It's well-known American jobs have been lost to overseas competition. While work on U.S. manufacturing floors has declined, overseas markets have developed a growing appetite for American-made goods—from chemicals and wood products, to medical devices.
Many low-skill, labor-intensive positions—including those in apparel and footwear—have shipped offshore. But U.S. cities of all sizes are producing and showcasing more capital-intensive durable goods for foreign buyers.
"More U.S. cities have entered the hierarchy of global cities," said Fran Tonkiss, a sociologist and director of the Cities Program at the London School of Economics.
In international trade, scalable specialization is rewarded. In other words, if you make a specific widget that a pocket of the world needs, you've just staked a claim in the global economy. That kind of niche specialization is particularly pronounced in smaller U.S. cities, whose economies tend to be focused on a handful of export products.
In fact, American industries, including chemicals, machinery and transportation equipment, are forecast for big export gains rather than deficits. That's partly because the U.S. is widening its production-cost advantage over leading European nations and Japan, according to an August report from the Boston Consulting Group.
"Over the past 40 years, factory jobs of all kinds have migrated from high-cost to low-cost countries," Harold L. Sirkin, a senior partner at BCG and co-author of the report, said in a release. "Now, as the economics of global manufacturing changes, the pendulum is finally starting to swing back."
By the end of the decade, cost advantages, including lower domestic energy prices, could help the U.S. capture up to $115 billion in annual exports from other nations. Throw in some reshoring—the reversal of outsourcing—from China, and increased U.S. exports could generate up to 5 million new jobs, according to BCG's analysis.
But fulfilling such potential depends on many factors. City planners say the road to export-driven momentum requires investments in areas as varied as infrastructure and enticing skilled professionals to cities that are not necessarily on their radar. A well-trained, diverse workforce means cities can pivot as global trade winds shift.
Detroit's decades-long manufacturing decline and bankruptcy filing in July offered a lesson about not putting all the eggs in one basket—cars, in Detroit's case.
Metropolitan areas nationwide are instead taking a diversified, grassroots approach to promoting their goods. The international marketplace is shifting, and U.S. cities with global vision are making strategic bets in raising their export profiles.
(Read more: Detroit joins these towns that have 'gone bust')