Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Search Space Return Migration

You go where you know. In order to better understand migration, geographers have modeled our familiarity with territory. This is "awareness space". "Search space is a subset of awareness space within which possible new residential locations are evaluated." A story about how Sarasota gets onto the mental maps of retirees looking for a new home:

Circling back in retirement to recapture a happy memory — Mike Valentino's first glimpse of Sarasota Bay as a new CEO, Karen Valentino's girlhood Florida vacations — is a common navigation of what demographers call the "search space."

This is the sum total of geographic sites that become familiar over a lifetime. Most people look within their personal search space when deciding where to spend their leisure years — and baby boomers who choose to relocate are expected to do the same.

The history of Southwest Florida's retirement population was built on military postings to two airfields here in World War II, and family beach vacations down the old Dixie Highway from Michigan and Illinois. Both sweeping demographic trends introduced Sarasota into the search space for thousands of retirees.

You don't go where you don't know, your geography of fear. Ann Arbor is indistinguishable from ruin porn Detroit. Starups in Southeastern Michigan have a problem attracting talent This is the Rust Belt Curse. Most communities don't end up as part of someone's search space.

The exception to that rule are Rust Belt expats. Brain drain from affluent suburbs is introducing urban living to the awareness space of outmigrants. Upon returning to a city such as Detroit, neighborhoods that were once taboo are now part of the search space. Re-populating the core is possible thanks to the talent exodus.


Pete Saunders said...

Jim, I believe you and agree with you that return migration will play a big role in the revitalization of Rust Belt cities. People will want to return to something that is familiar to them, and they will bring their skills with them.

But I wish you would take a stab at spelling out what return migration would look like 20 years from now. I'm sure you would agree that Pittsburgh is ahead of this curve -- would Pittsburgh be the template for Cleveland or Detroit in 20 years? Same with Rochester, NY. Could it be a model for similarly sized cities?

I think one reason return migration doesn't gain traction is because city leaders don't know what their city will look like if they continue to "do the decline" and wait for the return.

joe said...

I wonder what proportion of returning Rust Belt expats end up within a few miles of where they once lived? Bet it's not very high, and driven more by other facors (like living where other in-migrants are choosing to live - not necessarily urban pioneers). I grew up in the '80s suburban South Hills of Pittsburgh, then lived away for 15+ yrs in State College, Corvallis, Los Angeles, Providence and back to State College, then moved down into Regent Square and then over to Friendship for a few years before settling down out in the North Boroughs, Pittsburgh's Northwest frontier. I didn't know this part of town existed growing up.

As a gerontologist, I'm fascinated by the life course insights in your post. Thanks for it.

Jim Russell said...


I'll take a stab at projecting return migration 20-years out. I'll write it up and post on the blog at some point during next week.

I doubt city leaders appreciate how significant return migration is. Data for such flows are very recent and paint with a broad brush. I'm still in the process of validating what I consider to be an educated hunch. I think the key is making this population more visible in Rust Belt cities and formally network return migrants.

Return migration urban planning?

Jim Russell said...


Thanks for sharing your search space story. It fits nicely into my theory and opens up some avenues for urban redevelopment. Work in progress ...