The United States’ Changing Geography
Change is affecting the US as much as any other nation. The rise of cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas is far from over; the explosion of edge cities in the suburbs and the creation of far-flung silicon-linked business networks is still in progress. Here are some thoughts to provoke your further thinking about the future geography of the US:
The rise of the service economy will let more people live wherever they want.
Oceanfront and mountain view property will only rise in value. Physically attractive towns will prosper, especially if they have good feeder airline service, or are within an hour or two of a larger city with good air service.
Boom areas will see backfilling.
Just as the population explosion of California led to crowding and skyrocketing real estate prices, driving people to Portland, Seattle, Salt Lake City, and Las Vegas, such overflow phenomena will hit other popular areas. For example, Atlanta will “fill up” over the next decade, and this may result in booms in other southern cities, such as Savannah, Charleston, and Birmingham.
Medium-sized cities will likely continue to do well.
A parallel change is the rise of “medium-sized cities.” From the 1990 Census to the 2000 Census, the population of US metropolitan areas grew 13.9%, slightly faster than total national growth. But the cities of over 5 million people grew only 10.8% while those of 2 to 5 million grew 19.8% and those from 1 to 2 million grew 17.7% – dramatically faster rates in both cases.
Selected smaller cities, with their lower crime rates, lower costs of living, and stable societies, will boom.
This is especially true of cities that are in backfill or physically attractive areas or in a line with growth shooting out from larger metro areas. For example, in the area around Austin, San Marcos and Bastrop will boom because they are accessible to our new airport; Kerrville and Fredericksburg will boom because of their attractive lifestyles and physical settings. Chattanooga and Asheville have very significant potential. More and more of Colorado and the other mountain states will boom. With the Internet, UPS, and FedEx, many of the disadvantages of small town living will disappear while the advantages will remain. There will be more “wealth colonies” like Carmel, Santa Fe, and Naples. There will be more specialized colonies, like the New Age enclave of Sedona, Arizona, the Shakespearian town of Ashland, Oregon, and the many other arts-and-crafts towns. The strongest of these specialized cities will have plentiful opportunities for growth (although not all will want it).
The boom in Florida will eventually reach every nook and cranny in that state.
Geographers will be shocked at how many people can fit on that peninsula. Already even Jacksonville, long a sleepy railroad town, is booming. The boom will continue to affect the large metro areas, but there will also be dozens of rising smaller towns that today are virtually unknown.
Cities with major universities and state governments will continue to have an advantage.
In the Midwest, Indianapolis and Columbus will likely do better than their non-capital competitors, but Sunbelt areas like the Research Triangle of North Carolina, Austin, Sacramento, Nashville, Boulder, and Tallahassee are particularly well-positioned.
Cities serving tourists and retirees will continue to boom.
Of course, as with any enterprise, good management is required. It will be particularly interesting to watch older “tourist traps” –Branson, Missouri; Gatlinburg, Tennessee; and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina – as they adapt to a changing world. Will their marketing skills and infrastructure investment keep pace with new competition (like Vegas and Orlando), or will they die off like pre-gambling Atlantic City or Miami Beach in the 60s?
Some high-tech cities will go into decline as their technologies fade; those cities better rooted in fundamental education and research will have more extended lives.
Diversification, especially into service industries, will usually be the best strategy.
Cost-of-living differentials will become more and more important.
As cities regulate zoning and construction or try to limit traffic and growth, they will tend to increase taxes and other costs of living. Those communities which can hold down these costs will develop competitive advantages – for both businesses and families – which will become increasingly significant in attracting new residents and enterprises.
The Sunbelt (defined as an arc from Seattle to DC, reaching inland to include Denver and Nashville) will continue to attract people, while the cities of the Northeast struggle.
The spread of air conditioning is being followed by a rise in museums, infrastructure, quality universities, symphonies, golf courses, shopping centers, and jobs. Over time, the colder parts of the United States will lose more and more of their population. Affluent older people will retire south, and younger generations will continue moving there. The ranking of our cities will continue to change. At some point, Dallas may pass Chicago to become the biggest US city (metropolitan area) not on an ocean. Cities in the Northeast and Midwest will generally continue their relative decline. Unless they find unique niches in the world of commerce, cities like Scranton and Worcester and Rochester risk dying off over time. Bold action by bold leaders would be required to avert this. New York will be okay if its leaders stay entrepreneurial and costs are held in check. But Philadelphia will have to really work at survival, perhaps through building historical tourism.
The Largest Metropolitan Areas in the United States
(using 1998 definitions of areas covered)
I offer up all these forecasts as somewhat speculative spurs to your further thinking. Ask yourself: If my forecasts are right, how will they affect your community and your enterprise? What other trends can you see developing? In what ways might my forecasts be wrong?
The only thing we can count on is change, in every aspect of our lives and enterprises.
Learning More About US Geography and Cities
The two best popular books about US geography are The Nine Nations of North America and Edge City, both by Joel Garreau – one of the best thinkers on the geographical issues that matter to enterprises. The first book looks at a new division of America; the second looks at the emerging suburban “downtowns.” Both are exceptional. The best source of information about US metropolitan areas is Places Rated Almanac by David Savageau – everything from costs to crime.