

And if I wish to leave my job, what then?  The scarcity of law school jobs limits my options, just as the scarcity of jobs in other fields limits the options of most other wage-earners.  And I can't switch countries too easily because of institutional barriers to entry.  For example, to teach in Canada or in most other English-speaking countries outside the U.S. I need an additional law degree called an L.L.M (which I am taking a year off to get; however, most people my age probably lack the money or time to do so).

So what's my point?  My point is that most Americans cannot live in place X just because they like place X. (3)  Instead, people go where they can get a job  - just as they had to do in 1950 or 1970 or 1990. 




(3) I realize that I am not "most Americans."  But since I am more educated and affluent than most Americans, I suspect that people with fewer options have even less flexibility.

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.



Richard Florida theorizes

Richard Florida theorizes that geography matters more than ever because economic activity increasingly is following the "creative class," who are attracted to unique locations with a high quality of place. I want Florida to be right about this because I'm heartbroken over homogenization of America's built environment. And I want those who create economic development policy to think he is right, so that maintaining and improving quality of place becomes a policy priority as it is seen as an economic imperative.

It does matter of course

Interesting topic... Geography will probably always matter, just in different ways. I don't think Kotkin believes (economic) geography won't matter, he just suggests it has changed and the factors of location decision making have changed. Kotkin and Garreau have even suggested that location matters even more since the old strategic methods for business location have changed and lessened. In a ports/shipping world, DFW nor Las Vegas seem to make much sense. Business has been freed to a large degree from old constraints. Employees may be mostly followers, but consider that small biz has been the growth engine in the last several years and so many entrepreneurs transport their business idea to where they can be happy living and have good business success.

On the point of mobility, here is an interesting twist. I might argue, in some cases, that the less affluent have more location choices, in some scenarios. Consider a nurse, paralegal, firefighter, government bureaucrat, network/IT guy, or office manager. You can be those almost anywhere even in today's terrible economy. But, law school professor, investment banker (whatever is left), scientist, your choices are limited. As you attain some level of affluence, you probably moved up the specialization scale to get there, thus there are fewer like you and fewer positions available and fewer locations. Just a thought.

Tim Halbur's picture
Blogger / Alum

Management is key

The idea that "employees will actually need to see their bosses and coworkers" is too readily assumed. With faster connection speeds and communication tools like IM and free webinar conferencing, there is no reason why the number of telecommuters shouldn't grow over the next few years. The key is proper management, learning to create clear expectations and deliverables for workers. Once businesses understand how to properly manage off-site workers, as freelancers already understand, telecommuting will grow.

In fact, I wonder if these studies take into account the growing freelancer pool out there. Are they not considered telecommuters?

It matters to an extent.

Your challenges to Kotkin are perfectly valid. Kotkin seems to sit on one end of the see-saw in terms of the arguments he proposes that make certain places desirable; Richard Florida sits on the other. They're both right, of course, to a certain extent. Mitigating their arguments (and detracting from their persuasiveness) is the fulcrum of that see-saw: ultimately availability of the job transcends everything else.

However, your move to Jacksonville was at least partially motivated by choice. Regardless of whether it or Buffalo were particularly desirable places to relocate, the very fact that they were open to your consideration means that you did scrutinize to a certain degree. No doubt there were other job postings for law professorships that you were unwilling to consider, but your other viable constraints of 1) synagogues and 2) transit ruled them out completely.

Thus, the argument someone else here makes that law professors may have fewer choices than firefighters is not entirely convincing because it only captures a portion of the reality: that law professors must relocate in markets where they are employable because the others aren't just less desirable, they are completely invalid. A certain picturesque small town in northern California may be optimal for X professor, but it won't even cross the mental radar if it is not within commuting distance of a job in the required field. And an intelligent law professor wouldn't enter that profession if he or she had a priority of being able to live absolutely anywhere and still be able to teach.

More To Life Than Commuting

Kotkin ...writes: “Telecommunication allows people who want privacy, low-density neighborhoods and good schools to live in small towns in a way never before possible.”

But those people will still want to go to visit friends, buy groceries, take their children to school, go to restaurants, and so on. There is still a reason to build those small towns to be walkable rather than auto-dependent.

Of course, traditional small towns generally were walkable, since people often did walk to Main Street in those benighted days. And traditional small towns were not extremely "low-density." They were higher density than many sprawl suburbs - and higher density than some large metropolitan areas (such as Albuquerque).

In fact, traditional small towns looked something like New Urbanism - and not like Kotkin's low-density, auto-dependent New Suburbanism.

If Kotkin uses telecommunication as an excuse for building low-density sprawl (fantasizing that the sprawl is like a small town), the increased transportation for other every-day activities will outweigh the reduced transportation for commuting.

Charles Siegel

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