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A New Metro Map

Do you live in the “Rust Belt” or the “Sun Belt?” Are you a West Coaster, an East Coaster, or a resident of “flyover country?” Perhaps you’re a proud New Englander, Midwesterner, or Texan.

More to the point, does any of that matter?

(For the full-size map click here)

Maybe not as much as you think. Our new report, the State of Metropolitan America, surveys the demographic landscape of the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas over the 2000s. It finds that who metropolitan areas are is in many ways more important than where they are.

In fact, my Brookings colleagues and I identify seven categories of metropolitan areas based on their population growth rates, their levels of racial and ethnic diversity, and the rates at which their adults have earned college degrees. Together, these indicators say a lot about not just these three dimensions of metropolitan populations, but also factors such as development patterns, age, household structure, economic history and trajectory, and income inequality. Associating metro areas in this way breaks them out of their traditional regional boxes, bringing together areas as far flung as Allentown and Jacksonville, Portland and Atlanta.

Looking just at the Southeastern Seaboard, the six states and D.C. that stretch from Maryland down to Florida, reveals metropolitan areas that occupy all seven of these categories: 

  • Washington, DC is a member of the demographically advantaged Next Frontier category, with growing, highly diverse, and highly educated population like counterparts in Austin, Denver, and Seattle.
  • Charlotte is a New Heartland metro, growing and educated like DC but with a smaller Hispanic/Asian population, linking it to Atlanta, Indianapolis, Kansas City, and Colorado Springs, among others.
  • Miami claims Diverse Giant status by virtue of its highly diverse, highly educated, but slow growing population, similar to those in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
  • Orlando, on the other hand, associates with a group of Border Growth metro areas, many in the Southwest and California’s Central Valley, that experienced rapid and diverse growth, but have low levels of adult educational attainment.
  • A somewhat similar group of Mid-Sized Magnets includes Greenville, SC, which also grew fast in the 2000s, but lags national averages on diversity and educational attainment. Little Rock, Oklahoma City, and Boise share this categorization.
  • Baltimore is identified as a Skilled Anchor by virtue of its slower growth, lower diversity, and higher educational attainment, much like Northeastern and Midwestern metro areas such as New Haven, Pittsburgh, and Akron.
  • Augusta, GA comes in for Industrial Core designation, a result of its low population growth, low Hispanic and Asian populations, and low educational attainment, ranking it alongside older industrial peers such as Cleveland, Louisville, and Tulsa. 

As leaders in these regions seek policy solutions and on-the-ground practices to capitalize on their demographic strengths and address their population challenges, they might think about looking beyond the metro next door. Indeed, Greenville may have more to learn from Little Rock than from Charleston, and Orlando might look to Phoenix rather than Miami. These leaders can also make common cause on the federal issues that matter most to their populations, such as expanding affordable housing supply (Next Frontier), educating immigrant children (Diverse Giant), or strengthening American manufacturing (Industrial Core).

Metro areas are where the demographic meets the economic. Our traditional regional identities will probably persist, but like Red Sox Nation, we have much to learn and gain from affinities that stretch across the national map.