To gain a higher level perspective and engage in a conversation about our cities, please read “Start a Conversation on America’s Cities.” The following information goes deeper, providing added information to facilitate your deeper thinking and conversation.

Perspective Background: Belief in Continued Decline of Our Cities

america citiesThe population of the world is growing and by 2050 will have a population of 10 billion people. The world is also rapidly urbanizing and by the end of the century, 85 percent of the world’s population will live in cities.

Northern U.S. cities started losing factories and residents to the suburbs and the South in the late 1940s. By the 21st century, there were hardly any manufacturing jobs left to lose in most inner-cities.

This explains the divided fortunes of “legacy cities” like Cleveland or Buffalo and star cities like Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle. The former are still largely stuck in their post-industrial rut while the latter are booming centers of the knowledge economy, powered by tech, finance, and white-collar services like law, accounting, and medicine. Some legacy cities, such as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, are better positioned for this shift in the U.S. economy, thanks to their research universities and teaching hospitals.

The United States has a population of 323,341,000 as of April 2016, with 81 percent living in cities or suburbs. Even though the number of people living in cities across the U.S. has increased over the past few years, at least 23 metropolitan areas experienced a decline in excess of 2 percent between 2010 and 2015. By contrast, the U.S. population increased by 3.9% over that time.

People need to leave a metropolitan area in order for its population to decline. However, these areas are shrinking also because they are failing to attract new migrants. With only a few exceptions, all of the fastest shrinking metro populations declined primarily as a result of net migration.

Jobs are perhaps the single most important driver of urban expansion. The relatively weak job markets and low income levels in these 23 shrinking areas mean there are likely fewer economic opportunities, which would attract new residents and encourage current residents to stay. The unemployment rate in every one of these areas exceeds the national jobless rate of 5% in January 2016. The average income is also lower than the national per capita income of $47,615 in all 23 metros.

Of the 23 fastest shrinking metro areas, half are in the rust belt — the central U.S. region characterized by its decaying industrial base and population loss. Many of these urban areas are still heavily dependent on manufacturing. The percentage of the workforce employed in manufacturing is greater than the national proportion of 10.3% in 12 of the 20 areas.

Most of these affected areas have low incomes, high crime, and unemployment rates that are well above the national average.

The number of people in Farmington, New Mexico, decreased more than any other city in the United States from 2010 to 2015.

The population of Farmington contracted by 8.8 percent in the past five years. The median salary is $36,197, which is well below the $47,615 income of the average American. There are 118,737 people in Farmington, where the unemployment rate is 7.8 percent. By comparison, the national joblessness rate in January 2016 was 5 percent.

An analysis by 24/7 Wall St. found that metropolitan areas with poor economic conditions are losing residents while urban areas with plenty of resources and job opportunities are flourishing.

The population of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, in the southern part of the nation, also took a big hit, declining 6.38 percent. There are currently 93,696 residents in Pine Bluff, but 7,062 more people left the area than arrived since 2010.

Pine Bluff has one of the highest crime rates of all U.S. urban areas, and was once dubbed “the most dangerous little town in America”. Residents in Pine Bluff have an average income of $30,986 and there’s a 6.4 percent unemployment rate in the city.

The impacted cities tend to have older populations, people who are done having children. Consequently, deaths outpaced births in most of these areas. Migrants, who are generally younger, tend to seek out bigger urban areas where job opportunities are more plentiful.

Racial segregation has always been a factor in the demographics of our cities.  The irony is, a majority of African-Americans now live in the suburbs. Many are upwardly mobile, following jobs, good schools, and bigger houses, like the white middle-class of the late 20th century. Some are also being priced out of hot urban areas from Harlem to Oakland.

Perspective Background: Belief that Our Cities Can Be Re-invented

Across the U.S. citizens are aware of the serious economic, political, cultural, social, public health, infrastructure, environmental, and other problems of contemporary America as reflected in our cities.  However, in many parts of the country the possibility of dealing with those problems seems achievable and more encouraging, than it does in national politics.

As real-estate trends show, the central parts of cities have been rapidly gaining demand for housing and offices, reversing decades of job and housing sprawl. And they have retained their home values through market downturns better than far-out exurbs. This is due to surging demand for the kind of walkable, dense, mixed-use neighborhoods found mainly in cities.

Examples of cities reinventing themselves can be found across the United States.  The variety and scope of this urban re-invention is mind-boggling and a testimony to the innovation and resourcefulness of the local citizens dedicated to positive change in their communities.

Here are five examples of progress and reinvention in cities across America today:

San Bernardino, California – A city known for bankruptcy in 2012 and the terrorist shootings in 2015. This city is experiencing rapid civic and individual reinvention. Mike Gallo, a prosperous Air Force veteran turned aerospace engineer, is a prime example. Five years ago, Gallo ran for the board in charge of the city’s chronically troubled, low-scoring schools. His rationale was “these kids deserve a better chance, and we can help them get it.” Community leaders say that Gallo’s hard-charging, Teddy Roosevelt–style energy and effort have helped the schools begin a turnaround and he is now the board’s president.

Erie, Pennsylvania – In a hotly contested debate the Erie County Council voted 4-3 in July 1991 to build a new library in a rundown section of the waterfront. The building went up, and is now applauded as a brilliant decision that began the revitalization of the town’s scenic waterfront.

In Blasco Library’s first year, for example, more than 530,000 people visited the facility, a 110 percent attendance increase over the previous year’s visits at the old South Park Row location.  Today, the library is an anchor among good neighbors. It shares next-door space with the Erie Maritime Museum and sits next to Erie’s Bicentennial Tower.

The Erie County Public Library system (ECPL), which includes the Blasco, four other libraries, and a bookmobile, works hard to be visionary and relevant to its population. It offers a multitude of programs, from QiGong to musical performances to “kindercoding” for early computer literacy.  It also works with The International Institute of Erie (IIE), which is one of the several refugee resettlement organizations in Erie, to give orientation tours of the library to the new arrivals, which now includes Syrian refugees, as they start their new American lives.

Louisville, Kentucky – The Maker Movement, sometimes dismissed as amateurish by people not familiar with it, should in fact be taken seriously as the source and stimulus for the next wave of manufacturing innovation.  Businesses are finding that “makerspaces” enable them to reduce what’s known as the mind-to-market gap: how long it takes for an idea to become a physical reality.

FirstBuild, in Louisville, Kentucky, is unique because it was created by GE, as a subsidiary of its appliance division and as a deliberate effort to bring the nimble maker spirit to its design process. The maker movement has figured out a group of technologies and tools which enable companies to manufacture in low volume. Large manufacturers like GE built their business on high-volume, factory-scale, very high-stakes production, where each new product means a bet of tens of millions of dollars. FirstBuild is intended to explore smaller, faster, more customizable options.

Firstbuild uses the social and collaborative tools of the era—shared workspaces and partnerships with local schools. The production tools are available for modest cost to local people who want to use them. “It’s like a manufacturing library.” An explicit goal of FirstBuild, like many of the maker sites around the country, is to become a center for local individuals and groups with ideas for innovative hardware that might sell.  From GE Appliances’ perspective, this is an entirely serious business proposition, as a way to explore new markets and deliver new products to them. In Louisville, “General Electric, Local Motors, and an army of DIY inventors are rebuilding American manufacturing.”

Ajo, Arizona – Ajo is about a two-hour drive south of Phoenix, a two-and-a-half-hour drive west of Tucson, and just about 40 miles north of Mexico. About 2,300 people live in Ajo throughout the year, and the numbers swell to almost twice that when the snowbirds arrive from the northern states.

Rural healthcare for the region is provided by the Desert Senita Community Health Center, which serves Ajo’s residents. The nearest hospital to Ajo is about 100 miles away to the northeast, in the town of Casa Grande. This is a major consideration for Ajo’s elderly and others with the need for frequent, fast, serious medical care beyond what the clinic can offer.

However, being rural and being poor means the Ajo clinic earns the designation as a “Federally Qualified Health Center” (FQHC). This awards them enhanced reimbursements for Medicare and Medicaid patients. In Ajo, roughly one-third of the population is on Medicaid, one-third on Medicare, and the rest is on private insurance or they self-pay. The FQHC designation brings Ajo other benefits as well: partners like the Arizona Alliance for Community Health Centers, federal malpractice insurance coverage, and extra specialist care, like a regularly visiting cardiologist and ophthalmologist.

The center provides enviable one-stop-shopping for many routine procedures that would otherwise require trips all around town for multiple appointments: X-rays, lab work, a well-stocked pharmacy, a dentist, behavioral health services, a certified Spanish translator, and a special phone line with third-party translators for multiple languages.  Designation as a Federally Qualified Health Center and it’s attendant benefits is essential for the citizens of Ajo and an example of progress being made in America’s rural communities.

Bend, Oregon – In central Oregon, the crucial natural resource has been trees—timber from both privately owned tracts and the national forests managed by the Forest Service and other federal lands run by the Bureau of Land Management. In the 1980s, it became clear that the timber industry really was gone due to a number of factors and was not coming back.  This was one of several (mainly Sunbelt) areas of the country that had been riding a construction-borne boom. When that boom ended, unemployment was as bad in Bend as in any Rust Belt trouble-spot you could name, reaching nearly 16 percent in 2009.

By 2015, the economy had greatly improved with the real-estate vacancy rate around one percent. The city has two thriving-looking downtowns: the traditional-style one, on Bond and Wall Streets, with mainly local outlets and an ever-growing array of craft-brew operations, anchored by the 27-year-old Deschutes Brewery. The restored Old Mill District, with a 16-screen movie theater and hotels and national-brand outlets and a river-walk recreation area where the millponds used to be.

At the center of Bend’s recovery is the Central Oregon Community College, or the COCC, which has its main campus in Bend and branches in Redmond, Prineville, and elsewhere in the region. This is an example of the role of community colleges in helping cities attract and spawn industries, and in preparing students for high-wage, high-skill technical jobs. The COCC worked closely with regional employers and entrepreneurs.  Within a year the college had an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology program planned, staffed, and running. The healthcare industry is a major employer in Bend, and the COCC has opened several new health-technology programs.

The impact of the COCC on Bend’s economy and quality of life is a reminder of the ongoing but under-publicized adaptability of vital American institutions such as community colleges.

Research and insights conducted and written by Kent Nutt.

kent nuttKent Nutt is a marketing and communications professional with more than 25 years of experience in technology and nonprofit industries. He has worked in a wide range of technology startups, Fortune 500 companies, and a scientific non-profit. Kent is currently doing communications work for Texan by Nature, a nonprofit focused on conservation, and The University of Texas at Austin Health Informatics and Health IT Program.

Additional resources for learning more and getting involved in the growth of our cities:


Smart Growth Online

Smart Growth America

New Urbanism

Main Street America


Major sources for this article include: 24/7 Wall Street, American Futures, The Atlantic, Forbes, Grapple-NPR, New York Times, and World Finance