From the Now You Know file: This Is What Marketers Think of You and Your Neighbors (via Next City)

I’ve done a lot of market studies over the years — usually for places where the “market” seemed to have run for the hills.  In disadvantaged urban neighborhoods, Appalachian villages, and crumbled first-ring suburbs, I have a long history of being the person who gets brought in when people go, “We’ve got something…something…right??”

The problem is that, if you look at the standard stuff that marketing firms use to locate the next shop in the franchise, or build the next strip mall or move the warehouse… for a whole lot of places, that data basically gives one message:


Go somewhere else.


This article from Next City described the psychographics developed by ESRI, one of the major online geographic information systems companies, and it takes issue with the fact that the categories with which they tag communities sometimes seem… not so nice.  Here’s an except:



Some of the profile tags might elicit a smirk, like “Laptops and Lattes” and “Soccer Moms,” but the way that coded language crops up when sizing up low-income urban neighborhoods reveals a more unsettling truth about how marketers jockey information about race, ethnicity and gender in order to influence spending habits.

In fact, the language that ESRI and other data brokers use to flatten populations down into segments can end up sounding an awful lot like disturbing stereotypes.


Truth in advertising: I use ESRI’s Business Analyst Online, the information platform that these psychographics comes from.

(Psychographics, if you don’t know that word, are sort of marketing sterotypes of a population based on income and spending characteristics, as established through lots of surveys and a thicket of data sources).

I generally use ESRI’s because I generally find them less…well, creepy…. than the profiles produced by most of their competitors.

But that’s a relative assessment.

In my own market analysis/market restructuring strategy work, I usually use these to show the community WHY they are not getting the Talbots/Target/Applebees/fill in the blank that they want.  It’s like looking in a mirror that only shows you what someone else is seeing in you.  And if what you want someone to see in you is a desirable economic location, that data and those psychographics can be a pretty rude awakening.

After I’ve shown those psychographics to a community, though, it’s time to throw them aside.  Because they only show a small part of the story (that magical mirror turns out to be one of those fun-house things with a big warp in the middle that makes you look like a giraffe or a string of beads.)  There’s almost always opportunities, some kinds of real economic opportunities.  But they’re going to look different, sound different, operate at a different scale, than what the people who look at and actually believe those psychographics will do.

That opportunity almost always requires growing your own.

From the Good Ideas File: 5 Pillars of a Citywide Revitalization Strategy

One of the challenges in the back of my head most of the time is the questions of needing to find a better, more integrated and more holistic way to plan for the future of cities.  I don’t have a full answer yet, but I know that a big piece of it has to be more than drawing colored blobs on a map, noting how nice it would be to have a bunch of biotech businesses and “encouraging” people to do stuff.

So this blog post out of Detroit’s particularly caught my attention.  We all should be doing this, or something like it.  I especially like the combination of housing and commercial corridors into one strategy — they are so dependent on each other, and far too often we deal with them like they were on different planets.

The only thing I would add is that there should be cross-communication between the circles while they’re being developed.  A system of cross-advising and reporting would be a good help

Do read the post ( but don’t ask me what’s going on on Scandal — about 70% of their pop culture references go over my head. I live under a rock…)

The 5 Pillars of a Citywide Revitalization Strategy


From Public Private



from the Good Ideas File: using what you got in Covington, Kentucky

My parents were Depression children who learned early on that things that other people abandon can have value.  I wrote about my dad’s penchant for curb-picking in one of the most personal essays in the book — and I described his tendency to show me some piece of foundry casting or industrial leftover, describe a plan for making something out of it, and declare, “I see usability!”  By the time he had started making that statement, he had apparently realized that seeing usability in castoffs wasn’t always the norm.

Big and small cities natonwide are pocked with vacant houses that are commonly assumed to be too old, too small, too drafty, too weird to find a market reuse.  And if your definition of the market is 2 parents and 1.75 kids, maybe you’re right.  But too often we fail to see that there might be a valuable niche for them, after all.

Covington, Kentucky, is currently working on proving the potential for a niche market for some of its hardest-to-reuse properties: the tiny shotgun houses that you find in center cities throughouth the Ohio River Valley.  When I say tiny, I do mean tiny.  I’ve seen closets bigger than some of these.

Five houses in Covington are being rehabilitated for artists-in-residence. The houses, located on Orchard Street, are all one-story shotgun houses, with one bedroom and one bathroom, and the space for a studio.

“Historically, this is one of the worst areas in Covington, and neighbors wanted to do something about it,” says Sarah Allan with the Center for Great Neighborhoods. “Everyone thought the buildings should be torn down, but instead, we’re redoing them and creating value.”


Artists can be a valuable segment for testing market demand because they’re often willing to take riks and often have a higher level of skills in terms of making physical improvements, but too often communities rely on creating an artist community as an end-strategy.  In Covington,  they’re apparently thinking about this prudently:

“Stemming from this project, we’ve had a lot of interest from older people who want to age in place in a urban setting,” Allan says. “They want a one-story house in an urban setting as opposed to one in the suburbs. There are shotgun houses scattered all around Covington, and in the future, we might remodel them for those that are interested in the product, but aren’t necessarily artists.”

Nice going, guys!

from the Good Ideas File: job creation and young businesses

There’s been some confusion and possibly conflicting information around small business job growth, new business job growth and start-up trends in general in the press lately. That is part of why this new report from the Kaufmann Foundation caught my attention.

While the whote report is worth reading, this chart particularly caught my attention – but apparently not quote for the reasons that the authors expected:



from Kauffman Foundation. Click the image for the link.

Take notice of the trend lines here: not only is the amount of job creation higher for the younger firms, but over time, the job creation trend among younger firms is less volatile. When the recession hit, the oldest firms took the biggest drop in job creation.  Overall.  net job creation in firms under 10 years old hardly blipped.


We have this standard, frequently unexamined assumption that chasing main line, established businesses for expansion or relocation is the right idea, the right policy, because that’s how you build substantial job growth.  An auxillary is that focusing on young businesses is nice but risky, because young firms have a relatively high death rate.

But this data seems to indicate the opposite — that an economy that relies on young businesses has both higher job growth and more stable job growth than economies that rely on older businesses.  My own guess would be that the higher level of churn — business deaths and business starts — leads to an overall higher level of net job creation, even in the face of some of those businesses not surviving for long.

This should be substantial cause for re-thinking of a lot of our economic development policies, at all levels.  If our stated objective is to increase the number of jobs available, a strategy that focuses on growing new businesses seems to be both the most effective and the most resilient way to do it.