11 Signs of a Thriving City

Sunset in Greenville, South Carolina. Photo: Call me Lee via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA.

In an article for The Atlantic's March issue, James and Deb Fallows summarize observations from their 54,000-mile exploration of America in a single engine plane. As a companion piece to their feature story, the two created a checklist of 11 things that indicate the civic health of a city. Though the list is admittedly subjective, the positive criteria they identified seemed to hold true for all the thriving cities they visited:

1. Divisive national politics seem a distant concern.

2. You can pick out the local patriots.

3. “Public-private partnerships” are real.

4. People know the civic story.

5. They have a real downtown.

6. They are near a research university.

7. They have, and care about, a community college. 

8. They have unusual schools. 

9. They make themselves open.

10. They have big plans. 

11. They have craft breweries. 

The thread that runs through these 11 themes is hardly surprising: It's a focus on community. Whether that is interpreted as setting national politics aside or putting local issues first, the pair found that, "... overwhelmingly the focus in successful towns was not on national divisions but on practical problems that a community could address." 


Photo credit: Curtis Gregory Perry via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA.

In a nutshell, citizens had someone and something to rally around, and they did. 

Part of the reason for that was that the folks in town could identify their local leaders no matter what form they came in -- be it developer, executive, artist or activist. They knew the local lore as well -- the story of what the city was, is, and wants to be -- and supported efforts to build municipal infrastructure, like thriving downtowns and vibrant educational institutions. 

Though not mentioned, most of the thriving cities visited on the journey -- places like Burlington, Vermont; Greenville, South Carolina; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Columbus, Ohio; and Fresno, California -- were mid-sized municipalities. As the book Ultra Society points out, smaller cities and countries tend to be more democratic. And mayors everywhere should take note that the authors didn't include professional sports teams (and their expensive taxpayer-funded stadiums), large corporate employers, and fancy art festivals in their list.

Local craft brew? Absolutely! NFL franchise? Nah.

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