The Cincinnati skyline and river
Cincinnati saw nearly 20 percent growth in its share of the creative class from 2005 to 2017. Aaron Bernstein/Reuters

“The rise of the rest” may soon become a reality as once-lagging cities see growth of creative class employment.


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One of the most troubling trends of the past decade is the deepening geographic inequality across the U.S., especially through the clustering of particular types of talent in coastal cities like San Francisco and New York. But a growing chorus of economists and urbanists suggest that we may be seeing the “rise of the rest,” a result of both increasingly unaffordable housing in established hubs and the improvement of the economies in less-established hubs. While startups and tech employment remain highly clustered, recent reports suggest that some Rustbelt and Sunbelt metros are increasing their ability to attract college graduates.

I decided to take a closer look at what is actually happening to the geography of talent. I zeroed on changes in the location of the creative class for a period immediately before, during, and post-recession. While most studies equate talent with the share of adults who hold college degrees, my creative class metric is based on occupation. About nine in 10 Americans with a college degree are members of the creative class, which is made up of up of knowledge workers in education, healthcare, law, arts, tech, science, and business. But, only six in 10 members of the creative class hold a college degree.

Todd Gabe, an economist at the University of Maine, and I tracked the growth of the creative class overall and across U.S. metros from 2005 to 2017. We used data from the U.S. Census American Community Survey (ACS), specifically its one-year samples for these two years.

Which metros have the largest concentrations of the creative class today? And where has the creative class grown in the past 12 years or so?

The map above shows distribution of the creative class across U.S. metros back in 2005, while the table below shows large metros (those with more than a million people) where the creative class made up the highest and lowest shares of the workforce.

Back then, the top ten list read like a veritable who’s who of the nation’s leading knowledge and tech hubs, led by Washington D.C., San Jose, and San Francisco. But Baltimore (with a large cluster of medical and scientific research centers around Johns Hopkins University) and Minneapolis-St. Paul also make the top-10 list, besting bigger metros like New York and Los Angeles.

If small cities were included in the table, then Boulder and Ann Arbor would actually top D.C. as the nation’s biggest creative class hubs, at about a 48 percent share. Close behind would be other smaller cities like Charlottesville, Durham, Iowa City, and Madison, Wisconsin. At the bottom are a combination of Sunbelt tourism and service economy centers like Las Vegas and Miami, and industrial metros like Grand Rapids and Memphis.

Large Metros with the Largest and Smallest Creative Class Shares in 2005

Largest Shares
Washington, D.C. 47.8%
San Jose 46.1%
San Francisco 43.0%
Raleigh 42.6%
Boston-Cambridge 42.0%
Austin 40.3%
Baltimore 38.7%
San Diego 38.2%
Seattle 38.2%
Minneapolis-St. Paul 38.0%
Smallest Shares
Las Vegas 23.1%
Riverside, California 25.3%
Grand Rapids 28.8%
Memphis 29.3%
Louisville 29.8%
Miami 30.7%
Orlando 31.5%
Oklahoma City 31.5%
Birmingham 31.6%
Salt Lake City 31.6%

Now scroll forward to 2017. The creative class now makes up more than half the workforce in the leading metros, and there are substantial changes in the rankings. San Jose tops the list, followed by D.C. and San Francisco, and now Denver and Philadelphia have joined the top ten.

Large Metros with the Largest and Smallest Creative Class Shares in 2017

Largest Shares
San Jose 51.3%
Washington, D.C. 50.7%
San Francisco 48.1%
Boston-Cambridge 46.8%
Raleigh 46.5%
Austin 45.0%
Baltimore 44.9%
Seattle 44.3%
Denver 42.3%
Philadelphia 42.2%
Smallest Shares
Las Vegas 27.0%
Riverside, California 28.2%
Memphis 32.0%
Louisville 33.3%
Miami 33.5%
San Antonio 33.9%
Grand Rapids 33.9%
Orlando 35.6%
New Orleans 35.6%
Tucson 35.8%

Centers of Creative Class Growth

But, where has the creative class grown or declined over this period?

The next map shows the percentage growth in the creative class from 2005 to 2017. A number of Rustbelt and Sunbelt metros which have previously lagged now show robust growth. Salt Lake City posted the fastest growth, with Pittsburgh and Cincinnati next in line. Las Vegas, which had the smallest creative class share of large metros in 2005, also saw significant growth. Of leading creative class metros, only Seattle and Baltimore registered comparable gains. On the flip side, superstar hubs New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., all ranked among the ten metros with the slowest creative class growth on this metric.

Large Metros with the Fastest and Slowest Growth in Creative Class Shares, 2005-2017

Fastest Growth
Salt Lake City 24.1%
Pittsburgh 19.7%
Cincinnati 19.6%
Grand Rapids 17.9%
Cleveland 17.3%
Richmond, Virginia 16.8%
Las Vegas 16.7%
St. Louis 16.4%
Seattle 16.0%
Baltimore 16.0%
Slowest Growth
New Orleans 4.6%
San Diego 5.1%
San Antonio 5.5%
Rochester, New York 5.7%
Washington, D.C. 6.1%
Sacramento 7.6%
New York 8.1%
Los Angeles 8.7%
Providence, Rhode Island 8.8%
Miami 9.1%

The even better news is that the creative class—which often garners the highest paying jobs—appears to be growing as a percentage of total workforce employment across the board. Across small and large cities, three metros saw gains of more than 20 percent; another 15 saw gains of 15 to 20 percent, and 26 more registered gains of 10 to 15 percent.

The low creative-class growth rates for established tech hubs like San Jose and Boston simply reflect the fact that the creative class already makes up such a large share of employment. It’s much easier for places like Pittsburgh or Las Vegas to post a faster growth rate because they started out with a much smaller share to begin with.

Below, we look at the growth of the creative class controlling for population. Now, established tech hubs like San Francisco and San Jose rise to the very top, along with Salt Lake City and Pittsburgh.

Large Metros with the Fastest and Slowest Creative Class Growth per 1,000 People, 2005-2017

Fastest Growth
San Jose 47.2%
San Francisco 45.2%
Salt Lake City 43.6%
Pittsburgh 41.3%
Boston-Cambridge 38.1%
Seattle 37.4%
Portland 36.1%
Denver 35.8%
Baltimore 34.9%
Cincinnati 33.9%
Slowest Growth
Tucson 6.6%
Sacramento 10.5%
San Antonio 10.7%
Memphis 10.8%
Riverside, California 11.8%
New Orleans 12.3%
Rochester 13.4%
Birmingham 13.7%
Las Vegas 14.9%
Virginia Beach 15.6%

Established tech hubs like San Francisco, San Jose, and Washington D.C., continue to lead the nation in their concentration of the creative class. But Baltimore and Philadelphia also boast high concentrations, attesting to the power of the east coast corridor. The good news is that once-lagging Rustbelt and Sunbelt metros like Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Las Vegas have seen substantial creative-class growth over the past dozen years.

The creative class has seen remarkable growth over this time frame, increasing from 44 million members in 2005 to more than 56 million in 2017, as virtually all large U.S. metros saw growth. The rate of creative class growth (27.2 percent) was more than double the growth rate of overall U.S. workforce (13.6 percent) over this period.

We may well be seeing the beginnings of a tipping point in the geography of talent as housing prices continue to rise in superstar cities, while metros in once talent-lagging parts of the country capitalize on the significant cost advantages and quality of life they have to offer.

CityLab editorial fellow Claire Tran contributed research and editorial assistance to this article.

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