The Case for Small Cities

30 Dec

Many talented people around my age or slightly younger are drawn to large cities. It only makes sense: they’re interesting places filled with interesting people, with easy access to cultural amenities and excitement that just don’t come around in suburbia or small towns. I’m skeptical that this supposed millennial “back to the city” movement will endure once my generation (or, rather, the highly educated fraction of my generation) starts having kids en masse, and even now, suburban growth still outpaces urban growth. I’m certainly not going to rain on the progress made in cities in recent years, many of which have enjoyed renewed life after decades of declining populations and disinvestment.

I am, however, going to make a case for the cities that I think are the best for young adults. These are what we might call the second tier cities: metropolitan areas between 100,000 and 500,000 people; places that stand alone as their own functioning economies, but will never capture the national imagination of our biggest cities. They may not be as glamorous, but the opportunities they provide young people are second to none. They are also the cities that need injections of smart, talented young people who can carry them forward and keep them thriving. Big cities will have that no matter what, but these smaller cities can face more complicated futures, and their ability to adapt to the 21st century economy could well make or break this country: are its benefits confined to a few scattered enclaves, or can it reach across the country and include these supposed flyover towns that have suddenly become a source of political angst?

And so I will make my case for smaller cities, as someone who has just gone home to a small city after spending six of the past eight in large cities. The target audience here is well-educated white-collar millennials, but I think these can be tweaked to apply to other groups, too. Here are 12 things they have to offer that larger cities don’t:

  1. The cost of living is much lower. Sure, the starting pay also may be lower, but the overall financial picture often works out well. My savings in rent alone since coming to Duluth are probably equal to about $3,000-$5,000 in annual salary compared to Minneapolis; if I were in DC or New York or San Francisco, we might be talking tens of thousands of dollars.
  2. Commute time: nonexistent. Do I really need to elaborate? I live a few miles from work, yet it literally takes me longer to walk from my car to the office than it does to drive from home to the place where I park. The savings in time and mental anguish are remarkable.
  3. Access to positions of influence is significantly easier. In a few locations, good old boys’ networks can act as gatekeepers, but for the most part, anyone who wants an in can have it. Most of these cities love seeing fresh young blood come in to serve in leadership positions. For the politically inclined, reasonably talented people can win elections in their 20s, and don’t need to raise tons of money to do it. Provide some basic initiative, and you’ll be well on your way.
  4. As one gets older, those interesting things about cities that drew one in at the start become less important. Good restaurants, cultural opportunities, big dating pools…most people come to have less time or need to explore these things as they age, and as other family-related commitments arise. A small city will still have enough of these to keep most people going, too; don’t underestimate the amount of creativity a small place can produce.
  5. Speaking of family commitments, smaller cities are great places to raise kids. Access to reasonably good schools doesn’t cost an arm and a leg in real estate, and even the bottom end of educational options is probably a lot higher than in most big cities. Sure, the top end might not provide the easy pipeline to elite colleges that you see in wealthy suburbs, but if a kid comes from a strong home environment, the sky is still the limit. Factor in family-friendly neighborhoods, where crime and speeding traffic are negligible concerns, and it all adds up to a pleasant home life without trying very hard. Moreover, these places are small enough that even “wealthy” schools will give kids access to a fairly broad socioeconomic range. There’s much less of a bubble effect when everyone is thrown in together.
  6. Access to nature is so much easier. You need not be a tree-hugging hippie or a backwoodsman to appreciate this: free space means clean air and escapes from crowds and their annoyances, and facilitates everything from an adventure in the wilderness to an easy drive along picturesque country roads. This is refreshing for everyone.
  7. In smaller cities, it’s much easier to escape political or social bubbles. Even if the city itself may be a bit of an island, it’s probably surrounded by something else, and again, things are small enough that you’ll have some interaction with everyone. This may not always be fun, but at least you’ll understand what’s going on in several different swaths of the country. It’s hard to do that in the suburbs, and even in a large city with lots of surface level diversity, it’s very easy to cloister oneself, intentionally or not, and only interact with like-minded people.
  8. You can do more for the place you live, immediately. The utility of adding a talented new person to a small city is much greater than adding a new one to a metropolitan area. Being one of twenty people with an Ivy League degree in your small city provides way more influence than the 1,000th in a large one. Band enough of these people together, and you’ve got yourself a movement. A small core of committed people can completely turn the tide for an entire city. (Sidebar: not every local leader needs to go off to some elite school. It’s valuable to have some who do, so as to provide perspective, but it’s equally valuable to have some lifers who really get all the details. People who have seen the outside world are conversant in a common language and culture that’s useful in dealing with national issues, but credentials from distant schools say nothing about a person’s professional or political talents, or ability to harness them.)
  9. If you start a career in a smaller place, you’re highly unlikely to be pigeon-holed into one task or job function. You’ll probably be in an office that’s small enough that forces you to take on a variety of tasks, some of which will probably get you out of your comfort zone and make for a great learning experience. Jobs are far less likely to be “safe,” and that’s an excellent thing for résumé development, and generally just for enjoying one’s job.
  10. At the same time, though, people in smaller cities value work-life balance. There are no 100-hour-a-week slavish jobs here, unless you enjoy it so much that this is what you actually want to do. And if that is what you want to do, people will probably respect that.
  11. People like stories of converts or prodigal children, and anyone who can make that outsider’s case for a place is going to be compelling to outside audiences. Small cities need this so as to make their appeal clear to people who aren’t already singing along with the choir. Move to one of these places and accept it as it is, and you’ll have a chance to be its champion. Big cities don’t need such champions; inertia provides this on its own. But in choosing to take a different path, you instantly become a leader of sorts.
  12. You get to say you are actually “from” somewhere, instead of pretending that your suburban childhood connects you with a larger center city that you visited only for sports and museums when growing up. Sure, there are some mild quirks that separate most middle-to-upper-end suburbs, but for all intents and purposes, they’re the same. People may not know what it means when you say you’re from Duluth, but you do, and other people who are also from Duluth get it. If you value a sense of place, that’s huge.

I won’t pretend it’s all easy. Moving to a smaller city takes a conscious rejection of the easy trends for most young people, which push them to familiar networks and the largest paychecks. If you’re not from a place, it can take a little while to break in. And yes, the dating pool really is smaller. (Sigh.) But there is so much wealth to be found here, and these cities are practically begging for ambitious young people to sweep in and leave their mark. Take the jump. It’s worth it.

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