America's biggest winners and losers (and what you can learn from them)

Wed, 2016-04-13 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi

You’ve undoubtedly heard the prediction: cities are getting bigger. The vast majority of the world’s population will be living in cities by the middle of the century. But while that’s true for cities overall, it’s not true for all cities. In fact, some cities are already losing people. A lot of people.

It’s worth checking out two new rankings of American cities: fastest growing and fastest shrinking. Each list provides some interesting insights — best practices to steal and pitfalls to avoid. We summarize a few of the highlights below.

And while the trend toward more populated cities is expected to evolve over the next several decades, it’s best to starting thinking about the future today. After all, some cities are already losing significant numbers of residents and there are rarely quick fixes for problems like that.

1. Don’t get stuck in the past
More than two-thirds of the cities on the losing list are heavily dependent on manufacturing. The problem is that manufacturers aren’t dependent on those cities. The businesses have already moved away or shuttered their factories.

Cities that fall into this trap are marked by a death rate that exceeds the birth rate, something that rarely happens. Johnstown, Pennsylvania, is the third-fastest shrinking city. Deaths have outpaced births for five years and 5,000 people have moved away. One big reason why: its unemployment rate is nearly 7%.

To grow, you need to attract businesses that are going to attract the next generation of workers. That’s what San Francisco and the Silicon Valley have done. Those tech-heavy areas were the second- and eighth-fastest growing cities last year.

2. Watch your vibe and cost of living
Desirable jobs are just one part of the equation, as Austin, Texas, has learned. It has been the fastest-growing cities in five of the past six years, according to Forbes. And the one year it didn’t place first, it placed second.

Highly-educated college graduates have a lot of employment options. Just having high-tech jobs isn’t enough anymore. Austin thrives because it has a low cost of living and cool vibe in addition to the technology jobs.

3. Take a bite out of crime
Does your city have a crime problem? Citizens notice. And if they don’t feel safe, they will leave.

The top two cities on the losing list — Farmington, New Mexico and Pine Bluff, Arkansas — have some of the highest rates of violent crime in the country. And their populations have dropped by nearly 9% and 6% respectively over the past five years.

4. Give incentives, if they make sense
Several metropolitan areas in Utah — Salt Lake City, Ogden and Provo — are growing rapidly and it’s largely because of government incentives that are attracting new businesses.

In all, Forbes found that more than 120 companies accepted incentives to move to or expand in Utah since 2010. Some of the growth came in new industries, such as clean energy, but the state added thousands of jobs in older industries, including paper manufacturing, through carefully managed incentives.

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