Saturday, January 19, 2008

Flat World: Domestic Migration

While we can easily overstate the impact of economic globalization and innovations in communications, we can also overlook evidence of emerging Flat World trends. Jon Udell struggles to frame the novelty of a Creative Class flight from Fairfax, VA to Keene, NH. Likewise, an article in the Wall Street Journal mischaracterizes the gentrification of rural areas as the brave new world of Internet connectivity:

The word "gentrification" conjures up images of once-poor urban neighborhoods invaded by cappuccino bars and million-dollar condos. Now, broad swaths of rural America -- from New England to the Rocky Mountain West -- are being gussied up, too.

Affluent retirees and other high-income types have descended on these remote areas, creating new demand for amenities like interior-design stores, spas and organic markets. For many communities, it's the biggest change since the interstate highway system came barreling through in the 1960s and 1970s.

With the Internet allowing people to work from almost anywhere, the distinction between first and second homes has become blurred. Many people are buying retirement property while they're still employed. Millions of soon-to-retire baby boomers, say demographers, will propel this trend for years to come.

What places such as Keene and McCall, Idaho have in common is not so much high-speed Internet, but a high quality of life. In this respect, the Spiky World trends are overstated. The same kind of cultural amenities that the Creative Class might demand in the big city or Silicon Valley, are springing up in small towns across the United States. Face-to-face communication still matters, but these affluent nomads can get the same juices flowing in the middle of nowhere.

However, this migration is nothing new to the Interior West. The Internet may better facilitate this remote relocation, but it isn't a necessary condition. As Aspen and Vail have lost their charm, the geographically mobile are seeking new small town opportunities or more simply the next Outside Magazine dream place to live. The real story is how these exurban pioneers are dragging with them their affluent suburban lifestyles and even chic urban neighborhood sensibilities. The shock to rural areas is profound.

People still want to come together, but they don't have to do it in the big city. In fact, many would prefer a coffee shop in Bozeman to fine dining in San Francisco. Rural towns are more than big enough to host a micro-cluster of innovation. In this respect, Keene can trump proximity to Washington, DC.

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