Seattle and Columbus Show How Cities Can Win

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In the modern U.S. economy, prosperity depends more and more on creating successful cities. But what is success, and how can it be achieved? Seattle, Washington, and Columbus, Ohio, offer some clues.

In tracking the rise and fall of American cities, people often pay attention to population growth. It isn’t a perfect proxy for urban success, especially because many cities restrict new housing development and thus prevent their population from growing. But it’s definitely one important measure, because more residents equals a larger tax base.

It’s interesting, therefore, to look at which cities are growing and which are shrinking. The U.S. Census Bureau recently released its 2017 estimates for the country’s 25 largest municipalities:

Seattle and Columbus Show How Cities Can Win

Because some metropolitan areas are very fragmented, while others are mostly unified in one large municipality, it’s also useful to look at the metropolitan areas with the largest numerical population changes:

Seattle and Columbus Show How Cities Can Win

As might be expected, most of the fast-growing cities are in the Sun Belt. That’s partly because Americans, on the whole, are moving to the South and West, probably to take advantage of nice weather and cheap land. But there’s at least one fast-growing city that doesn’t have sunny skies: Seattle.

Seattle makes both of the above lists, and its growth is no one-year blip. In fact, since 2010, Seattle’s growth has outpaced that of any other of the nation’s 50 largest cities, even sprawling Sun Belt powerhouses like Austin, Texas. It has accomplished this despite being notoriously rainy and rather cold. How?

Seattle is a major technology cluster, which creates high-paying jobs for knowledge workers. The inflows of money to the tech industry spill over into a huge variety of local services — everything from food to law to health care and real estate — and generates plenty of work even for those who aren't engineering whizzes. That positive dynamic drives demand for residency in Seattle.

But demand must be matched by supply, and here is where Seattle stands out even more. The city is famous for building lots of housing. In recent years, that has meant more multifamily units and fewer single-family homes — in other words, Seattle has opted for density. The city builds far more than the more populous San Francisco, and almost as much as the far larger Los Angeles. This sustained commitment to housing allows more people to live in the city, and it also helps hold down rents.

So one thing cities can do to increase their tax bases is simply build more housing. But not every city has a world-beating tech cluster like Seattle’s. What can less fortunate cities do to attract residents?

The answer may lie in another Northern city that made it onto this year’s fastest-growing list: Columbus, Ohio. Though the state of Ohio has lagged badly in a number of ways, Columbus is a bright spot. Why?

One big reason: Like many successful modern cities, Columbus is built around a good university — Ohio State. With about 60,000 students (including undergraduate and postgraduate), the school is a behemoth. University graduates, plus high-skilled university employees, provide a large available pool of educated, talented people who can be employed by businesses that move to Columbus. The city’s percentage of residents with bachelor’s degrees is well above the national average.

Combine that educated workforce with a reputation for business-friendly policies, and you have a powerful lure for companies looking for a location for their next office, as well as startups. Meanwhile, the city has made a commitment to good urban planning, which will help to sustain growth by keeping the place livable as more newcomers arrive.

So for cities that aren’t gifted with infinite land and warm, sunny skies, Seattle and Columbus offer two paths for growth. Those that already have large, attractive industrial clusters — like San Francisco — should focus on building housing and transit, loosening restrictive zoning codes, and streamlining the permitting process for construction. For the much larger number of cities without such advantages, Columbus provides a better model. A big, good, well-funded university; smart urban planning; and a welcoming business climate can help turn smaller cities like Madison, Wisconsin, into regional economic powerhouses, or help revive stagnant old industrial cities like Cleveland, Milwaukee, and St. Louis.

Regional growth won’t come easily outside the Sun Belt. But it’s not impossible.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.