American cities on the rebound

Oliver Branch, Miss., was named by Bloomberg BusinessWeek magazine the fastest-growing city in America. It's grown 838% since 1990.

This story was first published on May 22, 2011.

Our cover story takes us to the big city - and as Seth Doane explains, we've got plenty of company ...

Consider this: Today, worldwide, more than half of us live in cities. By 2050, the United Nations projects nearly three-quarters of us will.

More and more, these bustling metropolises are becoming home.

Connie Curran remembers her years in the suburbs as "dull." She told Doane she started thinking about moving to the city a month after she moved into the 'burbs.

"I bought this house - it had a white picket fence," Curran said. "My sister saw it and she said, 'You're on Wisteria Lane!' It was a great house and it was very peaceful. It was very homogeneous - and it was very boring."

So last year, at age 61, this nurse-turned-healthcare entrepreneur - who found a new lease on life after beating stage-four cancer - settled into a spectacular home in San Francisco.

"When I saw that view I thought, 'Now this is city, and this is a neighborhood. I'm living life. This is life. This is the luxury of middle age."

She defined the luxury of middle-age as the ability "to move to the city and to enjoy the richness and vastness of the things that are here. I hang around 24th Street and usually pick up some flowers, pick up some fruit."

Curran says walking everywhere keeps her fit.

In fact, studies show many urbanites are actually healthier, and may even live longer.

And they're environmentally friendlier, too, because they drive less, live in smaller spaces, and use less energy.

To offset her 3,200-square-foot space, Curran takes it a step further: It's all run by solar power. A Lucite stairwell in her three-story modern home lets natural light penetrate, saving so much electricity that the utility company actually writes her a check every month.

While Curran moved to this vibrant city for culture, Harvard economist and author Edward Glaeser says many folks moving to cities are just "following the money," because city workers earn 30% more than those in suburbs.

Just look at midtown Manhattan: "The economic output, the payroll of this area is higher than Oregon or Nevada, right?" Glaeser said. "This tiny sliver of land is an unbelievably productive part of America. And that productivity is ultimately the heart of a city's appeal. It's ultimately what's drawing so many people to cities."

Today, about 250 million Americans choose to live in or around urban areas. That means more than three-quarters of our population shares just about three percent of our land area.

Since 1990, the number of people living in cities has gone up by seven percent - a far cry from all those years of folks fleeing to the suburbs, to places like Long Island, where there was "room to build."

"Today, the movement is in the other direction," said Glaeser. "It's back toward the old ports. It's back towards the densities that were our historic starting point."

In fact, the fastest-growing city in the United States is not New York or San Francisco, it's Olive Branch, Miss.

In the late 1800s, the town was known as "Cow Pen," said mayor Sam Rikard.

"Do you think changing the name of the town from Cow Pen to Olive Branch might've helped with the growth?" Doane asked.

"I think it's probably helped tremendously," Rikard said.

Olive Branch - just outside Memphis - has certainly blossomed, from 3,500 people in 1990 to a small city of nearly 34,000 today. Citing this 838% population boom, Bloomberg Businessweek recently gave it that ranking: America's fastest-growing city.

"It's almost like that 'Field of Dreams' - you build it and they'll come, you know?" said Rikard. "And that's almost reality here."

It's reality all across the South. Over the last ten years, most of the fastest-growing major cities were Southern cities - and that's not a coincidence, according to Edward Glaeser.

"The variable that best predicts metropolitan growth over the 20th century is January temperature," he said. "Warmth is just a very good predictor of which American cities have grown more quickly or less quickly.

"America in 1900 was built around this great transportation network of the Great Lakes and the railroads. And as it became cheaper to move goods over space, people got to move to the places that they wanted to move to."

Randy and Shannen Taylor moved from a smaller town in Mississippi to Olive Branch back in 2002. They wanted better schools and more amenities, along with an affordable cost of living.

"Just the range of things that have popped up in Olive Branch - restaurants and theater and things like that," said Shannen.

"Has it changed a lot in the last few years?" asked Doane.

"Absolutely," she said. "There used to be just a two-lane road that ran through Olive Branch, and now it's one of the busiest streets in the county."

And that's what gets to life-long resident Janice Turner, who said, "Occasionally I'll ask myself, 'Who are these people coming from?!' And occasionally, 'Didn't they learn to drive?'" she laughed.

Turner says she can measure all this growth by the addition of traffic lights and chain stores: "It looks like an ocean of houses when I get to a high point in Olive Branch and look over the rooftops. And that's sort of startling to see."

"When we think of booming population growth, we might not think of Olive Branch, Miss.," said Doane. "But should we?"

"Sure, we should," said Glaeser. "We should be thinking about so much that's exciting that's happening in the middle of America, that's happening in those areas that are able to combine metropolitan productivity with cost of living."

Cities of all sizes - giving folks like Connie Curran a chance to redefine WHERE they live their American dream.

"I think it just is a way of re-vitalizing and re-energizing, and in a way counting your blessings, really," said Curran.

"And a city can make you do that, feel that?" asked Doane.

"Hey, all the way! I think this city does that. City living helps feed your spirit, feed your soul."

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