Forbes magazine's 2012 “Best Cities” analysis and global management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. say growth is coming from cities with less than 1 million residents. Despite the culture and excitement big cities provide, baby boomers and their offspring continue migrating to suburbs, college towns, and state capitals to retire and raise children in communities that provide similar amenities for less, and with less hassle.

These “middleweight” communities account for 27 of the 30 urban regions that are adding jobs at the fastest rate; 257 of them generate 70% of U.S. GDP.

Now look at the map below. Developed by the Regional Plan Association, it shows 11 areas of the country where separate metropolitan regions have blended into one gigantic community. Federal funding is increasingly directed toward multijurisdictional efforts, and that emphasis isn't likely to change. The stimulus package Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants and FHWA's Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) program are for projects of regional importance. Similarly, EPA's watershed-based permitting acknowledges that water honors no man-made boundaries.

Assuming this trend continues, how will infrastructure not in or near a megaregion fare, especially in cities and counties that aren't sitting on a natural gas reserve or other source of economic growth? (That growth, by the way, is taxing rural highway and water operations to the limit and beyond.) By themselves, colleges, universities, and state capitals don't generate the volume and diversity of jobs necessary to attract an influx of new residents or companies.

I can't help but think of the communities of my youth, farm towns in western Illinois that boomed during the 1970s but are now almost ghost towns. Manufacturers moved to Mexico or elsewhere. Agriculture, like other industries, has consolidated; fewer people are required to work ever-larger operations, which means fewer people are coming to town to shop and eat in local businesses. These communities are quiet and beautiful, replete with gracious old homes available for a song. The air smells different than in the city. If you've got a job and can ignore the empty store-fronts, they're not a bad place to live.

But for a public works professional, they're all mini-Detroits. Much of their infrastructure was built long ago and expanded to service more people. Today, fewer people and businesses are supporting even older assets. If service falls to unacceptable levels due to budget cuts, even fewer people and businesses will make such communities their home.

These communities need capable infrastructure managers to prevent such a scenario. What are we doing to ensure the men and women who commit their skills and expertise to them will succeed?

Stephanie Jonhston


Editor in Chief

With federal resources increasingly targeted to regional rather than state or local infrastructure projects, communities that aren't in one of these clusters of metropolitan areas will have to devise innovative ways to fund maintenance and improvements. Source: America2050