The Parks and Recreation Theory of America's Future

What we discuss at the national level has surprisingly little to do with startup decisions. Some provocative data about where America is growing, and why.
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I have an article about Greenville, South Carolina, and some other cities, just being wrapped up for the April issue of the magazine. Whenever the snow and wintry storms stop rolling through the eastern half of the country, which should be soon, we'll resume our travels, again headed south.

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The watchword for this America-by-small-plane journey has been: there's no place we "have" to be, so there's no reason to take off when there is weather to worry about.

Low-altitude flight in good weather can seem almost magical (as Deb Fallows has described). In bad weather, it's unpleasant at best and foolishly dangerous at worst. Here is the kind of forecast map, retrieved just now from the National Weather Service's wonderful Aviation Weather Center site, that makes me think: Well, I have a lot of writing to catch up on anyway. It's forecast icing severity early tomorrow as the latest snow storm comes through, at the altitudes we'd be likely to fly headed south. The red hashmarks are for "Supercooled Large Droplets," which are worse than they sound and can mean trouble for even big, powerful jet planes. 

So for the evening, two intriguing bits of data on the main question we're pursuing in America as we once did in China: why certain communities are proving resilient in tough times, and whether their successes are purely idiosyncratic or offer clues that might be applied elsewhere.

The first item is the interactive map you see at the top of this post -- not the discouraging icing-forecast chart but the one centered on Greenville and surrounding upstate South Carolina. This map was prepared by Jim Herries at the mapping firm Esri, our partner in this project, and it offers a very fine-grained look at expected "population pressures" over the next few years.

Pressure comes in two varieties: rising, and falling. The green dots on the maps are the neighborhoods and cities expected to grow rapidly by 2017; the blue shows "average" growth rates; and the magenta dots show areas that people are leaving. You can zoom the map in and out and pan to any part of the country, to find patterns that I find extremely interesting. For instance, here is a screenshot of the big-picture view, showing what is happening especially in the settled areas east of the Rockies.

Again, the pinkish dots are counties or neighborhoods that are static or losing population as the whole nation grows, and green is the reverse. If you zoom in on the interactive map at top, you will find a lot of instructive regional patterns, about which we'll have more to say.

Item two is a report earlier this month from the Endeavor organization, which supports entrepreneurs around the world. It surveyed people who had started and built high-growth, usually high-tech new businesses -- the same kind of people we've been looking for and describing in Vermont and South Dakota and inland California and South Carolina. It tried to identify why they built their businesses where they did.

You can read the whole results here (and Richard Florida's analysis for Atlantic Cities here). The point that resonated with me is that the main variables had almost nothing to do with what we usually discuss at the national level, from tax rates to regulatory breaks. Instead they were overwhelmingly about the features we've heard time and again from mayors, chambers of commerce, newspaper editors (yes, they still exist and are informative), and school superintendents. These are: whether a city is an attractive place to live, whether young people want to move there, whether they will find other people like them there, whether they will want to stay there as they start families. People think of Parks and Recreation (for the record, I am a fan) as a putdown of flyover life. But according to this study, it's closer than much Beltway talk to what matters about our future.

The study's executive-summary portion was:

  • Entrepreneurs at fast-growing firms usually decide where to live based on personal connections and quality of life factors many years before they start their firms.
  • These founders value a pool of talented employees more than any other business-related resource that cities can offer.
  • Access to customers and suppliers is the second most valuable business-related resource that cities can provide, according to these entrepreneurs.
  • The founders in our study rarely cite low tax rates or business-friendly regulations as reasons for starting a business in a specific city. 

The whole thing is concise and provocative, and corresponds to what we've heard on our trips so far.


If we were planning on flying tomorrow morning, I wouldn't be up this late, and I wouldn't be having a beer right now. The endless winter has some benefits. 

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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