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America’s Most Dynamic Urban Centers [150 U.S. Cities Ranked]

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America’s Most Dynamic Urban Centers [150 U.S. Cities Ranked]

Some urban centers across the U.S. are already synonymous with innovation and development, while others are on the verge of becoming some of the most sought-after destinations for the American dream. From established hubs of economic growth to up-and-coming innovation spots, these cities represent the perfect mix of education and training, business opportunities, and technological advances in America.      

As industrialization is slowly being pushed aside, making room for more tech-focused, entrepreneurial cultures, progress is measured in education and research investments, advances in technology, and overall productivity and well-being levels. But which American cities are consistently innovating and developing the most? And what makes them stand out among others?

To answer this question, we examined 18 factors across four main dimensions: Human Capital, Education and Culture, Economic Activity, and Housing. Then, we ranked the 150 largest urban centers in the U.S.

More specifically, we looked into:

  • Human Capital: increases in population and immigration levels (influx of foreigners as well as U.S. citizens from other parts of the country), positive changes in a city’s median age;
  • Education and Culture: increases in the number of residents holding higher-education degrees, rises in school enrollment levels and internet subscriptions, and growth in the number of people employed in Arts and Entertainment;
  • Economic Activity: the evolution of a city’s GDP, boosts in incomes and job opportunities, growth in the number of registered patents and companies that are active on the market, as well as declines in unemployment and poverty rates;
  • Housing: home price appreciation, increases in building permits, and decreases in the number of vacant homes.

To give you a glimpse of the overall ranking, check out the top 10 most dynamic American cities today:

 

Each of these success hubs had some notable statistics:

#1 San Francisco, CA San Franciscans had the second-highest increase in median income in the country.
#2 Seattle, WA This city recorded the 6th-largest increase in population in the U.S.
#3 Denver, CO The number of registered patents in this city rose by 42% in just five years.
#4 Aurora, CO Aurora’s 54% drop in its unemployment rate is the 15th-largest in the country.
#5 Grand Prairie, TX The number of people below the poverty level decreased by 34%, the 13th-largest drop in the U.S.
#6 Oakland, CA Median income in Oakland increased by 30%, the 8th-largest increase in the country.
#7 Fort Worth, TX A 17% spike in the number of companies secured the 5th spot for this city.
#8 San Jose, CA San Jose had the highest GDP growth in the country.
#9 Atlanta, GA Atlanta had the 6th-largest job growth in the country.
#10 Miami, FL Education is one of Miami’s strong points: the city boasts the 5th-largest growth in the share of people with a college degree or higher, and the 3rd-largest increase in school enrollments.

Full Ranking: The 150 Most Dynamic U.S. Cities

Now that you’ve seen the top 10 performers in matters of growth and development, check out the full picture below, which lists the top 150 American urban centers. The table also includes individual rankings for the 18 metrics we analyzed, so feel free to click on the different sections in the header to reorder the cities and find out who took the top spot in each category:

Insights by City Size

A city’s population and median age can be a clear indicator of its potential for success. Some larger urban centers attract talent and resources because of their established reputations as young, bustling, entrepreneurial hubs. But other, smaller locations may emerge as fast-growing innovation centers due to recent economic efforts and investments.

We looked into this and divided the overall list of 150 urban hubs into:

  • large cities (population of more than 500,000 residents)
  • mid-sized cities (200,000 to 499,999 residents)
  • small cities (fewer than 199,999 residents)

Check it out to see which ones stand out in their respective categories.

America’s Top 10 Most Dynamic Large Cities


You already saw how the first five cities (San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, Fort Worth, and San Jose) stacked up when it came to individual factors. Here are a few fast facts for the following five:

  • Austin, TX – Austin saw the 2nd-highest increase in GDP, right after San Jose.
  • Charlotte, NC – Unemployment went down an amazing 55%, the 13th-largest drop in the nation.
  • Nashville, TN – Music City recorded a 17% increase in the share of people working in the arts and entertainment sector, and also the 8th-largest increase in GDP.
  • Phoenix, AZ – In Phoenix, the share of empty homes decreased a whopping 26%, the 16th-sharpest drop in the country.
  • Dallas, TX – With a 16% increase, Dallas saw the 18th-highest jump in GDP.

America’s Top 10 Most Dynamic Mid-Sized Cities

Specific stats for Aurora, Oakland, Atlanta, and Miami were already shared above. Check out some interesting findings for the remaining mid-sized hubs in this top 10 list:

  • Raleigh, NC – Raleigh saw its unemployment rate go down 55%, the 11th-largest decrease in the U.S.
  • Reno, NV – Despite a significant jump in home prices, Reno remains affordable. It also boasts the 7th most significant growth in the number of building permits.
  • Hialeah, FL – Hialeah saw the 17th-largest increase in median income. Additionally, its unemployment rate went down 65%, the 4th-most significant drop in the U.S.
  • Stockton, CA – Stockton boasts the 3rd-most impressive jump in the number of building permits.
  • Irving, TX – Irving is one of the youngest cities in the U.S., with a median age of 32.1 years. Additionally, its GDP saw the 18th-largest increase in the nation. 
  • Glendale, AZ – The city’s 42% drop in number of people below poverty level is the 3rd most significant decrease in the study. Moreover, Glendale saw a 5% decrease in median age, the largest drop of all the cities included in the analysis.

America’s Top 10 Most Dynamic Small Cities

Not to be outdone, the small cities also racked up some formidable stats:

  • Grand Prairie, TX – As stated above, Grand Prairie stands out when it comes to its poverty-reducing efforts. The city saw the 13th-largest drop in the number of people below the poverty level.
  • Port St. Lucie, FL – This city has some amazing overall scores, coming in 2nd for categories like: people working in arts and entertainment; increase in the share of people with higher education; decrease in unemployment; and decrease in people below the poverty level.
  • Frisco, TX & McKinney, TX – Frisco and McKinney boast the first- and second-highest jumps in population of all the cities in the study.
  • Grand Rapids, MI – With a 38% drop, Grand Rapids saw the 9th-largest decrease in the number of people below the poverty line.
  • Vancouver, WA – With a 40% drop, Vancouver saw the 4th-largest decrease in the number of people below the poverty line.
  • Oceanside, CA – Oceanside boasts the biggest increase in the number of people with higher education: 47%.
  • Elk Grove, CA – Elk Grove recorded the 8th most significant decrease in unemployment rates.
  • Ontario, CA – Ontario saw an important drop in the number of vacant homes across the city, the 4th-largest  decrease of all the cities analyzed.
  • Cape Coral, FL – Cape Coral saw a 24% increase in the number of jobs created, the 3rd-largest of all the cities in the analysis.

4 Dimensions of Progress: A Brief Snapshot

As mentioned above, the 18 factors we examined are grouped into four individual dimensions that help envision the different facets of a city’s evolution: Human Capital, Education and Culture, Economic Activity, and Housing. Take a look at the cities that saw the biggest improvements for each category.

America’s Top 10 Most Dynamic Cities in Terms of Human Capital

No society is prone to prosperity if it doesn’t attract human capital, so an urban center’s ability to lure talent plays a huge role in its progress. Check out the top 10 U.S. cities for each of the four factors connected to this dimension:

America’s Top 10 Most Dynamic Cities in Terms of Education & Culture

Attracting talent is important, but so is nurturing that talent in time. Here’s how the cities in the study ranked according to education and culture factors:

America’s Top 10 Most Dynamic Cities in Terms of Economic Activity

Talent needs a prosperous environment to thrive, so a hub’s economic stability is crucial to paving the path toward success. Check out the top 10 cities for each of the 7 economic factors:

America’s Top 10 Most Dynamic Cities in Terms of Housing

Real estate plays a significant role in every city’s prosperity. More construction, fewer vacant homes, and increases in home values, all spell out potential. Check out the top performers:

 

The most dynamic cities in the U.S. harbor a wealth of education, employment, and cultural opportunities, drawing people to them at an ever-increasing pace. In these centers of creativity and innovation, talent seems to beget talent, ensuring economic and social development for years to come.

Expert Insights

Ralph Buehler
Associate Professor and Chair of Urban Affairs and Planning
School of Public and International Affairs
Virginia Tech Research Center
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

What are some of the main challenges fast-growing cities experience and how can local authorities solve them?

“While welcomed by virtually all cities in North America, local governments struggle with fast population and economic growth because there is little time for planning processes to play out. Focusing on key planning principles can help mitigate some of the most severe problems of unplanned development. One key element to consider is transportation because excess demand for single-occupancy automobile travel can lead to increased traffic congestion, traffic fatalities, local and global air pollution, environmental pollution, and loss of quality of life that may stifle future economic growth.

Planning for access to destinations for everyday life is crucial including jobs, grocery stores, doctor’s offices, daycares, schools, restaurants, and shops. Local governments have to make sure they plan for access to these destinations within close proximity of the home to avoid excess demand for travel—in particular automobile travel. This includes mixing land uses using a principle such as the 10-minute neighborhood that provides access to most destinations of daily life within that short time (and distance). In addition, complete streets should comprise safe infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists and prioritize public transport over automobiles. Walking and cycling are ideal modes for shorter trips and most people are willing and able to walk or ride a bike for those trips if it is safe and convenient. Public transport is much more efficient at carrying many passengers than automobiles. Priority bus lanes, dedicated light-rail right-of-way, and underground metro systems provide reliable, convenient, and attractive public transport.

Many cities will have to change their zoning codes and some roadway engineering practices for this kind of development, allowing mixed-land uses, requiring maximum automobile parking rates (vs. minimum rates), and prioritizing bicycles and pedestrians with protected bikeway infrastructure, crosswalks, sidewalks, and signal priority at intersections. Examples from North America and Europe show that these approaches can work successfully.”

Jeannette Chapman
Deputy Director and Senior Research Associate
The Stephen S. Fuller Institute for Research on the Washington Region’s Economic Future
Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University

What are some of the main challenges fast-growing cities experience and how can local authorities solve them?

“Fast-growing cities benefit by being more dynamic and increasing resources for local authorities to use to solve both existing and new challenges. Common challenges in these cities are often related to previous conditions and fall into three categories: infrastructure, disparate impacts, and change management.

Transportation networks, utilities, government systems and all other forms of infrastructure need to be primed to accommodate growth and retrofitting these components after growth arrives creates new challenges. Proactive planning and investment are ideal in fast-growing cities. The challenge in doing so is that the costs are up-front and the benefits accrue later. Financial tools can be used to address this: bonds, tax increment financing, public-private partnerships and other tools that often vary by locality.

All residents are never equally affected by change, be it a city’s growth or decline. In general, those with the most market power are better able to navigate these changes. This is particularly true if supply has failed to keep up with the growing demand. The most common manifestation of this divide is with housing and schools. Often, policies that were designed to allow for robust civic input have the unintended consequence of slowing the growth of supply, but not the growth in demand. Local authorities and communities need to collectively ask not only “what happens if this is built?” but also “what happens if it is not?” Public engagement is key and the broader and more creative the outreach, the better the solution.

Even cities that are not growing are continuously changing: the nation has two large generations, Baby Boomers and Millennials, that are both entering new stages of life; there has been a nationwide erosion of middle-wage jobs; technology is changing the way we shop and travel. When these changes occur in fast-growing cities, it is difficult to separate what changes are the result of growth and which changes would have occurred in the absence of growth. In this confusion, a policy solution may target the wrong source. Local authorities must analyze the source of each challenge and engage the public to determine the optimal solution.”

Mark Levine
Professor and Endowed Chair
Burns School of Real Estate and Construction Management
Daniels College of Business at University of Denver

What are some of the main challenges fast-growing cities experience and how can local authorities solve them?

“The concerns with the above issues would seem to apply to local governments, urban development, urban policy, public policy, economic development and public administration for cities and other governmental bodies. That is, the growth issues are of concern to many entities.

These groups or entities often face issues with growing cities that impact various areas, and the weight of each area and its priority will vary with the parties impacted. Without any intent to prioritize the same, consider some of the following topics that are important in addressing these challenges and proposed solutions: finance, timing, control, legal concerns, existing and proposed laws, rights held by various individuals and entities, resources available, overlapping issues and other conflicts, and much more.

The most basic point in addressing this area is to determine the problems or issues at hand. The fast growth is often the result of various factors, positive and negative, that have come together. Job opportunities, lower-priced housing, availability of qualified labor, etc., are certainly some of the factors that may help create strong growth in a city. Addressing these issues, such as the amount and pricing of housing, qualified labor/employees, infrastructure, etc., are only a few of the problems that must be addressed to sustain the quality growth within the city/state.

These issues of fast growth and addressing the same are what many professional organizations attempt to undertake in a task force such as those supported by groups such as the Urban Land Institute and others. The “answers” require a good deal of effort—and time in most cases.”

Ivy Hu
Professor and Chair of Urban Planning
School of Architecture & Urban Planning
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

What are some of the main challenges fast-growing cities experience and how can local authorities solve them?

“The major challenge that we can immediately observe and feel is high real estate prices, due to the obvious reason that real estate development usually lags behind fast population and economic growth. One potential strategy that local authorities can adopt is an innovative and flexible zoning ordinance, for example, allowing accessory dwelling units to increase housing supply rapidly and affordably.”

Methodology

  • We selected 18 indicators covering four dimensions to gauge the level and speed of economic and social development in the 150 largest U.S. cities.
  • The four categories we considered were Human Capital, Education and Culture, Economic Activity, and Housing.
  • The 18 indicators we analyzed were:
    1. population changes
    2. median age changes
    3. changes in the foreign-born population
    4. changes in inter-city migration patterns
    5. income changes
    6. evolution of unemployment rates
    7. evolution of poverty rates
    8. job growth
    9. GDP changes
    10. changes in the number of companies
    11. number of registered patents
    12. evolution of median home price
    13. building permits
    14. fluctuations in the number of vacant homes
    15. changes in the rates of school enrolment
    16. changes in the number of people with college degrees
    17. number of people working in arts and entertainment
    18. changes in the number of internet subscriptions
  • The scores attributed to each factor were weighted to reflect their importance, on a 120-point scale. We determined each city’s weighted average across the metrics and used the resulting scores to rank the cities in the analysis.
  • Our main sources were: the United States Census Bureau, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, National Association of Realtors, local MLSs, and PropertyShark stats and data.
  • We analyzed data at the city level for all metrics, except for new homes and GDP, where we used metro-level data. Some home prices were also available only at the metro level.
  • For each indicator, we analyzed data spanning five years, from 2013 to 2017, with the following exceptions: changes in the number of companies (2007-2012), number of registered patents (2011-2015), building permits (2014-2018), and evolution of median home price (May 2014-May 2019).
  • We categorized the cities according to their population as follows: large cities (more than 500,000 people), mid-sized cities (between 200,000 and 499,999 people), and small cities (fewer than 200,000 people).

Fair use and redistribution

We encourage and freely grant you permission to reuse, host, or repost the story in this article. When doing so, we only ask that you kindly attribute the authors by linking to Point2Homes.com or this page so that your readers can learn more about this project, the research behind it and its methodology.

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