Life on the urban fringe


Employment in New York City has increased by 633,800 jobs in the past six years, according to the state July labor statistics. How long can the unprecedented jobs increase, which took the Big Apple’s employment total from 3,699,000 in July 2010 to the present highest-ever 4,332,800, continue? As of this July’s numbers, the 100,000-additional-jobs-annually pace shows little sign of weakening, though it can’t last forever. New York City has added an average of 292 jobs every day, including holidays and weekends, for the past six years.

Why is New York City doing so extraordinarily well? A decade ago, the Columbia historian Kenneth T. Jackson took the position Gotham has been different from, not typical of, American cities. He argued that it had been unusually successful for four centuries because of its heterogeneity. New York City’s economic evolution, in other words, has been the urban equivalent of keeping one’s eggs in more than one basket.

That means that the scavenging areas surrounding New York City aren’t quite sure what egg to try to poach (in the larcenous rather than the cooking sense). Some areas are satisfied to offer more congenial suburban nests for city commuters (Westchester, Rockland and southern Orange counties). Some have thought they could succeed best by building a low-cost city-like environment identical to but less dense than New York’s (Stamford, Jersey City, White Plains). Some seek to provide a perfect niche congenial to a particular avian species (say creatives, techies or hedgies). Others stress creating jobs that are complementary rather than competitive (agriculture, warehousing and manufacturing) to Gotham’s. Still others believe that future prospects are best maximized in a mixed economy within a small-town setting (most of Ulster County).


Regional Plan Association’s (RPA) fourth regional plan, itself long in the hatching, has been earnestly pursuing the different scenarios, choices and tradeoffs involved in the attempt to forecast long-term urban change. “Growth patterns are complex, as the region has developed around multiple centers of activity,” noted RPA staff. “To understand the characteristics and dynamics of these diverse places and to analyze future development and growth patterns,” RPA divided the region into five types of places: the urban core of New York City, downtown and local centers, commercial and industrial activity, primarily residential areas, and rural areas and open space. It’s been studying all of them.

Here are some of RPA’s pluses and minuses. Building up the region’s center even more would call for the greatest amount of transit infrastructure into the regional core. Growing with nature might foster greater social polarization. Reinventing the suburbs would continue auto-dependence and low-density development. Resurgent downtowns would concentrate more people and jobs in places where infrastructure, services and community amenities already exist, but would require “extraordinary measures in terms of governance and transformation of current development and employment trends.”


During the same six-year period, Ulster County’s employment total has increased from 59,600 to 61,800, or an average of one job added per day. With Ulster County’s population just over two per cent of New York City’s, that one daily job would have had to ratchet up to a gain of six daily jobs if it were to be proportional to New York City’s job-growth pace in the past six years.

Things may be looking up. Ulster County’s recent annual average jobs increase — one or two jobs a day — looks as though it will be a little better in 2016, somewhere in the three-job-a-day range. It’s hard to tell whether to credit this uptick to the long-awaited improvement in the economic climate, to more city people — many of a digital persuasion — finally seeing the Hudson Valley as a place from which they can do business, or to the Hudson Valley in general and Ulster County in particular improving the effectiveness of job-attracting and job-creating efforts.

It’s probably a combination of all three factors. In order to get from one additional job per day to six per day — assuming that’s the goal — Ulster County needs not only to do business differently, to use the county public-relations slogan, but to do business better.


It’s been pretty well established that human capital is now central to the American economy, and that larger sprawling metros rather than distinct cities have become the best economic performers. Until the last few years, less dense parts of metro areas had been growing faster in population than had more dense areas. Now that pattern’s been reversed. More dense areas like the Big Apple have been growing faster than the less dense areas around it.

Academic economist Edward Glaeser and others have long attributed different patterns of regional growth primarily to differences in housing supply. A decade ago he felt that land-use regulations, rather than a scarcity of buildable land, were making Gotham much more expensive to live in. The increase in New York City population running in tandem with the increase in New York City employment has since then led to an even steeper rise in the cost of city housing. Given the present balance of economic forces, will the New York metropolitan region become more centralized or more decentralized? Or both?

We don’t know. The essence of an innovative economy is its unpredictability. As the world of opportunity changes, entrepreneurs come up with new ideas. Some of them may result in greater job opportunities in just a few blocks of overcrowded Gotham. Others may encourage a mass exodus from Brooklyn or a greater number of one-day commuters from the exurbs into New York City.

Perhaps traffic will be heavy both ways, as is frequently the case in Los Angeles. One large flow of people on the New York State Thruway heading back to New York on Sunday night might be traveling bumper to bumper in the opposite direction as an equally large flow heading upstate. Bummer.

Let me leave you with three modestly optimistic guesses about the future of the upper part of the Hudson Valley. The outskirts of the larger metropolitan areas will no longer be where the larger enterprises will be concentrated, as was customary in the late phase of the industrial age. Some of these exurban outskirts will fall by the economic wayside. The ones that will thrive are likely to be those blessed by a high proportion of knowledge workers living within workable communities.  

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