Competing for the Next Generation

Cities have traditionally attracted new business by enticing owners. But luring workers may be more successful. San Rafael and Petaluma are positioned to take advantage of that insight.

Water Street in downtown Petaluma
Water Street in downtown Petaluma

Last fall, I expressed a concern that Petaluma in the North Bay wasn’t doing enough to attract young, cutting-edge professionals, the group that Richard Florida calls the “creative class”. I noted that studies are showing young people with marketable job skills are increasingly choosing where they want to live before deciding for whom they will work. To those from earlier generations, the priority may seem inverted, but it does seem to be the growing reality.

In my earlier post, I observed that Petaluma, although acknowledging the need to become a more desirable place for young professionals, still seemed to be devoting the greater economic development effort toward attracting firms. I suggested that attracting workers, and thereby encouraging firms to follow, was increasingly the more effective strategy.

I was hardly breaking new ground with that analysis. Others, including Florida, had been there for years.

Since my post, further supporting data has been arriving on my desk. Kaid Benfield of the National Resources Defense Council reported on the pending move of a Motorola division from a Chicago suburb back into the Loop. The reason, which was just as expected, is that Motorola needs to attract workers who want to be in downtown Chicago.

To a large extent, this demographic trend is bad news for the North Bay. The message is that young workers would rather be in San Francisco or Oakland than in a more sedate North Bay community.

But the trend also provides a direction that the North Bay could follow. San Rafael, Santa Rosa, or Windsor will never compete, at least in this generation, with San Francisco. But all of them can work toward creating neighborhoods that replicate something of the urban feeling of San Francisco, perhaps creating a symbiosis of the edginess of a big city and the affordability of a smaller city.

San Rafael and Petaluma even have a running start toward that goal, having recently been listed among the top 50 most exciting small cities in the U.S. in a tally compiled by Movoto.com, an on-line real estate service. (The method of compiling the tally is simplistic, but even simplistic analyses can provide legitimate insights.) San Rafael comes in at 11th, with Petaluma finishing 34th.

Furthermore, the data that went into the Movoto tally provides insight about the nature of the North Bay urban scene. Both San Rafael and Petaluma score well in live music and in non-fast food dining, with Petaluma also scoring in nightlife. 

But both cities fall far short in population of young adults, with San Rafael at 57th and Petaluma at 113th, pushing their overall rankings down. 

Why the shortfall in young adult residency? My interpretation is that San Rafael and Petaluma lack the housing options to go with the active urban and music scenes. It may be fine to spend an evening in Petaluma checking out bands, but if the primary housing choices for young professionals are apartments and homes in non-walkable settings, those young adults will live elsewhere.

The Motorola story tells us that small cities need to attract young professionals if they’re to retain current employers and perhaps attract new ones. The Movoto tally tells us that at least a couple of North Bay cities have some of the pieces needed to attract those young professionals, although they fall short in the area of housing. But creating housing preferred by young adults is a key province of urbanism.

As so often seems to happen, urbanism is again the right answer to a civic challenge of our time.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and three dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at Where Do We Go from Here. He can also be followed on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and VibrantBayArea.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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