Thursday, August 25, 2005 | In 2004, the city of San Diego was acknowledged by an award from Partners for Livable Communities, a Washington D.C. nonprofit, as one of the most livable cities of the decade. Little attention was paid by the media, except negative remarks about what was wrong with San Diego, and none of the many groups promoting San Diego seemed to feel that spreading that news was important. This is a mistake of ample proportions and evidence that our leadership fails to recognize then and now the economic, health and substantial value that livability brings to a city.

At the end of World War II, a new migration began in this country. People began to move from the traditional centers of commerce to the Sunbelt cities. The migration began slowly at first and picked up momentum in the mid-’50s and by the ’60s it turned into a mass migration. Many Mid-West and East Coast cities began to experience a significant drop in residence and commerce. The economy was usually to blame. However, other parts of the country were experiencing rapid growth and new industries. The federal government recognized a problem and wanted to know what was causing this new migration. Since early civilization, cities grew because they were either close to natural resources or in the middle of major trade routes. This was apparently no longer true.

In the early ’70s, the federal government contracted with the prestigious Rand Corp., an internationally known think tank located in Santa Monica, to study this phenomenon. Rand made some historic discoveries that would forever change the strategies a city or community must employ for economic development and growth.

The most significant discovery was that the decision to relocate by an individual was no longer driven first by the availability of work, but instead driven by an individual perception of the quality of life they might find in a particular location. The second major discovery was that the people who moved were well-educated and often brought jobs with them in the form of starting a new business or bringing an existing business with them. Jobs were now beginning to follow people instead of people following jobs. Rand concluded that a community’s amenities were the deciding factor in the decision to relocate to a particular location.

The concept of “Economics of Amenities” was born and recognized by the aging cites, who made amenities their primary thrust in redevelopment efforts. Pittsburgh, Pa. is a shining example of these new strategies, which began in the ’70s. The Mellon Foundation and the Heinz family became the city’s partners in an amenities development effort. Attention was paid to the waterfront, and docks were replaced with parks. Theaters were refurbished, and art festivals and gatherings were planned. The city center was decorated with banners of coming events and a friendly attitude was adopted by city employees from bus drivers to the police. Pittsburgh rose from a near deserted steel town with major pollution and abandoned building problems to a new and thriving work center.

San Diego is blessed with the natural amenity of great weather. However, we are rich in other amenities as well. Our cultural community ranks among the best in the United States. Often this is overlooked or, worse, it is perceived to be poor. I doubt the Old Globe or La Jolla Playhouse, with their multiple Tony awards, would agree that San Diego lacks culture, nor would the San Diego Opera or the San Diego Symphony, which are among the finest in the nation. If you still don’t believe me consider Balboa Park, which has more cultural institutions in one place than anywhere in the world. Now add in the small theaters like the San Diego Rep, Sledgehammer, Lamb’s Players or the numerous community theaters which thrive in our neighborhoods.

Traffic is the No. 1 complaint in San Diego and is often cited as the reason we are not a livable city. Traffic is bad but so is the traffic in San Francisco, St. Louis, Washington D.C., Kansas City and Denver. Traffic is the No. 1 complaint in nearly every city. At least we have a good light rail system serving downtown, East County and South County. The Coaster serves much of the north coastal route, but we do lack an inland northern route. Nevertheless, our city is doing better than most.

San Diego is rich in amenities, and we benefit from them. Business pays less for employees than in other major metropolitan areas. Just ask some skilled workers if they ever turned down a job in another city paying more money just to live here. I put that question recently to a TV news reporter and his cameraman. They both said “You are right,” because they both turned down jobs in other cities for more money.

Business in San Diego also enjoys a wealth of talent. San Diego is full of smart, well-educated and energetic people. I know a bar owner who put an ad for a bartender in the paper. One-third of the applicants had college degrees. These talented people also start businesses, which is why San Diego is dominated by small diverse enterprises. This diversity gives San Diego economic balance, making the impact of a national recession minimal on our economy.

The story of how to make your city really livable and all the benefits and value you gain is a long one. I have only scratched the surface here. It is true that the most powerful method to make your city prosperous, sustainable and economically strong is to make it the most livable place on earth. Then why have our city leaders preferred growth by subsidizing development, relocation of companies and not focused on making amenities a priority? I don’t know. Maybe it’s because developers make bigger campaign contributions.

George Driver, a native San Diegan, is chairman of Partners for Livable Places in San Diego.

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