A few years ago, the city of Des Moines changed its slogan. Officials ditched “Change Your View”—translation: “Not as Boring as You Think”—for the far jauntier “Des Moines. Do More.” According to the marketing firm behind the shift, “it was time for Des Moines to stop apologizing for not being Chicago or Minneapolis and start challenging those metropolitan areas for not being everything Des Moines is.” The switch may not seem like much of a challenge, but it does represent a newfound confidence among smaller cities in what’s condescendingly known as flyover country. As the nation’s metropolises struggle—of the 15 largest, 14 reported a decline in growth in the ’00s—smaller cities like Des Moines are on the upswing.
Some of these cities anticipated the developments currently popular among urbanists. Two decades after it was suspended in a filthy smog like something out of a Dickens novel, Chattanooga was greening its downtown with a riverwalk and aquarium. The city’s population has turned around, too: Between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, Chattanooga quadrupled its growth rate, undoing a 10 percent population loss between 1980 and 1990. Others anticipated developments popular among the urbane. Asheville, North Carolina, where the growth rate nearly doubled over those 10 years, is home to a roster of microbreweries and independent restaurants well beyond what its population of 83,000 would suggest. The city bills itself as “The World’s Only Foodtopian Society.”
Asheville isn’t alone. From Paducah to Fargo, small cities are talking a big game.