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Towns in the Age of Megacities

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tommy Engram 
July 19, 2016

Management guru Peter Drucker describes demographics as the most powerful force impacting society. Fortunately, it is also the easiest to quantify and the most predictable in time perspective.

Demographics shape our destiny and there can be little doubt that we are living in the age of the megacity. Aldous Huxley forecast this in 1932 in his futuristic novel Brave New World. Edward Glaeser proclaimed it in his Triumph of the City. Richard Florida provided abundant statistical confirmation that the shift to large scale megacities is happening in Cities and the Creative Class.

For those who have any doubt, get off the interstate highway and drive across the nation on a two-lane blacktop. The hollowing out of rural America is obvious and unrelenting.

Big metropolitan areas are growing in population and that trend has continued since the Renaissance. They grow because the aggregation of people and the comingling of their ideas enhance productivity and improve the standard of living. As technology and circumstances have changed, this wellspring of creativity has allowed cities to reinvent themselves.

With our economy generating so much wealth, why – unlike megacities – have many small cities and towns in the hinterland failed to grow and prosper? Why are they left dependent on one or a handful of local industries to fuel their ailing economies? More importantly, what can be done to reverse this trend?

Florida and others claim the reason for the decline of smaller communities is that their human capital is being drained by megacities that offer young creative people more opportunities for work, entertainment and finding a mate. Companies at the cutting edge of technology need smart young minds so they gravitate to areas with a density of talent. This frequently translates into megacities.

Companies that have stayed in the hinterland tend to be low tech or old tech manufacturing and service industries. They need steady, dependable employees who will do repetitive tasks for relatively low wages.

Florida claims that, over time, the accumulation of task workers in small communities shapes the public psyche and results in sets of amenities attuned to the preferences of low-wage workers. In turn, these communities become less attractive to their own young residents and likewise unacceptable to outsiders who may be seeking a site for a new business.

I had the opportunity to observe the commencement exercise of a youth leadership program for the top 50 high school seniors from a rural county. When the moderator asked how many students planned to go to college, all 50 planned to go. When he asked how many planned to return to that community after college, only one answered yes.

But what Florida and others describe is a trend, not a law of nature. Chattanooga, Tennessee, is not a megacity. But it has transformed itself from a declining southern industrial town into a mecca for talented and creative young people.

On a visit to a high-tech incubator on Market Street, I asked the proprietor how much of Chattanooga’s success in attracting smart young people was due to its “Gig City” technology. “Not much,” he answered. He explained that young creative people come to Chattanooga for the quality of life. High technology employers follow.

Given the unsustainable loss of their highest-potential young people, how can small towns and rural areas get more of the best and brightest to return and repay the investment made in their education?

First, small communities must want to become attractive to younger people.

Unfortunately, many of these communities are locked in the past with leaders who have been unable to cope with a vision of a future that might be attractive to younger people. To paraphrase a biblical admonishment, when the leaders lack vision, the community dries up and blows away.

But for those more fortunate communities that have overcome that obstacle, relatively small investments in restaurants, attractive downtowns, Wi-Fi, canoeing, biking, hiking and (especially) places to meet and mingle with potential mates may yield excellent returns.

Young adults returning from college or technical school may get very excited about an affordable loft apartment on the town square or studio in an old factory. They may care more about a Main Street pub with a good local band than proximity to a professional baseball venue. They may be willing to trade the convenience of public transportation in a distant megacity for bike lanes, good sidewalks and greenways closer to home.

Also, small towns and rural communities may yet benefit from the rush to the megacity. As the quantity of desirable and available living space in large metropolitan areas becomes scarcer, housing costs tend to rise. Urban residents find themselves priced out of the megacity market.

When that economic pressure is combined with the increasing bandwidth available in even remote areas, a new option may emerge. Attractive smaller communities, with reasonably priced and varied housing options, may actually enjoy significant advantages in attracting young creative people, especially those under the heavy burden of student loans.

Author: After a career with BellSouth, Tommy Engram completed his doctorate in political science and taught college courses in government and public administration.  He has done extensive research in municipal government and has managed three small cities in Georgia and Tennessee. 

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