This editorial is part of our GREAT DEBATE feature 'Where Will Americans Be Living In 20 Years?'
The days of hand-wringing about urban decay have given way to a recognition of cities as key engines of the national and world economies, and with that recognition has come a greater understanding of the role that people play in their dynamism.
For our discussion of the best places to live twenty years from now, we choose to focus on America’s metropolitan areas—large cities and the nearby towns, suburbs, and exurbs with strong economic, social, and cultural ties to them.
Today, enterprises of all types are less likely to move their employees with them when they relocate, but rather look for a place that already has a well-educated, competitive workforce.
An environment that attracts the brightest and best people—with efficient transportation, safe neighborhoods, good schools, cultural amenities, green space, fresh food, and much more—is critical to a city’s long-term prospects.
Measure of America gauges well-being and opportunity with the American Human Development Index, a measure that combines official government statistics on health, education, and income into a single number. The ranking of the ten most populous U.S. metro areas on the American Human Development Index is as follows:
- Washington DC
- New York
- Los Angeles
People living in the top-ranked metros have longer lives, more education, and higher earnings
"People living in the top-ranked metros have longer lives, more education, and higher earnings."
than those living in the bottom-ranked metros.
In Boston and Washington, DC, more than four in ten adults have at least a bachelor’s degree. In Houston, two in ten adults did not complete high school.
Clearly the cities at the top today have a running start for top billing in 2032. But the present doesn’t wholly determine the future.
Equally, if not more important, will be how different metropolitan areas deal with the demographic sea change the country is experiencing, in addition to the significant structural shift from manufacturing toward knowledge industries. If cities address these changes by making investments in people—their greatest asset in the knowledge economy of tomorrow—they will thrive.
Take Chicago as an example. Ranked fifth on the American Human Development Index, our calculations show that in the Chicago metro area, Asian Americans live an astonishing 18 years longer than African Americans. And while the typical white worker in Chicago earns $40,000 per year in median personal earnings, the typical Latino worker earns less than $24,000.
Widely disparate outcomes are seen by neighborhood as well. Some in Chicago have the capabilities—a first-rate education, physical safety, a clean environment, digital access, secure employment, etc.—to further their personal goals and live to their full potential. Others struggle with these basics.
Gaps like these are obviously detrimental to those at the bottom, but leaving large groups behind is also damaging to competitiveness, bad for community stability, and expensive for society as a whole. Only by building the capabilities of all in the Chicago metro area will the Windy City be able to vie for a top spot twenty years from now.
Metropolitan areas will also have to position themselves for demographic shifts and both the opportunities and challenges these shifts will bring; the U.S population is becoming older and more ethnically diverse—sometimes called the “graying” and “browning” of America.
The next two decades will see the number of older adults grow three times as fast as the population as a whole. How will different metropolitan areas organize themselves to meet the needs of this population as well as to take advantage of their tremendous, and often undervalued, talents?
America is also becoming “browner,” Already, more than half of American children under the age of one are members of minority groups, and white children make up less than half the population of children in 31 major metropolitan areas. The US will avoid the grim demographic fate of many European nations, which face a looming imbalance between working-age adults and dependent children and the elderly, thanks largely to immigration.
"Innovators of the future will not want to live in a city that resembles a suburban golf club."
But while we are avoiding one crisis, we must urgently address another: the lagging scholastic achievement of African American and Latino children, particularly boys. Knowledge matters more than ever, and the gulf between cities with and without highly educated populations is growing ever wider.
Finally, it’s critical that cities do not lose sight of what makes creative, promising young people choose where to live. Jobs matter, but the most talented have many job opportunities. Innovators of the future, if they are anything like innovators of today, will not want to live in a city that resembles a suburban golf club—a city stripped of texture, variety, and hidden gems.
The rising generation of majority-minority Americans will seek an inclusive, diverse civic life, opting for social solidarity rather than divisiveness. The inexorable march of gentrification and sorting of neighborhoods by income apparent in too many major cities crowds out many of the things that make city living exciting and fun. The best cities to live in twenty years from now will be those that invest in and make room for all the people living there today—because the real wealth of cities is people.
 Xavier de Souza Briggs, “Community Building: The New (and old) Politics of Urban Problem Solving.” Faculty research working paper series, John F. Kennedy School of Government Harvard University, 2002.
 Frey, 2010