This chart illustrates the rise and fall of America's metros.

In many ways, the contemporary history of America's economy is really a story about cities. Metro areas rise and fall with each generation, buoyed or sunk by the industries and trends that support them.

The chart below, from the McKinsey Global Institute, does a beautiful job telling that story. On the left, we have the top 30 U.S. metro areas ranked by real GDP as of 1978. On the right, the top 30 for 2010. That cross-hatch of red and blue lines shows just how much churn there has been in the economy. But I think there are three main trends to take away from this.

First, there's the fall of the Rust Belt and the rise of the Sun Belt. As the country's economy eased away from manufacturing, which tends to be clustered in discrete regions, and towards services, which can be almost anywhere, people moved away from the old, frigid, and declining industrial centers towards states with cheap real estate and warm weather. Population growth ultimately means economic growth. And so you see the emergence of places like Riverside, Phoenix, Orlando, and Tampa. 

Second, there's the dominance of finance. If New York had the same GDP today that did in 1978, it would still have the second largest economy of any American metro region. Instead, it nearly doubled. Same for Chicago. Not coincidentally, both of those cities consistently top lists of the world's financial centers. This has allowed them to overcome their slow population growth by generating more economic activity per resident. These are still massively populated metro areas. But they're also cities of bankers or commodity traders instead of retirees.  

Finally, there's the shift West. As McKinsey notes, the locus of world trade moved from the Atlantic to the Pacific during this time period, which benefited cities in California and its neighbors. The tech sectors helped bolster San Francisco, San Jose, and Seattle.

There are other stories inside this chart, such as the expansion of government that lifted Washington, DC, or the oil boom that built Dallas. But that's the broad sweep.

This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Traffic-free Times Square in New York City
    Maps

    Mapping How Cities Are Reclaiming Street Space

    To help get essential workers around, cities are revising traffic patterns, suspending public transit fares, and making more room for bikes and pedestrians.

  2. photo: A lone tourist in Barcelona, one of several global cities that have seen a massive crash in Airbnb bookings.
    Coronavirus

    Can Airbnb Survive Coronavirus?

    The short-term rental market is reeling from the coronavirus-driven tourism collapse. Can the industry’s dominant player stage a comeback after lockdowns lift?

  3. Maps

    Readers: Share Your Hand-Made Maps of Life Under Quarantine

    As coronavirus transforms our private and public spaces, how would you map what your neighborhood and community look like now?

  4. A pedestrian wearing a protective face mask walks past a boarded up building in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. Governors from coast to coast Friday told Americans not to leave home except for dire circumstances and ordered nonessential business to shut their doors.
    Equity

    The Geography of Coronavirus

    What do we know so far about the types of places that are more susceptible to the spread of Covid-19? In the U.S., density is just the beginning of the story.

  5. Illustration: two roommates share a couch with a Covid-19 virus.
    Coronavirus

    For Roommates Under Coronavirus Lockdown, There Are a Lot of New Rules

    Renters in apartments and houses share more than just germs with their roommates: Life under coronavirus lockdown means negotiating new social rules.

×