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Thread: The role of small cities in a green future

  1. #1
    Feb 2009
    New York / Boston

    The role of small cities in a green future

    I thought I would bring this article in the upcoming edition of the Boston Review to forum members' attention. The author argues that small cities like Rochester, NY, and Grand Traverse, MI will have a strong role to play in a sustainable future, allowing for more local power generation and food production. Here is a teaser from the opening section:

    Small, Green, and Good
    The role of neglected cities in a sustainable future
    By Catherine Tumber
    Boston Review

    Growing up in a small town, I regularly took bus trips with my mom and little sister into “the city”: Syracuse. Like most middle-class families in the 1960s, we had only one car, which my dad drove to work. So we would buy our tickets at the village pharmacy, board the Big Dog, and barrel though miles of farms and sparsely developed land until we reached the highway. Nearing the final stretch, we had to endure the stench of the Solvay chemical works to our right, and the creepy mint green of polluted Onondaga Lake on our left. But we would disembark in Syracuse’s vibrant downtown, all glittering lights and vertical planes, filled with department stores, jewelry and candy shops, theaters and movie palaces, “ethnic” food, and people who were interestingly not like us.

    Smaller American cities, places like Syracuse—and Decatur, New Bedford, Kalamazoo, Buffalo, Trenton, Erie, and Youngstown—were once bustling centers of industry and downtown commerce, with wealthy local patrons committed to civic improvements and the arts. In the ’70s they began a decline from which they have not recovered. Today, most are scanted as doleful sites of low–paying service jobs, with shrinking tax bases and little appeal to young professionals or to what urban theorist Richard Florida calls the “creative class.” In Syracuse itself the center of gravity has shifted northward, toward Carousel Mall, leaving a ghostly downtown where Rite–Aid, now the largest store, presides over parking lots and abandoned buildings.

    Historians and economic demographers generally attribute the decline of small–to–mid–size cities of 50,000 to 500,000 souls to deindustrialization, since many sit in the Midwestern Rust Belt or the Northeast. But the history of smaller–city decline is more complex than that. Smaller cities were also victims of post–war development policies better suited to large cities—or rather, that were painful, but less disastrous, for large metropolitan areas.

    Extraordinary mid–twentieth century changes in transportation, zoning, housing construction, mortgage financing, and domestic taste facilitated the creation of wide swathes of “bourgeois utopias” that now ring our cities far out into the exurbs. They are the products of a radical transformation of land–use policy that extended supply chains with vast highway systems, further separating people from their workplaces, energy producers from consumers, and farmers from their markets. Large cities survived the changes and the resulting onslaught of suburban shopping malls—itself a reaction to extended supply–chains—in the late ’70s. In smaller cities, malls decimated what was left of retail districts already damaged by massive downtown highway systems that choked off commercial centers from surrounding urban neighborhoods.

    Neglect of the smaller city, as both place and idea, continued through the rest of the century. As large–metropolitan real estate values skyrocketed in the 1990s, big cities attracted millions of dollars in capital improvements and large–scale development. “New Urbanism” among designers and architects, though not in theory intended only for big cities, attracted funding for pedestrian–friendly thoroughfares, mixed–use building, open spaces, and the preservation of historic architecture that enhanced the metropolitan boom. Now, with the call for reducing the urban carbon footprint, cosmopolitan living is going green. Two recent books proposing models for a low–carbon economy—Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded, and Jay Inslee and Bracken Hendricks’s Apollo’s Fire—speak throughout of “villages” and “large cities.” Not a word for the distinctive role smaller cities might play in a low–carbon world.

    That is too bad. Smaller cities have idiosyncratic charms of their own–worthy of sustained attention and renewal. And, fortuitously, they have a distinctive and vital role to play in the work of the new century: small cities will be critical in the move to local agriculture and the development of renewable energy industries. These tasks will almost certainly require a dramatic rethinking of land–use policy, and small cities have assets that large cities lack. Their underused or vacant industrial space and surrounding tracts of farmland make them ideal sites for sustainable land-use policies, or “smart growth.”

    Yet current urban planning models offer little guidance on how we might begin to make those changes. Nor, until recently, has there been a national forum that matches smaller–city renewal initiatives to national needs. The Revitalizing Older Cities Congressional Task Force, formed just last year, held its first national summit (organized by the Northeast–Midwest Institute) in mid–February. Local governments and advocates of eco–sustainability must build on this new conversation for they have a shared stake in the future...
    The full article is available at http://bostonreview.net/BR34.2/tumber.php.

  2. #2
    Its an interesting article but it raises a number of questions. First, what is a smaller city? Some of the metropolitan areas are over one million people and even if some are failing, such as Buffalo,others at that size are not. So therefore, it might be better focused on the failing cities.

    Then there is the problem of even if the sooutions the article suggests, energy, food raising etc., are appropriate for these small to medium metros, aqren't they asll possible in larger places?

    It would be better to focus on the bad decisions of the past and try to remedy them. Maybe if they addressed racial segregation, poor transit systems, failed schools, etc., they could join the ranks of growing cities again.

  3. #3
    Apr 2008
    Colchester, IL and Ft. Wayne, IN
    I posted over at the Boston Review's site linking to my "Model Sustainable Cities" website. But I didn't mention over there any of the discussions that have occurred here at Cyburbia about my idea of Macomb, IL as a model sustainable city. But the search function here at Cyburbia should provide enough information for those interested in my posts - so, I look forward to further discussion on this article.

  4. #4
    Feb 2009
    New York / Boston
    Gotta Speakup - I think the author makes a number of conceptual moves, going through which might help clear up some (if not all) of your questions:

    1. First, she says that planning choices over the last half-century or so have disproportionately affected small cities - they haven't been able to weather suburbanization, for one, as well as the cores of cities like New York or Chicago or SF. Hence, smaller cities are more likely to find themselves in decline than larger ones. I think, definitionally, that she is looking at cities below the top 10 or so in population - and, yes, she is looking in particular at cities that are both small and neglected.

    2. Second, she notes that large cities have received the greatest amount of attention from environmental activists involved in decisions implicating urban planning. There is a farmer's market movement in NYC, for example, that has not been duplicated in zeal and scope in many smaller cities.

    3. Third and most importantly, she asserts that smaller cities are uniquely situated to take advantage of some sustainability strategies. If more people lived in smaller cities more spread out from one another, they could more easily take advantage of local power and food sources without making use of long supply chains of the kind that, say, bring power from Nevada to Los Angeles. And while it might take a good chunk of Midwest to fully feed the Boston-Washington corridor, smaller cities could be highly satiated from much more local sources. Concentrating on more local power and food sources would also create local jobs, helping to revive local economies.

    I'm not so sure that addressing, say, racial segregation would be any more necessary for small cities. There are plenty of very large cities - New York, LA - with longstanding racial problems and fewer issues with growth than the cities mentioned in the article. Similarly, poor transit hasn't proven much of a barrier to growth in Sunbelt cities like Phoenix or Las Vegas - economic exigencies are much more to blame.

  5. #5
    Buffalo as a metropolitan area is a much bigger metro than the others mentioned I am curious what the criteria is for smaller city. Does she actually mean cities with minimal growth potential? Is she saying city size is relevant and and metro size is not? She suggests a size between 50,000 and 500,000. That would include Boston. Is Boston a small city. Buffalo's metro is almost 1.2 Mill without the neighboring Canadian population. Is that small? Metro Decatur Illinois is 125,000 -- the size of Buffalo's largest suburb! Are these places really comparable? Is Buffalo being used to bring to mind images of decline?

    Perhaps I am over reacting but to me this sounds like a writer who has never been to any of these cities.

  6. #6
    Feb 2009
    New York / Boston
    She describes growing up in Syracuse and some quick googling uncovers the fact that she went to grad school in Rochester. It seems safe to say she's fairly familiar with these cities, and that she's describing cities that, for the most part, are both declining and smaller than the Bostons and San Franciscos of the country - in metro size.

    It's probably a valid criticism, though, to wonder whether the same issues can be faced by declining cities that have 300,000 vs. 50,000 people.

  7. #7
    While interesting, the article would be better if it more clearly defined its terms. Then the discussion could be more centered on what might and what might not work.

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