THE AVENUE MAY 9, 2011
Today, Plato, Mo. takes center stage. Ok, so it’s not the center of the universe, but it is the center of the United States according to 2010 census results. Each decade, the U.S. Census Bureau re-calculates the mean center of population: the point at which an imaginary map of the United States would balance perfectly if all 308-plus million of us were counted where we live and we all weighed the same. Not surprisingly, each decade since the first census in 1790 the population center has shifted west. Since 1920 it has also shifted south. If it continues its current trajectory, it will move out of Missouri (where it’s been since 1980) and into Arkansas in another few decades.
While the mean population center is an attention-grabbing factoid (and one we geographers get a kick out of), we at the Metro Program maintain that the true center of our nation stands not in a village of 109 people, but rather in the 350-plus “cores”--cities and regions--that sit at the heart of our metropolitan economies. These metropolitan areas are home to 83 percent of the nation’s population, 85 percent of jobs, and 92 percent of our college graduates. They are our hubs of research and innovation, our centers of human capital, and our gateways of trade and immigration. They are, in short, the drivers of our economy, and American competitiveness depends on their vitality.
Still, we should celebrate Plato, Missouri today. Maybe this distinction will bring them a few extra visitors, following the example of Edgar Springs--the last population center, about 25 miles away--which attracted visitors from as far away as Hong Kong to its monument, flag, and commemorative picnic table. But after we’ve posed for a picture beside Plato’s commemorative 12-inch stone marker, let’s get back to the work of making that drive the nation more productive, inclusive, and sustainable.