A May 2007 article from the Economist still seems like one of the better surveys of urban growth that I have read.
With that said, let me give a bit of a personal perspective and see if this resonates with anyone. Until I was 17 years old, I lived in a town of less than 5000 people in Northern Illinois. No one asked what school I went to, there was only one option. The only major fast food chain was Hardee's and Main Street was truly the main street. Over the years, I have seen the exodus of people my age and younger leave to head to Chicago, the nearest big city or to the four cornes of the earth. Why? First, two major factories shut down. The General Electric and Ethan Allen factories, which used to employ about a third of the town, each closed. Secondly, the surrounding areas were also hit with not lack of people, but lack of opportunity. Cities kept changing; small towns, well, did not. And it's this dynamic that haunts my hometown.
What makes any small town fun to be from is the fact that not much changes. It's reliable and in my case, it's home. Parades down Main Street display the homecoming queen and returning Veterans from international wars. Most of the town still shows up for high school football games and the pace of life is still more in line with the farm community than any of the local doctors or lawyers. In the morning, you can see restaurants packed with farmers discussing politics, religion, and the town gossip over coffee and some kind of biscuit drenched in gravy. That's important, by the way, both the coffee (because farm work starts way too early for most sane people) and the biscuit drenched in gravy (what else is going to soak up the sausage grease after the hash browns are gone?).
In a recent trip to see my parents, some of the Main Street shops are boarded up and the small businesses are struggling. I can still catch up on most of the town news by lingering at the front of the only grocery store in town, but life is getting to be more and more difficult. The hope of youth is not as prevalent and the security of living one's whole life in familiar territory is also fading. The relational beauty of a small town is being tested by the economic realities of our globalizing culture. Interestingly, I find that many people in cities want to be connected as if they were in a small town. They want predictable, reliable relationships and a culture that embraces them from day one. They want to come 'home' and not simply be one of the millions that walk the streets in search of a home. Yet, no city will return to former days. No, we're on the fast paced track of heading toward the future, whatever that future may be.
Small towns, though, are not in a rush toward anything, rather they often resemble a long walk with friends where the journey is more fun than the arrival. And to me, small towns are being left behind not simply because of business decisions to outsource or relocate, but because a certain pace, a certain lifestyle is also being left behind. It's not enough to be a thriving farm community that produces a good crop, today you must raise chickens who have been accelerated way beyond what any normal bird should endure and you must produce enough corn, not simply to eat, but to utilize for corn syrup, ethanol, and a host of other, well, convenient uses. Are their problems in a thriving small town? Sure. When my parents divorced it took no time at all for news to travel and the awkwardness with some neighborhoods still lingers for all involved. Some friends have never left, nor will they ever leave, so to try to explain why I have moved around a bit and have traveled to over 15 countries is sometimes irrelevant.
City growth is here to stay and it's doubtful that there will be any flight to return to small town life or a slower pace of life, unless, of course, that becomes prosperous or economically advantageous. Of course, I am part of the engine that drives this change or at least I have temporarily bought into the lie that progress is more urban than a small town. I do wonder, though, if urban growth can truly sustain our relational need to know and be known? Will we take the time to truly be present with one another and not simply walk on by on the way to somewhere else? Surely, only time will tell. How much time you have? Well, that's probably up to you.