Michigan & the Brain Drain

Jul 3, 2013 at 9:39 am
This is not the way to attract educated young people ... Deadline Detroit’s Jeff Wattrick posted an interesting article quoting many Michigan leaders who say we need more college-educated young professionals in the state. Or, more to the point, we need to do what we can to stop educated young people from running away from Michigan as fast as their legs can carry them — in droves. But the key word here is “educated.” Apparently, our leading local lights want to entice educated young people to come here, but there’s one problem with this: Educated young people know it’s a ruse. There’s no mystery to attracting educated young people. They represent the best-studied and most analyzed generation in history. It is no secret what these young people want, and they are vocal about expressing their desires. What they want is very different from what the previous generations have wanted. They are more interested in living in a city than in a split-level home in the suburbs. They are more interested in walking or biking in a tightly developed area than in driving out to a mall. They are very interested in living near a rapid transit system, and put a premium on living near rail-based transit. They are a racially diverse group and do not seek out places that are ethnically or racially homogenous. They enjoy older neighborhoods vested with history and are genuinely interested in an area’s heritage. So why won’t they stay in Michigan? That is also no secret. It is because our local leaders, however much they moan about young people leaving the state, are actually hostile to their needs and desires. These “educated young people” are smart enough to know the truth about us: Our priorities are helping the very old and very rich get what they want. Not making our state attractive to educated young people. Educated young people are excited when a light rail line uniting the city and the suburbs is proposed, only to feel jacked when the idea is scaled back in favor of a metrowide bus system. Educated young people are drawn to the density and walkability of the mid-city area, but feel burned when MDOT proposes a $2.8 billion freeway expansion plan that will rip out some of that vital urban fabric, as well as pose obstacles to cyclists and pedestrians. Educated young people roll their eyes when our local leaders don’t question using taxes to subsidize an 83-year-old billionaire’s superblock stadium and parking structures. In fact, when our local leaders aren’t busy alienating educated young people by pursuing the outdated and obsolete designs of the 20th century, they are actively belittling them. For instance, if educated young people love cities and find appeal in living in a historic urban area, why in the world does L. Brooks Patterson persist in leaving up his passionate defense of sprawl on his Oakland County website? That’s just a slap in the face to educated young people. So what do educated young people do? They pack up and haul ass to a place that actively offers the things that Michigan refuses to. This is all said much better in a post on Cleveland’s Rust Wire blog.

Young creatives crave walkable urban places. I am one of them. And believe it or not that is the major reason I moved to Cleveland. Cleveland has been blessed, by nature of its old age, with a relatively walkable built environment and even a decent transit system. But somehow Cleveland’s can’t recognize that this is its greatest asset. It continues suburbanizing the city — to a greater or lesser extent — and it embarks on a new marketing campaign to tell the world it’s not nearly as bad here as everyone thinks.

Example: If 75 young people show up at a public meeting and demand a bike lane: there — right there is part of your answer. Cleveland’s existing young people want bike lanes. But somehow, in the actual hierarchy of city priorities, 75 young people’s wishes rank far, far behind those of favored developers.   Or what about when the city of Cleveland wanted to tear down a historic downtown building and replace it with a parking garage? And hundreds of young people expressed opposition? Again right there, young people who live in Cleveland were expressing their preferences very clearly: they want a dense, walkable downtown — not a car repository for suburbanites. Again, that is the moment the city had a chance to win the hearts and loyalty of young people, but again, young people’s clearly expressed preferences were outweighed by those of a favored developer.

Reading this quote brings a local example to mind. A few weeks ago, a special meeting of SEMCOG was convened at the Atheneum Hotel in downtown Detroit. Scores of those educated young people showed up and pleaded with MDOT not to expand I-94 and remove all the bridges linking the area. After hearing these residents that Michigan so sorely desires comment on the deficiencies of the plan, what did our regional planning organization do? They approved the plan. Here's a little hint for our state's leadership: That's how you chase away those "educated young people."