The view of downtown Oklahoma City from the state Capitol, in 2015. Sue Ogrocki/AP

The Comeback of the Mid-Sized American City

A generation ago, places like Oklahoma City felt as if they were in a permanent state of decline, says its longtime mayor. Here’s why people are coming back.

Below is an adapted excerpt from the book The Next American City.

A major urban migration is underway. Since 2000, more than 5.5 million Americans have left just our three largest cities for smaller cities like my own Oklahoma City. Many metros like mine have grown significantly faster than our nation’s top 10 metros. Even smaller cities between 250,000 and 1,000,000 like Boise, Fort Collins, Madison, and Fayetteville have grown over 10 percent in a half-decade. Think of it: One in ten citizens of many cities like these have moved there in just the last few years.

How, why, and where this is happening are crucial things to understand, especially in these trying political times. When little seems to be going smoothly on the national political stage, it is more pressing than ever to look to the people and places that are getting things done.  

Escaping the cycle of boom and bust

Personally, I have seen this change up-close in the rebirth of my hometown. Over the last fifteen years, I was fortunate to serve Oklahoma City as mayor.

For generations, we rode the waves of boom and bust, and our fortunes rose and fell with the price of a barrel of oil. After suffering the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995, we might have let our city plummet into permanent despair. But Oklahomans responded to that crisis as Americans do. We joined hands, stood together, and dared the world to tear us apart.

In the 23 years since, we revived the downtown “ditch” the grown-ups called the river. We redesigned our downtown and our basic infrastructure around people rather than the automobile—constructing enough sidewalks and trails to walk to Dallas if we laid them in a line.

For a long time, one of the best-known things about Oklahoma was its perpetual loss of so many of its hard-working people and families to the verdant vineyards, vibrant economy, and the promise of a better life in California. This is the story John Steinbeck told in his classic novel The Grapes of Wrath. But in the years since the Great Recession, thousands more people moved from California to Oklahoma City than vice versa. The trend continues year after year, and the new residents are more than welcome. With apologies to Steinbeck, I call it the Wrath of Grapes.

A generation ago, many places like mine felt as if they were in a permanent state of decline. For many other mid-sized American cities—among them, New Orleans, Albuquerque, Des Moines, Sacramento, Buffalo, Louisville, Chattanooga, and Charleston—that is no longer the case.  

Using what we have to become what we want to be

But why? Why are formerly forgettable cities finding a new footing in the global economy and attracting new residents by the thousands? For a new reason and an old one.

The new reason: In an increasingly digital and global economy, talented and ambitious people have a choice. They no longer need to move to one of a few centers of power to pursue their life's work.

The old reason: Americans vote with their feet. We need livability. Affordability.  Balance in our lives. Americans want to take big risks and dream about the future—but we want to succeed in places we can afford to fail.

Responding to these forces, growing families and businesses are giving our mid-sized cities a big push into the 21st Century.

You might have seen some coverage of this trend recently. An Economist article recently noted that almost half of San Francisco and Silicon Valley respondents to a recent survey plan to leave the area in the next five years. Hillbilly Elegy author JD Vance proudly announced his return to his home state Ohio as part of his “Rise of the Rest” venture capital fund with AOL founder Steve Case.

Investors’ attention and headline-friendly studies help make the case. But the big idea behind this change is really quite simple. With or without outside help, many of our mid-sized metros are igniting local turnarounds, working with the resources and ideas they have to build the places they want to become.   

The urban turnaround: a great American legacy

Nearly all of our great cities tell their own version of the “turnaround” story. Even the cities we think of now as our top innovation capitals were rocked by the forces of globalization in very recent history. Across the second half of the twentieth century, families and companies made for the suburbs. Populations shifted south and west, and blue-collar urban jobs started moving overseas.

In those days, many experts believed the era of American urbanism might be over forever. Between 1950 and 1980, Boston’s population shrank by nearly 30 percent. In Seattle in the 1970s, unemployment reached as high as 25 percent, and a pair of business leaders famously put a billboard on the way to the airport that read: “Will the last person leaving Seattle turn out the lights.” Times were dark, but Seattle and Boston have found their way, raised their standards, diversified their economy, and become global cities our nation can be proud of.

Today, the same big trends that put Boston and Austin, Seattle and Portland, Atlanta, Nashville, and Denver on a better path are available now to cities like my own. And entirely new tools are available to us.

Not just the Midwest: mid-sized cities, coast to coast

I’d like for you to think of this new Middle America not as the Midwest, but as the constellation of cities where most of our citizens live, work, and play. Those smaller cities with populations between ten thousand and a million people that a majority of Americans call home.

Now, a range between ten thousand and a million residents might seem quite wide, but just ask anyone from Indianapolis or Columbus (both about 850,000 residents) whether they feel more at home in Manhattan, New York, or Manhattan, Kansas. The ability of smaller cities to compete on a global stage is stronger now than ever. The point is this: What unites these cities across that range of population is that they have generated the power to create an energetic urban lifestyle at a price that New York and San Francisco just can’t compete with. It is entirely possible to create a truly innovative company with a truly global reach that attracts world-class talent in a place far away from the country’s cultural and economic capitals. Walkable, bikeable communities are springing up in the most surprising places. And talented professionals in their 20s and 30s are investing in urban-minded communities where they know they can get in on the ground floor.

For many companies, there is a distinct advantage in working away from the spotlight. In these emerging mid-market dynamos like Chattanooga, Provo, or Boise, you are in a place where your ideas can truly take flight, and yet you have the time and space to allow your personal life to soar. These cities are plenty big for ambitious ideas to scale, yet small enough to embrace change and act fast when the moment is right.

Stronger at home—and abroad

This increase in the number of epicenters of American innovation is a vital step towards recovering our country’s international greatness and re-igniting the American Dream. While the federal government seems increasingly incapable of addressing these existential concerns, our mid-sized metros that put progress above party and engage citizens from all walks of life still can.

Building our ballast of strong cities can improve our ability to compete abroad. Unlike Japan, the U.K., France, and many other countries, the U.S. can compete against India and China in part because—like them—we have many capitals of commerce, culture, industry, and innovation. The more great cities we have the better.

And with an array of great cities, growing and changing across the map, our superstar cities will be better able to play their unique roles in growing our economy, pressing toward the future, and deepening our global ties. Our over-concentration on a few top metros in recent years has not played to our long-term advantage. But it is a trend we can correct, and the work is already underway.

The four hidden middles of American life

So how do we keep it all going?  How do we build on this mid-sized momentum?

For certain, we need federal and state policies that encourage local leadership. We need more investors like JD Vance and Steve Case to take a real look at the technology and talent that our nation’s smaller cities are producing. Cities like mine can’t reach their full potential without ideas and investment from the outside.

But the biggest changes have to come from within. During my decade and a half as mayor, I visited dozens of mayors and cities. On those trips, I started noticing these changes in their earliest stages. The most ambitious projects, the most innovative companies, the most exciting changes, and the most inspiring leaders were showing up in the “middles” in our country more often than at the tops.

So at the local level, the way to accelerate these positive changes in our dynamic mid-sized cities is to invest in what I call the four hidden middles of American life.

  • The first middle is the metros themselves—smaller cities of outsized accomplishment.
  • The second is our nation’s midsize companies are growing at an incredible clip—in an age when teams of twenty can build a company that takes on the world.
  • The third middle is our country’s middle class. While they are often out of the spotlight, they still form the backbone of our economy and the foundation of our future. Millions of the families have already made their move—but millions more can now find the life and work they seek in smaller, more affordable places.
  • And the fourth middle is the pragmatic, productive, visionary middle-of-the-aisle politics that is getting things done in smaller cities like my own and raising standards for millions of public servants at the local level.

For our quality of life, national prosperity, and competitiveness worldwide, this is a trend we should all get behind.

From The Next American City by Mick Cornett with Jayson White, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright (c) 2018 by Mick Cornett.

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