Some of our U.S. cities have experienced significant decline over the past 50 years and continue to struggle with severe economic and infrastructure problems today. Others are transforming city centers and bringing people and commerce back to communities and neighborhoods once abandoned.

america's citiesHere are two perspectives on the future of U.S. cities to consider:

  1. Cities are on the decline with rising crime, lowered economic opportunities, and entrenched racial segregation.
  2. Cities are renewing and leading the way with greater economic development and community services.

Let’s explore details on each perspective to think, consider, and engage with an open, growth-oriented mindset.

Belief in continued decline of our cities

  • Cities the world over are facing the prospect of declining populations, collectively becoming part of what has been referred to as the ‘shrinking city phenomenon.’ Globally, one in four large cities declined in population between 1990 and 2000. The challenge is especially acute in the U.S. industrial midwest, where cities are facing the consequences of the decline of the manufacturing industry. The U.S. housing foreclosure crisis also had severe impacts on these old industrial cities.
  • Youngstown, Ohio, once known as “Steel Town USA,” has been hit hard the past four decades. More than 25,000 well-paid workers were laid off in the 1980s alone. Youngstown’s population declined at a rate faster than any other U.S. city.
  • According to Kenneth M. Johnson, senior demographer at the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire, young people leaving the area in order to look for work have driven the population decline for many industrial metro areas in the Midwest. “As a result, you would lose not only the young adults but over time, the children they would have produced.”
  • The loss in younger residents has also led to a higher median age in these areas. “You would have a higher death-to-birth ratio because there aren’t as many births, but also because an aging population has higher mortality risk,” said Johnson. In 2012, six of the metro areas with the largest declines had populations with a median age of at least 40 years, older than the national median age of 37.4.
  • Manufacturing jobs have declined nearly 30% in the U.S. between 2001 and 2013. However, in eight of the areas with shrinking populations, the number of jobs in the manufacturing sector fell by more than the nationwide decline, according to figures produced by Economic Modeling Specialists International (EMSI).
  • Of the 28.7 million black Americans living in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, nearly one-quarter reside in segregated neighborhoods — where at least 80% of residents are black. People living in urban areas are even more likely to be isolated, with 44.4% living in homogeneous neighborhoods, where the vast majority of residents have the same skin color or ethnicity.

Belief that our cities can be re-invented

  • Libraries across the country are evolving and becoming offices for entrepreneurs, start-ups, and Maker Spaces. They are safe places for children, and sometimes offer supervised homework help and even meals.  In some cities librarians learn how to help patrons with health issues and personal finances.
  • The Orange County Library System in Orlando is helping the community heal. The library and a local art supply store businessman are hosting Paint Strong Orlando, a public art exhibit. In Colorado, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife is partnering with the state libraries so that hikers can check out from their local library a week’s pass to the state’s parks, plus a backpack, binoculars, and park information. Vermillion, South Dakota, hosted a beer-and-books event. Patrons went to the library’s beer garden to sample craft beers and met the new library director.
  • There are 7,000 students in Dodge City, Kansas schools and about 400 today are designated as migrants, meaning they are in the current school district no more than three years, and a child of a parent working in agriculture or fishing. In Dodge City, that primarily means working the line in the National Beef or Cargill meatpacking plants.
  • Thanks to the efforts of the Dodge City Migrant Education Office, the school system, and many groups in the city that join the community effort to support the migrants, there is an excellent chance these migrant children will get a good education leading to a brighter future.
  • In Pikeville, Kentucky, in the heart of central Appalachian coal country, an economic experiment is underway inside a renovated Coca-Cola bottling plant.
  • Bitsource is a business concept and plan to transition a workforce from exporting coal from the region to exporting computer code.  Once trained, their workforce will be qualified to create source code for websites, mobile apps, computer games, databases and more.
  • A former bank building and customs house in Erie Pennsylvania is now part of a group of historic buildings comprising the LEED-certified Erie Art Museum.
  • This re-purposed historical building is having an impact not only on the patrons and donors, educators and professionals, but with young elementary-school-age kids, even refugees— a sign that it’s making a real difference in the community.

Start a Conversation

  1. Part of what makes a city unique is its architecture, history, nature, and parks. How important is it to integrate preservation of what makes a city unique into city planning?
  2. All cities need economic growth for their residents to earn a livelihood and enjoy a good quality of life. What are some of the most sustainable ways for a city to achieve smart growth?
  3. Fast growing cities with strong economies and large populations of high-income workers often force low-income workers out due to the increased costs of living. What can be done to provide affordable housing and employment for all socioeconomic levels?

A Challenge

During lunch or a business reception, use one or more of the questions about our cities to start a conversation. With the background information, you can start the conversation with confidence. To learn and discover solutions, we need to engage in conversations that go deeper in thought and perspective and broader in thought and perspective.

Take the challenge, and let us know how this experiment works.

To go even deeper, read our backgrounder on the two perspectives on American cities.

A special thanks to Kent Nutt for researching and writing these perspectives. Let us know your thoughts on this approach. We are considering doing more Conversation Starters as a way to be a more well-rounded Common Grounder and activate change where we work and live.

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.

Here are 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


Photo by Seb Zurcher on Unsplash

America's cities are at a crossroads. Some say our cities are in a decline. Others say a reinvention is underway. Let's start a conversation.