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February 26, 2008

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Here's an interview by Pittsburgh based reporter with Bill Steigerwald. I'm in good company, Steigerwald interviews David McCullough in the same issue and did one of the best interviews on record with Jane Jacobs.

Q: What's the key message of your new book and who did you write it for?

A: I'm a working class kid. My father worked in a factory. He told me, "Rich, study hard. You don't want to work in a factory like Dad. Get a good education, get a good job. That's going to be the key to your success in life." My mother said, "Your Dad's a really smart guy. I love him to death ... I could have married these more successful guys who I went to high school with. But I picked him. Picking the right spouse or life partner is key to your happiness."

What my parents never told me, and what I've learned in 25 years of research, including all the years I spent in Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon University, is that there are three legs of the triangle -- the job and career you take; the family and loved ones that surround you; and where you live.

I wrote this book for young people graduating college, for young families having children, for empty-nesters whose kids are leaving the house, to say to them, "You owe it to yourself to think a little bit harder and a little bit more systematically about the place you choose to live -- and make the best possible decision you can."

Q: Why is where you choose to live more important today than it was 30 or 40 years ago?

A: My earlier work and my ongoing research forced me to confront this fact, this irony: At the time when'd you believe that advances in transportation and communications technology -- the telephone, the Internet, the personal computer, the wireless revolution -- would flatten the world and make it just as easy to telecommute to work or basically live wherever you want and plug-and-play into the global economy, we're confronted by the fact that about 60 percent of all of the world's economic activity and more than 90 percent of the world's innovations occur in about 25 mega-regions -- for example, the Boston-Washington-New York corridor and the great corridor that goes from Chicago to Pittsburgh. So we were confronted by the fact that place remains an incredibly important economic unit.

What I said in the book is that there are two things going on at the same time. On one hand, the world is becoming flatter, as Tom Friedman of the New York Times suggests. More places can play. But the way we are globalizing is through these "spiky" places. The world is also becoming spiky and more clustered.... Certain urban locations are more important. Just to make this simple: It's not like China and India are our competitors in the United States. Our competitors are really Shanghai and Bangalore. So when we look at the world we have to look at the cities or mega-regions that are competing, not just the countries.

Q: You say it's easier than ever to exercise our geographic choice. How do we make that choice -- what are some of the things we should be looking for at different times of our lives?

A: The book includes a chapter called "The Mobile and the Rooted." What I say is that we really have to confront this. For many people, staying in the place they live and around loved ones and in the community they grew up in is incredibly important. Many people choose to stay. But what I say is that if we look at what we used to call "upward mobility," "socioeconomic mobility," increasingly the ability to achieve socioeconomic mobility turns on geographic mobility, because economic opportunities are more specialized and more clustered ...

Q: Is there a single most important caution you can offer to people who deliberatively choose where they are going to move?

A: . I think a lot of people make these decisions intuitively. What this book tries to do is say: "You can be a little bit smarter than your intuition. Your intuition is giving you a lot of hunches that are right -- go with it. But just be a little bit more systematic. Pick a couple places to look at. Go take a look at a location calculator like Bert Sperling's fantastic "Best Places" calculator. Get a list of 10 places. First of all, if your place isn't on there -- whoa! But do a systematic comparison of three or five of them.

Nobody ever told me -- a quote-unquote "expert" -- that place was important. And what we've come to find is that place is one of these three big life decisions. If the book can push the role of place up in this conversation about what is important to our lives, I think it will have done its service. That's the goal of the book -- to simply insert place into this ongoing conversation about what's important -- not just as an economic category, not just as a sociological category, but what's important to real people's lives.


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The Mobile and the Rooted? Sounds like he is channeling Bruce Chatwin's Songlines.

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