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Small Cities Are Becoming a New Engine Of Economic Growth


By Joel KotkinMay 08 2012

Appearing in: 
Forbes.com

The conventional wisdom is that the world’s largest cities are going to be the primary drivers of economic growth and innovation. Even slums, according to a fawning article in National Geographic, represent “examples of urban vitality, not blight.” In America, it is commonly maintained by pundits that “megaregions” anchored by dense urban cores will dominate the future.

Such conceits are, not surprisingly, popular among big city developers and the media in places like New York, which command the national debate by blaring the biggest horn. However, a less fevered analysis of recent trends suggests a very different reality: When it comes to growth, economic and demographic, opportunity increasingly is to be found in smaller, and often remote, places.

Read about how we selected the 2012 Best Cities for Job Growth

This year’s edition of Forbes’ Best Cities For Jobs survey, compiled with Pepperdine University’s Michael Shires, found that small and midsized metropolitan areas, with populations of 1 million or less, accounted for 27 of the 30 urban regions in the country that are adding jobs at the fastest rate. The three largest metropolitan statistical areas that made the top 30 — Austin, Houston and Salt Lake City — are themselves highly dispersed with sprawling employment sheds.

Rather than the products of “smart growth” and intense densification, almost all of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas — including larger ones like Silicon Valley and Raleigh — tend to be dominated by suburban-style, single-family homes and utterly dependent on the greatest scourge of the urbanist creed: the private car. But many of the smaller areas also punch above their weight in myriad ways, spanning a host of industries.

Among the 398 MSAs we ranked for the list, energy towns dominate the top of the table:  Odessa, Texas (100,000), took first place; followed by Midland, Texas (population: 111,000), in second place; Lafayette, La. (fourth, 114,000); Corpus Christi, Texas (sixth, 287,000); San Angelo, Texas (seventh, 92,000); Casper, Wyo. (10th, 54,000); and Bismarck, N.D. (21st, 61,000). These cities’ economies have expanded steadily over the last few years, beneficiaries of a great boom in fossil fuels that, unless derailed by regulators, will continue for the foreseeable future.

But some of the other best cities for jobs make their livings in different ways, such as No. 12 Glens Falls, N.Y., riding growth in business services and tourism; and No. 15 Columbia, Mo., which is primarily a college and government town. Several smaller communities have bounced back strongly with the recovery of manufacturing, including No. 3 Columbus Ind., No. 11 Williamsport, Pa., and No. 19 Holland-Grand Haven, Mich.

This shift in opportunity also parallels some compelling demographic trends. In the 1990s, the rate of population growth of areas over 1 million and those below was essentially similar. In contrast, in the subsequent decade, urban areas with fewer than a million people expanded by 15%, compared to barely 9% for larger urban areas, notes demographer Wendell Cox. In those 10 years, areas with fewer than a million people accounted for more than 60% of urban growth. Essentially more Americans are now moving to smaller regions than to larger ones.

We  see is a very different reality than that often promoted by big city boosters. Large, dense urban regions clearly possess some great advantages: hub airports, big labor markets, concentrations of hospitals, schools, cultural amenities and specific industrial expertise. Yet despite these advantages, they still lag in the job creation race to unheralded, smaller communities.

Why are the stronger smaller cities growing faster than most larger ones? The keys may lie in many mundane factors that are often too prosaic for urban theorists. They include things such as strong community institutions like churches and shorter commutes than can be had in New York, L.A., Boston or the Bay Area (except for those willing to pay sky-high prices to live in a box near downtown). Young families might be attracted to better schools in some areas — notably the Great Plains — and the access to natural amenities common in many of these smaller communities.

Perhaps another underappreciated factor is Americans’ overwhelming preference for a single-family home, particularly young families. A recent survey from the National Association of Realtors found that 80 percent preferred a detached, single-family home; only a small sliver, roughly 7 percent, wanted to live in a dense urban area “close to it all.” Some 87 percent expressed a strong desire for greater privacy, something that generally comes with lower-density housing.

This trend towards smaller communities — unthinkable among big city planners and urban land speculators — is likely to continue for several reasons. For one thing, new telecommunications technology serves to even the playing field for companies in smaller cities. You can now operate a sophisticated global business from Fargo, N.D., or Shreveport, La., in ways inconceivable a decade or two ago.

Another key element is the predilections of two key expanding demographic groups: boomers and their offspring, the millennials. Aging boomers are not, in large part, hankering for dense city life, as is often asserted. If anything, if they choose to move, they tend toward less dense and even rural areas. Young families and many better-educated workers also seem to be moving generally to less dense and affordable places.

Perhaps even more surprising, this tendency toward decentralization can be seen around the world: much of the new growth is in smaller cities, with India as a prime example. A recent McKinsey study found that “middle-weight” cities, many of them well under a million, have already started taking a larger percentage of the world’s urban growth.

McKinsey suggests that the notion that megacities will dominate the urban future constitutes “a common misconception.” Instead surging smaller cities will constitute well over half of the world’s urban growth, gaining ever more share from the megacities over time. This is particularly true in the U.S. which constitutes the epicenter for the new smaller city economy. Of the world’s 600 hundred “middleweight” cities, the U.S. is home to 257. Together they generate 70% of U.S. GDP.

What does this mean for investors, companies and individuals in the coming decades? For one thing, Wall Street, which tends to obsess over a handful of high-cost, dense, urban markets, may seek out new opportunities in faster-growing smaller cities. Prices tend to be lower and competition for prime space less intense, and the demographic wind is at their backs. Companies looking to expand may find not only a welcome mat from the locals, but also an expanding workforce in these generally more affordable places.

Finally, particularly for the next generation, the shift to smaller cities provides a whole realm of new options for sinking roots, starting business or a family and owning a home. Smaller city life certainly does not appeal to everyone, or every business, but their growing dynamism provides a welcome option for people who want to get a leg up in the next decade.

Read about how we selected the 2012 Best Cities for Job Growth

This piece originally appeared in Forbes.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and contributing editor to the City Journal in New York. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.

Photo: Glens Falls, NY

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"Greenurbia is the suburbs of the future. The suburbs of the 1950s were bedroom communities for people who commuted into the city. Today, there’s much more employment in the suburbs, and the big change is the number of people working full-time or part-time at home. Having people commute from one computer screen to another doesn’t make sense."

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Kotkin has a striking ability to envision how global forces will shape daily family life, and his conclusions can be thought-provoking as well as counterintuitive. It's amazing there isn't more public discussion about the enormous changes ahead, and reassuring to have this talented thinker on the case. — Jennifer Ludden, NPR national desk correspondent

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