The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: The New Urban Crisis

Melissa Hege of South Florida-based Melissa Hege City Planning highlights Miami's new urban crisis.

Miami is a special place for me. It’s where I became an adult and it’s where I witnessed Miami’s evolution from being a brash and flashy youth to a cultured and refined grown-up. We now have a sophisticated art and theatre scene, restaurants that would stand up to any foodie, thriving legitimate businesses and the fastest growing rate of new entrepreneurship and start-up activity in the country for 2017. By most measurements, we are on a straight trajectory to becoming a superstar city alongside New York, London, Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. But the city and the entire metropolitan area (MSA) from West Palm Beach to Miami is becoming less and a less affordable for the working class and this is not what a superstar city looks like.

Don’t take my word for it. A new research arm at Florida International University (Miami Urban Futures Initiative or MUFI) compares the Miami MSA to the 52 largest cities in the country. In fact, for the next five years, they are compiling an annual series of data driven reports that reveal just how well the Miami MSA is doing to create an economy that is inclusive, strong and innovative and which benefits everyone in the community. It’s a frank evaluation of where we are doing well and where we need to improve. Let’s see how we measure up.

Up until now, my blog posts have been photo based commentaries featuring simple urban design solutions that could be adapted to Miami’s public spaces. But in this post I highlight some of the root economic problems that are preventing Miami from excelling. I call it the good, the bad and the ugly.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The numbers are pretty clear. We’re gaining a competitive edge and rapidly growing our economy, but we need to include the service workers and working class in this uptick or risk creating a fragmented and dysfunctional city. Richard Florida, the thought leader at MUFI, calls this the New Urban Crisis- the old adage “the rich get richer and the poor, poorer”. By example, high-end shopping centers like the one pictured above, have become ubiquitous in the Miami MSA.

Florida has ranked the largest metros in the country based on neighborhood segregation and the number of wealthy and poor neighborhoods, the income gap between rich and poor and housing affordability. The rankings measure the disparity between rich and poor and the size of the middle class. The Miami metro ranks sixth among large U.S. metros on this index—behind Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Chicago. But it’s not all bad. Let’s start with what’s working.

The Good: Population Growth

We have a lot of good things going for us. Our population is growing as are our knowledge, professional and creative workers. Metro Miami, which includes South Florida, is neck in neck with some of the heavy hitting metros in the country. As a metropolitan area, we have the eighth largest population in the country behind New York, LA, Chicago, Dallas and Houston.

We’re not growing as quickly as other cities like Austin, Orlando and Raleigh, but we are double the national average which means people are still coming in droves.

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

Job growth is healthy. In fact, it exceeds our population growth. This means that we have more jobs than people to fill them.

We are one of the fastest growing metros for startup businesses and entrepreneurial enterprises. And we rank high in terms of number of high-tech service and manufacturing businesses.

We have a healthy number of businesses in the trade sector that export goods and services, and according to the MUFI reports, businesses in the exporting industry typical pay their employees higher wages and innovate more. In fact, we rank 4th in the country.

In terms of our workers, we have a high concentration of professionals in media related occupations which gives Miami a huge competitive advantage in media. We also have a growing advertising and marketing industry. And with a booming legal cluster Miami MSA is fifth in the entire country behind the likes of Washington, D.C., New Orleans, San Francisco and New York.

We also have a good track record for retaining our university students. Nearly 60% of graduates remain in Miami.

The Bad: Where’s the Money?

Our productivity- that is the total value of goods and services that we produce– is low compared to cities like New York and LA who are 7 times and 3 times more productive. But we are catching up. Our output is growing at 1 ½ times the national average.

Small Businesses

Here’s the problem. We have too many small businesses and not enough large employers who tend to pay the higher salaries and have higher outputs. Our average sized business, just 11 employees, is the lowest of all 53 metros. We came in dead last. And we don’t have a lot of businesses in rapidly growing industries like tech. Seattle and San Francisco have the market on this. But the potential is there.

The Creative Class

Here’s where we really need to do a better job- attracting highly educated and skilled professionals who are key to helping our economy grow. Right now we rank 50th out of 53 large metros for our share of what’s been coined “the creative class workforce”–workers in science and technology, arts/media/design and knowledge professions. I stole this photo from the the SCAD store (Savannah College of Art and Design). We could do a better job of fostering creative professionals with a better support system and higher pay.

Salaries and wages aren’t growing as quickly as other cities. In fact, we rank 18th in terms of wage growth, behind San Jose, San Francisco and Austin. Creative class professionals earn half of what their fellow San Franciscans make and rank 49th out of 53 metros. And in terms of personal income- including investments and other earnings we are close to the bottom at 42 out of 53. Because this is a per capita measurement, we can assume that there is a large portion of our population that is not in the workforce- children and retirees. What does all this mean?–Miami salaries are not competitive enough and which makes it harder to find good professionals.

Service Workers Dominate the Workforce

And the worst of the “bad”–our workforce is dominated by low-wage and low-skilled service sector jobs. Nearly half our workerforce (1.4 million) is in this industry. In fact, only Las Vegas has a larger share of service workers than Miami metro. And why is this bad? Because these jobs do not create a path to a competitive economy.

One more thing/ Educational attainment levels are low.

The Ugly

So back to our initial question, how do we compare to other cities?

Food, shelter and transportation are fundamental for survival. But what happens when they are not available to everyone? When 50% of the workforce can’t access these basic needs because they aren’t able to earn enough money, then the community edges towards dysfunctionality. The problem is made more severe by the influx of super wealthy who drive up housing costs and create pockets of highly exclusive and segregated neighborhoods. Why is this a problem? Because it perpetuates the cycle of poverty– limiting access to the best services and amenities to the wealthier neighborhoods at the expense of less advantaged.

So what’s the solution? How can we grow as a metropolitan area without leaving our service workers behind? According to MUFI, let the heavy hitting employers and institutions take the lead. In Miami, these institutions are the universities, hospitals and the real estate sector:

  1. Increase wages of service jobs. Think Miami Beach hotels. How? By innovating the service sector and becoming a leading service economy.

  1. Work with disadvantaged communities to foster entrepreneurship including creative incubators and maker spaces similar to work share spaces in the image above. I like this one.

  2. Build more affordable housing. Universities can take the lead here with mortgage subsidies and rental assistance for their employees. They can also construct housing.

  1. Invest in transit to connect less advantaged residents living outside the city center to their jobs. This one’s more difficult and may take more efforts from the private sector like FECI’s Brightline pictured behind the Metromover tracks in the image above.

  1. Build public spaces that everyone can use across all economic stratums. Think the great public parks in Europe, Farimount Park in Philadelphia and Central Park in New York and Hotel de Ville- the Paris City Hall pictured above. These spaces are the great equalizers.

MUFI calls this inclusive prosperity- or as Parker Brothers said it best “share the wealth”.

The Miami Urban Future Initiative is a joint initiative with FIU’s College of Communication, Architecture + The Arts and the Creative Class Group sponsored in part by The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which will lead new research and mapping on economic, occupational, creative and technological assets in Miami, in partnership with renowned experts, to provide necessary data, evidence and strategy to grow a more inclusive, creative economy for a 21st century global Miami. Miami has reached a crossroads.

@MIAUrbanFuture Miami Urban Future Initiatives

Article originally posted by Melissa Hege, AICP at

Melissa Hege, AICP, LEED AP, practices planning and urban design in one of the country’s most envied and envious iconic cities—the Republic of Miami. For more than a decade, she has enjoyed the juxtaposition of the region’s beauty and dysfunction, and continues to learn from it daily. Educated at the University of Pennsylvania and Brandeis University, her portfolio includes award winning plans which translate design based solutions into practical applications.

In her current practice, Melissa Hege City Planning, she straddles the roles of planner and community advocate by exploring infrastructure investments which add exponential value to cities. These include waterfront parks, bicycle and pedestrian trails, and complete streets—streets which have comfortable and protected zones for bicycles, pedestrians, cars, and transit. She is currently developing a waterfront pop-up installation on Miami’s Biscayne Bay to demonstrate the potential value of a permanently improved and connected waterfront trail in downtown Miami. Other recent projects include an interactive web based tool to visually track all multi-agency infrastructure improvements in downtown Miami and a Complete Streets forum for local municipalities in partnership with Miami Dade County.

Melissa is a board member of the Miami Modern (MIMO) Biscayne Boulevard Association, a 501c3 dedicated to preserving its architectural history and expanding commercial opportunities for this US-1 corridor. She is Past Chair of the Miami Section of the Florida American Planning Association, was Co-chair for the State’s annual conference and served on Miami-Dade County’s Transportation Aesthetic Review Committee. She has been published in the Miami Herald, Florida Planning, Planetizen and Panorama (University of Pennsylvania) and taught as an adjunct professor at Florida Atlantic University. She developed a planning curriculum for middle school students at the Cushman School and is a regular speaker at the Florida American Planning Association’s annual conference.</i>