Smaller Cities in a Shrinking World

Undoubtedly, finding talent remains the number 1 issue for businesses and economic developers today.  The causes of these talent deficits are complex, but I don’t think they are a temporary phenomenon linked to the pandemic or other causes.  Instead, they reflect long-term demographic trends that we’ll be grappling with for decades. That’s why a new book from Alan Mallach, Smaller Cities in a Shrinking World:  Learning to Thrive Without Growth, is so timely.

Mallach’s thesis is both straightforward and controversial.  He argues that many communities, especially small to mid-sized cities, will need to rethink their economic fundamentals due to declining populations.  As populations decline, a region’s capacities to spur economic growth may be similarly hamstrung.  This is not a hypothetical prospect:  between 2020 and 2021, half of American cites with a population over 50,000 lost population, reflecting trends that began over the previous decade. 

Mallach recognizes that some places will still be able to spur growth, and that larger global cities, such as New York, London, or Tokyo, will continue to serve as major economic drivers.  But, smaller cities will be challenged.  For Mallach, this shift also creates opportunities.  His proposed solutions involve shrinking smartly and embracing local solutions, such as small-scale manufacturing, local food systems, and a focus on improving local quality of life. I’m sure that this book will be controversial with many of my colleagues in the economic development profession. Nonetheless, it raises many interesting ideas that are worth discussing.