The Midsized Metros

The Brookings Institute thinks we should focus more attention on them:

These ideas aim to strike a middle ground between what urbanist Jason Segedy calls the U-Haul School of Urban Policy—that government policy should focus primarily on enabling people to relocate to places with greater economic opportunity—and the notion that public spending can and should prop up highly economically distressed small towns all across the American landscape.

To be more explicit, I think there’s an emerging consensus developing at Brookings Metro (and perhaps elsewhere) that efforts to create geographically broader-based economic prosperity should focus particular attention on midsized metro areas, those with at least 250,000, but fewer than 1 million, residents. These places are distinctive in their own right, while they provide a valuable window into the issues facing the United States as a whole. Here are five reasons to pay attention to midsized metro areas:

First off, it’s worth observing that midsized metro areas overall exemplify many of the downsides of the divergence trend in the U.S. economy. As capital, growth, and talent have increasingly gravitated toward the nation’s large, superstar cities, the overall rate of job growth in midsized metro areas has lagged that in large (more than 1 million residents) metro areas by almost 4 percentage points this decade (Figure 1). This trend is pronounced with respect to high-tech jobs, which regions covet because they produce such significant spillover effects, as economist Enrico Moretti has found. The share of U.S. high-tech jobs located in midsized metro areas dropped from 15 percent to 13 percent between 2010 and 2017. Indeed, the first preference Amazon expressed in its request for proposals to host HQ2 was “metropolitan areas with more than one million people” (and eventually they selected America’s first- and sixth-largest metro areas). That’s a clear signal that midsized metro areas face growing competitive challenges.

The focus is always on urban vs rural while a majority of the country doesn’t really live in either as we popularly conceive them. We talk about the suburbs but probably not enough given their share of the population. But we also don’t talk about smaller cities and mid-sized metros enough. Around seventy million people live in them and they don’t get as much attention collectively as New York City or Los Angeles. It’s hard for them to because unlike those cities they are not a collective. Which is one of the problems with this piece. It lists their diversity as a reason we should pay attention to them, but it makes it hard for them to really be a “them.” Especially when the premise of the article is that they are collectively struggling but there is a pretty big east and west divide on the fate of small and mid-sized cities. While Toledo is struggling to hold on, Boise is having difficulty keeping up with its growth.

Be that as it may, we forget that there is a world between New York and Mayberry.

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10 thoughts on “The Midsized Metros

  1. According to Wikipedia there are 135 metropolitan statistical areas with population >250,000 and <1,000,000. Looking through the list of such MSAs in the western states, there are only a few that are not part of a much bigger consolidated statistical area* (Boise is one such). This is an under-appreciated fact about the contemporary West — a very large majority of the population lives in a handful of big population centers. The West now has the highest percentage of non-rural population of the four Census Bureau regions, slightly ahead of the Northeast. So far as I could tell by quick scan, all of the isolated mid-sized metro areas in the West fall into the Boise condition of struggling to manage their growth. Very much a regional sort of problem.

    * The map included in the article is at least somewhat misleading. Consider Colorado — the map separates out Fort Collins on the north and Colorado Springs on the south. Both, though, are part of the nearly contiguous Front Range urban corridor — 120 miles from north to south and 20 miles from east to west and 80% of the state’s population lives there. The Wasatch Front in Utah is very similar.

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    • A slightly different take on (IMO) the same problem… In December the Census Bureau released its most recent forecast for 2020 population by state and people have applied the US House seat allocation formula to the results. The extended Rust Belt is on pace to lose seven or eight seats. This time it works out that New York — home to the most elite of the elite coastal cities — would lose two seats.

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    • The article is about the mid-sized, obviously, but it’s not just those where you see a pretty big divide. Cities with fewer than 250k are below the tipping point of success in most of the country and therefore are struggling, but in Montana and Idaho and elsewhere they’re actually where a lot of the growth is.

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      • Yeah, the interior cluster of roughly Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas are very much their own thing. The other day I was looking at some population figures and noticed the disparity between Colorado and Wyoming, despite their sharing a long border. In the last ten years, Colorado added more people than the total population of Wyoming.

        Most of that growth was in the Front Range urban corridor, of course. There’s going to be a lot of unhappiness in rural Colorado when district drawing happens after the next census — the Front Range suburbs will get the new US House district, and there will be a pronounced shift in state legislature membership from rural areas to the ‘burbs.

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        • While it’s most pronounced in Idaho and Montana et al, I think it’s really just most of the west. I think if you look at the mid-size metros and small cities in other states, you don’t have the sort of problems associated with their eastern counterparts: Colorado Springs, Fort Collins, Eugene, Corvallis, Spokane, St George, etc. There are some that are kind of stalled, but even they’re not Toledo for the most part.

          I would be interested to see where the cutoff is between towns that are endangered and those that are still growing. I suspect it’s a lot lower in the west than the east more generally. Or maybe it’s just the northeast with the midsize metros in the South doing okay too.

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          • My slow-motion historical research effort suggests a range of interacting things for the East vs West differences: mountains; arid and semi-arid climate; original settlement patterns; transportation evolution; when the big growth occurred; the scale of federal investment relative to the population during and after WWII; the size of the black minority population; how bad the urban population crash was in the 60s and 70s, and whether it recovered promptly; the California Diaspora that started 30 years ago.

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