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#163 - What makes a city great?

I have been thinking a lot lately about what makes a city great, how cities become great, and how cities decline. In conjunction with this, I have also been thinking a lot about city revitalization and what it takes to make a city great again (no political puns here).

To start, how do you define what a city is? To me, a city is a network of citizens that each individually pursue their own best interests but collectively is worth more than the sum of each individual citizen's contributions. A city is also a cultural hub that is defined by its average citizens cultural habits, customs and practices. There is a certain “vibe” to every city, a combination of five key pillars:

- main economic outputs

- cultural heritage and ways of life

- political climate

- weather

- natural + man-made amenities.

Given this definition, what makes a city great? A mere decade ago, you could argue that the city was 'where the jobs were.' As the internet expands the possibilities of geographic location, the economic pillar is becoming somewhat less important relatively speaking as the other four pillars above are becoming increasingly important. In addition to these pillars, I would argue that you must have an overarching structure to tie all the pillars together. This superstructure is the vision for the city. And the vision for the city can be implicit (cultural and political norms that belie an underlying worldview) or explicit (ordinances that either encourage or discourage behavior, comprehensive plans, government declarations and mandates, economic incentives etc.) in nature.

Without a vision, a city's flame may burn hot for decades on its own economic output and remain a powerhouse by the sheer existence of its economic network effects. But as is evidenced by cities like San Francisco, without a coherent vision, these pillars can fracture, and ultimately dissolve if the original benefits of being located in the city no longer exist (less safe, less affordable, equal opportunity elsewhere for lower cost, policies that are hostile to capital and business formation). San Francisco's cultural heritage, economic opportunities, weather, and amenities made it an incredible city for decades. But the political climate and lack of leadership is such that the city is quickly hollowing out the middle class leaving behind only tech titans and the homeless. I view this as a lack of leadership more than anything else, a lack of ability to tie together all of the great features of the city into a coherent vision, resulting in declining relevance for the city in the minds of prospective future citizens.

I believe we are in the early innings of an acceleration of states and cities competing for economic development opportunities, competing based on various combinations of the five pillars listed above. My bet is that this trend accelerates in the next 5-10 years as big companies continue to relocate to more business-friendly states and municipalities based on what these cities' vision offers. The internet has allowed work to take place from anywhere, so why not in the city that offers the greatest combination of economic incentives, weather, amenities, etc.?

When it comes to revitalizing a city, it is even more imperative to have a central vision and leadership that galvanizes the citizens to align their self interests (businesses, real estate, location, lifestyles) more so with that of the city’s. Without this alignment of vision and interests, a city will slowly dissolve over time as citizens choose other cities that offer greater alignment with their personal interests and desires.

One local example that is relevant to me is the city of Wilson, NC. It is a city of ~50,000 residents and for a long time, its growth and development trajectory paralleled that of Rocky Mount, NC (my hometown of ~55,000 which is located ~20 miles Northeast). In 2010, Wilson released a new comprehensive plan - Wilson's 2030 Comprehensive Plan - and since then, its development and growth trajectory has decoupled significantly from that of Rocky Mount's. It's city government is pro-development, has initiated public-private partnership initiatives, and has generally held the view that the city is 'open for business.' Contrast that with a focus on affordable housing in Rocky Mount - and a comprehensive plan that is almost 20 years old - and it isn't hard to see why the two city's trajectories have diverged.

To sum it up, there is a golden opportunity in the next 5-10 years for smaller cities that are regionally close to larger economic hubs to explode with growth by approaching the talent game with a comprehensive five-pillar approach - a unified vision that highlights its economic incentives, amenities, culture, weather, and political posture. Some cities will decline because their vision is antithetical to growth. Some cities will stagnate because they simply lack a unified vision. And some cities will explode as they adapt their vision to the 21st century citizen - digitally native, amenity-rich, and friendly to families and business alike.

What makes a city great to you?

What are other examples of cities that are experiencing revitalization near you?


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