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Iowa is a state of small towns.
That has been true throughout Iowa's history. It is true today. Iowa's largest cities, including Des Moines, have attributes of big cities, but they are more like small towns when held up next to places like Chicago, Kansas City, St. Louis or Minneapolis. That is not so bad, because cities with multiples of population have multiples of problems as well. What makes Iowa cities and towns attractive and livable is their modest size that means less traffic, crime and stress.
Still, as Richard Doak points out above, the fact that Iowa has not had the benefit of a dominant metropolis - as Minnesota has in Minneapolis - it has not seen the similar population growth. Large metropolitan areas have grown in inverse proportion to rural areas that export young people to the bright lights of big cities. Iowa's exports tend to head for cities in other states.
It is probably too late to turn this around. The cities of Iowa will likely never be able to compete with Chicago or Minneapolis. Still, Iowa's modest population growth has been occurring mostly in urban areas (mostly in the suburbs). Iowa's smartest growth strategy is to grow its cities. Iowa must give young people reasons not to migrate to cities in other states, and it must make its cities attractive to people from outside Iowa.
Instead, the state's economic development strategy has been disconnected from building strong cities. That has got to change, and it will be evident when the Iowa League of Cities has as much political clout as the Iowa Farm Bureau.
The case for cities as places of great economic potential is made in a new book by Harvard economics professor Edward Glaeser, "The Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier." Glaeser believes cities "magnify humanity's strengths" because they "spur innovation by facilitating face-to-face interaction, they attract talent and sharpen it through competition, they encourage entrepreneurship, and they allow for social and economic mobility," according to a New York Times review.
In a Times interview, Glaeser said "I believe that the best local economic development strategy ... is to work on attracting smart, entrepreneurial people and then, more or less, get out of their way." Indeed, National Public Radio reported that young people are flocking to Portland, Ore., despite high unemployment there, because young people want to be part of the diversity of culture, entertainment, recreation and rock music.
Glaeser's prescription for urban economic vitality: Attract workers with "quality of life and excitement"; encourage entrepreneurs by eliminating unnecessary regulation; adapt physical infrastructure for the 21st century, which for him means fewer roads to the suburbs and more density in high-rise living; and, "don't forget that better schools can reward a city more quickly than they can graduate students, by attracting skilled parents."
Iowa's growth will happen in urban places. The only question is how much growth is Iowa willing to fight for by building attractive cities.