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Mid-size cities: the hidden renewal force

Urbanists and city planners often look "up" to the mega-cities for keys to success -or even failure-. New York, Chicago or San Francisco, Paris, Buenos Aires, Shanghai or Mumbay have occupied the front and center of attention of government, mayors, investors and real estate planners.

The Next American City, a recent book by Oklahoma's mayor, Mick Cornett, invites us to think otherwise. Cornett cleverly uses the title of a famous American classic, John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes or Wrath (made by John Ford into another classic film), to upend that narrative calling our attention to the American tradition to fight recessions by moving aways from big cities to mid-size, more dynamic and developing ones, "the wrath of the grapes"..

The film is about a family from Oklahoma that flees from the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl to California, just to find that when they arrive in full harvest to the "promised land", it's too late because there is no market to sell it.

The true American success story, Cornett's book tells us, is a "road trip" but in the opposite direction:

"In the years since the Great Recession, thousands more people moved from California to Oklahoma City than vice versa. It seems to be true year after year, and the new residents are more than welcome. Back in Oklahoma City, I call it The Wrath of Grapes.

This is not just an Oklahoma phenomenon. By my look at the numbers, our nation’s midsize metros are growing about 20 percent faster than the nation’s largest urban centers. And when it comes to domestic migration, the change has really been quite remarkable.

A recent Brookings Institution study showed that between 2010 and 2016, New York lost on net 900,000 people to domestic migration, Los Angeles almost 375,000, and Chicago a little over 400,000.

A look at census data over that same period shows that among the top- ten fastest growing metros in the country, not a single top- ten metro is in the mix. Even in those biggest metros, the areas growing the fastest are the cities and suburbs around them that look a lot more like my hometown than the towering blocks of midtown Manhattan. Immigrants, too, are no longer finding it necessary to land in our largest cities.

That same Brookings study shows just how big an impact the new generation of immigrants, through hard work and industriousness, are having far away from the few cities that used to be their most common landing points. And in these midsize cities, these new Americans are finding quality work, cheaper housing, reliable public transportation— and a fertile environment for starting a business and accruing the wealth and opportunity that America’s name has come to mean around the world. Not only this, but smaller cities now offer a more accepting, open culture and diverse community than they ever have before."

The forces that create this opposite movement are basically four: (1) quality work, (2) cheaper housing; (3) reliable public transportation and (4) a fertile ground for growing new businesses -lower taxes, support, growing mid-markets-.

Although macro-economic forces can create some of these conditions -mainly the second- the other three depend of developing and unleashing social capital based on a plan for the city, for as Corbett explains:

"Businesses create jobs. Governments and public servants build places".

Turning social capital into social performance (Kaufman & Bernardez, 2012) requires a mix of (1) relational capital -affordable housing, good schools and what economist Raghuram Rajan calls "community" in his new book we comment in other article- (2) organizational capital, in the form of market-making innovation, startup-friendly environment (incubators, regulation) and efficient, sufficient and affordable infrastructure and (3) institutional capital, ijn the form of business friendly regulation (lean and flexible) and support.

Mid-size cities such as Oklahoma City, New Orleans, Seattle, Albuquerque, Des Moines, Sacramento, Buffalo, Louisville, El Dorado-Arkansas, Charleston or Kansas City are key examples to consider in developing a new model for creating and developing healthy, dynamic and prosperous communities out of the crumbling mega-cities that have outgrown their own sustainability. Check your city taxes and look at the direction of the migration flows and you'll see if it time not just to leave, but to start working and calling City Doctors to help out in turning your mid-size city in a success story.

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