Most of the fastest-growing cities in America are small cities with metro populations under a million. It’s why we always pay particular attention to our annual America’s Best Small Cities ranking every year. Here are the top performers in 2019.

You hear the stories. Pick up the anecdotes. See the Facebook posts. Your friends selling their loft in Boston to move a 90-minute train ride away and into a four-bedroom house mortgage-free. The Chicago head office allowing more and more team members to work remotely from South Bend. The co-working space boom in Tulsa.

What’s with all these small cities all of the sudden?

Other than the sustained, inherent appeal of small-town living, there’s definitely something going on. And it’s not all that recent.

Smaller American cities (that is, as we classify them, with an MSA population under 1 million) have been, over the past decade, the fastest-growing cities in America, even though U.S. population growth hit an 80-year low in 2018.

SMALL IS THE NEW BIG

According to a study by USA Today and 24/7 Wall St. that reviewed population change from July 1, 2010 to July 1, 2018 in all U.S. metropolitan areas, an astonishing 19 of the Top 25 cities listed were places with populations of one million or under.

In fact, a recent analysis of census data by the Brookings Institute found that all but two of America’s largest 22 cities had lower growth last year than in 2011 – 2012. Population growth in our largest cities has not only slowed down, but many are actually shrinking. New York attracted more people than any city during the first three years of the decade, but last year it lost 39,500 residents.

Omaha ranks #2 in our 2019 America's Best Small Cities ranking.

It’s why we always pay particular attention to our annual America’s Best Small Cities ranking every year. They are the fastest-moving, the most ready and willing to do whatever it takes to improve their competitive identity. Others, like the coastal oases along the Florida coast, are confident that work and play aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.

One of the most exciting trends detailed within [America's Best Cities] is the move away from the coasts and toward the more affordable allures of cities such as Tallahassee, Florida; Colorado Springs, Colorado; and Greenville, South Carolina.
Andrew Nelson, National Geographic Director of Editorial Projects

THE SECRETS OF ALLURING SMALL CITIES

As National Geographic’s Director of Editorial Projects Andrew Nelson writes in our new 2019 America’s Best Cities Report, “One of the most exciting trends detailed within is the move away from the coasts and toward the more affordable allures of cities such as Tallahassee, Florida; Colorado Springs, Colorado; and Greenville, South Carolina. These rising stars draw both newcomers and long-time residents to once-neglected downtown neighborhoods, where they can live, work and play.”

So what is it about small cities that people find so alluring? It’s likely a confluence of trends primarily driven by demographics. Millennials are the largest generational cohort the country has ever seen and many flocked to city centers in their 20s.

As they begin to enter their 30s en masse and form families, it’s only natural that they would be drawn to more affordable housing in the suburbs and smaller cities. At the same time, more and more Baby Boomers are retiring each year – many choosing to leave large metropolitan areas. And for people of all ages, technology is enabling people to work remotely.

THE INEQUALITY AMONG SMALL CITIES

But this isn’t a rising tide that is lifting all boats.

While some small cities are thriving, others seem to be trapped in a perpetual state of decline. What separates the winners from losers? Some of it comes down to the luck of the geographic draw in terms of proximity to water, mountains or other natural features that provide recreation.

But in most cases it comes down to the investments and policies cities put in place to support and enhance the vibrancy of their community. Boomers and Millennials alike were drawn to the experiences large cities offer and are now seeking out those small cities that offer the elements of urbanity that they’ve come to appreciate and enjoy.

WHAT SETS AMERICA’S BEST CITIES RANKING APART?

Our approach to creating our America’s Best Cities rankings pays particular attention to evaluating the experiential quality of each city by collecting user-generated data in channels such as Trip Advisor and Yelp to quantify how many quality nightlife, cultural, culinary and shopping experiences each city offers.

Scores for these along with factors such as the number of museums, direct commercial flights and rankings of the local university help provide a holistic view of the quality of each city. We collected data for more than 150 cities with metropolitan populations between 250,000 to 1 million.

Based on our analysis, here are the Top 25 small cities in America in 2019…

  1. Honolulu, HI
  2. Omaha, NE
  3. Charleston, SC
  4. Albuquerque, NM
  5. Tulsa, OK
  6. Reno, NV
  7. Asheville, NC
  8. Colorado Springs, CO
  9. Myrtle Beach, SC
  10. Madison, WI
  11. Savannah, GA
  12. Naples, FL
  13. El Paso, TX
  14. Boise, ID
  15. Durham, NC
  16. Anchorage, AK
  17. Ann Arbor, MI
  18. Greenville, SC
  19. Boulder, CO
  20. Knoxville, TN
  21. Greensboro, NC
  22. Chattanooga, TN
  23. Little Rock, AR
  24. Wichita, KS
  25. Lexington, KY

To learn more about the Resonance approach, methodology and to view the rankings for the Top 50 small cities, please download are full report here.