don’t forget the small & midsize cities

i used to live in omaha. it was part of my job when i worked at the corps of engineers. at first, i was kinda disappointed that i was going to be living there instead of a cool city like portland, or or los angeles. somewhere where young people and hip fun things were happening. a lot of my friends live in seattle and new york. i’ve lived in dc and seattle as well as large cities abroad such as bangkok and taipei. but what i found about living in omaha – as well as the small city of udon thani in northern thailand when i worked on a development project there – is that there is a lot to be said about small and midsize cities. they shouldn’t be ignored. in fact, i fell in love with omaha. some of my best memories are of my time in omaha. it seems a lot of millenials are in a similar position.

right now in the us, the economy is dominated by coastal metropolitan areas. this concentration of economic development is very possibly a large sources of the housing crises in these areas. people need to be in these areas in order to move up the socioeconomic ladder. but they can’t afford it. the american dream and its economic mobility was partly a product of geographical mobility. think of the great migration. (black americans flourished after this migration away from southern poverty, creating thriving neighborhoods – until “urban redevelopment” destroyed them.)

but what about smaller cities like omaha, rochester, columbus, or stockton. there are relatively large cities like kansas city or louisville. there are rust belt cities that have lost a great deal of population like buffalo. we know that agglomeration effects, the presence of institutions like stanford or boston’s ridiculous number of educational institutes create an effect drawing businesses yearning for new innovations. in turn, this draws more and more people. high standards of living from cultural institutes further this draw. in places like dc, government agencies maintain a permanent presence of workers.

these effects are so well known in urban economics that they have become law. this is the natural effect of the market. but there comes a point in this model that congestion starts to create higher and higher costs. this is also a natural effect. and we are starting to see it through things like housing and transportation crises.

what are we to do? well, these smaller cities could be the answer. headquarters could remain in the large important cities, but other divisions could decamp for these places where the cost of living is significantly lower, bringing economic development to these places as well. if these places are smart, they can create conditions conducive to this: nebraska has recently poured an enormous amount of money into the university of nebraska omaha; remember that the medical center there is one of few places capable of caring for those individuals infected with ebola who were being repatried. they’ve also emphasized their short flights to both denver and chicago. omaha has even launched a branding campaign to attract new talent and to remove the stigma of the “fly over state”. they even poke fun of that stigma: their new slogan is “we don’t coast“.

there has also been an argument to move federal agencies to struggling cities. why does the national institutes of health have to be in bethesda, md? why can’t it be in buffalo, where the state has been investing in the biomedical divisions of the university of buffalo? why do agencies not involved in national security have to be so close to the capital, especially more remote ones such as the nih?

there could be pushes in policy from different organizations to help this along, to help channel the overgrowth of coastal cities to these forgotten cities. very importantly, it could have an effect on our current political, social, and cultural divides. many in these areas do feel forgotten, do feel that they are significantly different from these coastal areas. what if we could connect them all? would that have an effect on our current divisions?

my work in international development and the growth of megacities like lagos have also led me to think about the sizing of cities and its effects on the transition of developing countries. are megacities like lagos helping in nigeria’s development? or are they hindering it? one can get deeper into the theories, whether or not it diminishes the state’s ability to control its hinterlands, etc. thailand, where i worked, is an extreme case of what we call a primate city – a country where one city and its size dominates the entire country to an extreme degree. in fact, bangkok is often cited as the largest primate city. the second largest city is insanely smaller. there are no intermediate cities. in udon thani, the northern city i worked in, i realized that this region had become the headquarters of the political opposition movement (redshirts opposed to yellowshirts). the wealth of bangkok was not shared across the country, causing political tension. are primate cities a problem in political and economic development?

i do think about how this could be a market intervention. it is true that congestion costs are real, negating the gains of agglomeration effects. and one could also argue these models do not account for harder to measure social and political effects and costs. but to what degree can a policy intervention actually work? urban science has shown that there is a universal distribution of city sizes. there is a very well documented rank sized distribution of an urban hierarchy described by a power law.


this entire piece has all been speculation. I always push for empirics, for evidence based policy making. But what I’m saying is this is an idea to study. I will write another piece explaining urban size distributions and the political effects of primate cities.