Rocking the suburbs: how the city's boom will create regional balance - Philly


Apr. 8, 2014 12:30 pm

Rocking the suburbs: how the city’s boom will create regional balance

Today's urban enthusiasm around tech entrepreneurship is a big change from the suburban dominated 1990s-era tech business boom here. Does that make today's city focus a trend or a trick?

Infographic by Jamie Leary for Philly

If you’re trying to define where the densest intersection of innovation is happening in a region, looking at where the technologists and entrepreneurs meet is a fine way to do it.

In Philadelphia, like many markets across the country, there has been a surge in meetups and unconferences and happy hours for the digital workers of today and they’re overwhelmingly happening in the city, largely in and around the Center City corridor. That’s a big change from the suburban dominated 1990s-era tech business boom here. Does that make today’s city focus a trend or a trick?

“This is fashionable, not inevitable,” said Paul Martino, the entrepreneur who founded Aggregate Knowledge before it sold for $150 million last year. “All the cool kids are in the city right now, but I won’t be surprised if the next tech bubble in 2022 is in the suburbs.”

For the Doylestown resident, the urbanism of the moment is a Millennial outlier, one that will play out as it has since Americans first discovered the glories of a driveway and a backyard.

“The kids will grow up, have children of their own and want better schools,” he said during an interview in the fall. In short, his logic goes, cities are getting better but just enough to attract young people who want to walk to the bar and empty-nesters who want to walk to the museums.

Michael Harrington

Michael Harrington

For Michael Harrington, a corporate lawyer in the Exton offices of Fox Rothschild who has worked on IT venture deals for the better part of 20 years, the recent success that Philadelphia city has had in building a tech business community is about balance, not dominance.


When an analysis of 2011 venture capital numbers showed that, of the country’s 10 biggest regions, Philadelphia was the only one in which most investment happened in the suburbs, rather than the city, there was surprise among city boosters. Many said the trend had to be back toward Philadelphia city.

If Harrington agreed that the new energy is growing in the city, he said that trend will bring a balance, “but you won’t see Philadelphia dominate as opposed to the suburbs,” he said.

In the end, as is often the case in complex demographic shifts, the answer is murkier than a city versus suburbs choice. The region benefits when its urban core is succeeding — take a train to 30th Street Station and be able to walk to meetings with investors and entrepreneurs — but that doesn’t have to come at the expense of its outlying communities.

Leigh Gallagher, the assistant managing editor at Fortune Magazine and a Media, Pa. native, has talked a lot about this in promoting her provocatively-named book ‘The End of the Suburbs.

The lifestyle trends that are helping to reawaken U.S. cities don’t actually mean all suburban communities will become blighted, she argues, instead, many will embrace the modern urban aesthetic of walkability, transit and mixed-use development.

By extension, the tech entrepreneurship culture that is growing in the city is being exported elsewhere. There’s the Dream Factory coworking space in Phoenixville and the Walnut Street Labs incubator, complete with microbrewery and a cluster of startup businesses.

Mike Krupit, a serial entrepreneur who was active in the Web 1.0 and cofounded in 2012 the Langhorne-based Novotorium accelerator, is a familiar face on the city event circuit today. He’s had the full regional tech business experience.

“The city is a big incubator” of ideas, Krupit said once. “The more of this activity, wherever it happens, the better.”

  • Dave Gallo

    The simple observation of 76 in the morning tells the story, it’s backed up from the blue route to montgomery ave EVERY morning going OUT of the city. Going into the city? backed up from Rt 1 going into South St. The jobs and therefore the people are heading out to the burbs. For me, working in North Philly is great, 15 minutes in the car from Lower Merion on a bad traffic day.

    • thegreengrass

      Just a thought, but could this also be because the city’s jobs are more centrally located in Center City, and thus more easily accessible by SEPTA riders (who have steadily been increasing in number) while suburban jobs almost always require a car to get to? I’m not saying the city doesn’t have a jobs problem, but using simple traffic volume on a highway isn’t a great way to compare job-related traffic flow across both private cars and public transit.

  • thegreengrass

    To call a resurgent interest in cities a “Millennial outlier” is absurd. Cities, with their dense networks of knowledge and experience, have been at the core of so many of humanity’s achievements. They’ve been the centers of trade and commerce for centuries, and even in the United States, which has treated its cities so poorly, they are still the cultural hearts of metropolitan areas, often hosting the sports teams and cultural institutions with which the region’s citizens passionately identify.

    If anything, it is the American suburb of the past 60 years that is the passing outlier, the most sprawl-ridden of which have been enabled by an automobile culture on a drastic decline with those under 30. And lest you think it’s because they haven’t moved to the suburbs, take a long, hard look at older, inner-ring suburbs with transit access to their region’s core. These towns have seen their property values take less of a hit during the recession than other, more car-dependent towns. Even when people move to the suburbs, they’re choosing older towns closer to the city with a mix of urban appeal and suburban appeal.

    The truth of the matter is that a very large subset of my cohort find sprawling, car-dependent suburbs are as a whole boring and devoid of the kind of energy of life that cities provide. They may have their problems, but cities are where people still meet, where thoughts are bounced around and refined, where creativity is celebrated and where ideas are turned into reality. Even if people my age don’t want to live in a city directly, access to cities and what they have to offer is itself an invaluable asset.

    If you’ve never stepped into Indy Hall, then you can’t understand what I’m talking about. If you’ve never been to a hacker space in West Philly, then it’s hard to grasp. If you’ve never been to a Philly Tech Week event, then you just cannot fully appreciated what it is to be involved with the tech scene in Philadelphia today. The community here is unbelievable, and it’s full of people who passionate believe in the city. You can naysay until you’re blue in the face, but what’s going on on the ground in Philly today is amazing, and is something not to underestimate.

  • DTurner

    The urbanism nay-sayers also appear to forget that auto vehicle miles travel, particularly for millennials, is dropping fast and costs of driving are rising. We here in the Philly area have no idea what’s coming, as we have differed infrastructure costs for future generations, but the Highway Trust is broke and people no longer want to fund public systems, preferring user-fee systems that are going to kill driving (imagine a heavily-tolled 76). I’m sure places like Doylestown will be fine, but other, more sprawling suburbs will not be as lucky.

    That being said, Philadelphia needs to stop acting like this generational shift somehow guarantees smart and wealthy new residents. The city’s economic policies are a joke, hurting both businesses and tax payers (why do I pay higher wage taxes as a resident than as a commuter?), the schools are generally terrible and, most importantly, lack a long term vision, and the public services are poor at best and are overly expensive. The city needs to get its house in order or else it will see the suburbs, and even neighboring cities like Baltimore, grab up talent that it could attract or retain.

  • Nice article. And thanks for mentioning Walnut St. Labs.

    We’re seeing a lot of traffic from folks who would love to be part of the innovation in the city but can’t get there easily. At the same time, we’re also finding out that there is plenty of innovation out here already — just hasn’t been enough connecting-the-dots.

    But something is definitely brewing — aside from the local brewpub!


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