Led by New York, big cities had a great decade

The 2010s were a great decade for America’s big cities. The 2020 Census found that each of the top 25 cities in the country gained population. 14 of them had population growth of more than 100,000.

New York City led the way. Growing by an astonishing 629,000. Only 29 cities in America have a population of more than 629,000. New York City grew by about the total population of the city of Detroit (639,000) and three time more than the total population of the city of Grand Rapids (199,000).

New York’s 2020 population is 8.8 million. The most ever in the city’s history. More than all but 11 states. New York’s population is larger than the entire state of Michigan minus Oakland County.

The 2020 census count was conducted when New York City was getting hammered by COVID-19 and the press and social media were filled with stories that everyone was moving out of the city. Conventional wisdom had it that dense places––particularly big cities––were toast. Think again!

One of the dominant trends of the 2020 Census is that Americans are increasingly choosing to live in big metropolitan areas, most anchored by vibrant central cities. And those big metros with their vibrant central cities are also the most prosperous places in America.

The competitive advantage of big metros and their big cities was evident a decade ago. In a 2011 post about Manhattan, really all of New York City, I described that competitive advantage this way :

Manhattan is probably the highest cost place to do business in America. Not only high state and local taxes, but also high labor costs and, maybe most important, sky high real estate prices. In many ways it is the poster child for big government: big police and fire departments; big park system; public support for the arts; transit,transit, and more transit; one of the few cities with safety net programs over and above the state and federal safety net and on and on and on. Add to that lots of regulation, powerful public employee unions, lots of renters; sky high density; lots of immigrants, gays and folks of different races, religions and ethnicity and you have a recipe for what we are constantly told leads to economic disaster. Wrong!

Instead it is a place where knowledge-based businesses from across the planet are increasingly concentrating. It is one of America’s great centers of innovation and entrepreneurship. A place where the affluent (the 1%) and talent concentrate. It all adds up to one of the most successful economies in the country. So strong that it is the main engine of a metropolitan area of more than 22 million people (more than twice Michigan) in four states. A metropolitan area that is the third most prosperous big metro in the country, with a per capita income of more than $52,000. ($18,000 higher than Michigan’s.)

Turns out in the real world all those so-called liabilities are assets that lead to prosperity. A big city that works, a government that provides quality basic services and amenities, terrific alternatives to driving, density and welcoming to all. Combine those features with an entrepreneurial culture and you have a place where talent – from across the planet – wants to live and work. And where talent concentrates you get growth and prosperity, not decline and falling income and employment. To get back on the path to prosperity Michigan needs far more – not less – of what Manhattan has.

Michigan policymakers––from both parties––and Michigan business leaders, by and large, spent the last decade ignoring these Manhattan lesson. Pursuing instead a let’s make a Michigan low-cost place economic strategy. Clearly that strategy didn’t work.

The Census data makes clear that it is far past time for Michigan to put in place a new economic development strategy. Just as a decade ago, New York City offers the state a model for what the assets are that matter most to creating places where people want to live and to driving growth and prosperity.

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