Small, Gritty, and Green and Beyond the Metropolis

Tumber, Catherine. Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America’s Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World. Cambridge, Massachusetts; The MIT Press, 2012.

Ofori-Amoah, Benjamin, ed.  Beyond the Metropolis: Urban Geography as if Small Cities Mattered. Lanham, Md.; University Press of America, 2007.

In Richard Florida’s recession book, The Great Reset, he makes the observation that “Greater Detroit’s regional unemployment was not the highest in Michigan; unemployment was higher in the smaller cities of Flint and Monroe. The same was true in Ohio, where unemployment was worse in Akron, Canton, Toledo, Youngstown, and Mansfield than in Cleveland.”  In the so-called post-industrial society, this does beg the question of what will become of smaller cities and towns built-up for manufacturing when convenient locations near water or Interstate highways take the back seat to educated workforces, or serving those educated workforces who will live in the megapolises of the future.  Two recent books put the smaller cities place now and into the future into perspective.  Catherine Tumber’s Small, Gritty, and Green, takes stock of the resources that smaller cities have and imagines possibilities for success in the green economy of the future.  Beyond the Metropolis tries to give an academic overview of what small cities are and what they are doing.  Each title makes a point that smaller cities have generally been overlooked in literature.  Also, each book talks in detail about at least of few Ohio municipalities.

Tumber defines a small city as being between 50,000 and 500,000 residents and she is mostly interested in older cities (for the United States) located in the Northeast and the rusty parts of the Midwest.   This definition includes all cities outside of New York, Boston, and Chicago (much discussion surrounds Detroit).   In Ohio, she touches base with several cities, but most discussion is about Youngstown and the Youngstown 2010 citywide plan.  There is also some love for Akron and the Don Plusquellic administration.

A highlight of Small, Gritty, and Green is the numerous overviews citing many popular and academic studies from the last few years (including a 20 page Selected Bibliography!) of issues related to low energy living (transit and transportation) agriculture (urban farms good in non-dense midwest cities but look just beyond the city for real food production), and developing green technologies.   In this spectrum, almost all aspects of Youngstown’s future are looked at.  What I found refreshing about Small, Green, and Gritty is that Tumber spends a lot of time and thought discussing views that she does not necessarily agree with – but have aspects that could and are being applied to smaller cities.  This includes Richard Florida’s ideas (along the lines that large, creative cities or megaregions are the only real future), David Owen’s Green Metropolis (which has an overriding focuses on densifying cities as practical low-energy future), and high-speed rail (her opposition is a nuanced argument).

Tumber’s general argument is that because of the size of the cities (at least 50,000), there is a chance for the culture and educated workforce Florida promotes, but there is also resources (farmland or land to build green energy sources) that could theoretically support the smaller, but dense population.  This would be more difficult in a megaregion, which will inevitable require food and green energy resources from a much larger surrounding area.

I found her final argument to have real resonance.  For eduction, such cities, due to their lack of population and size (usually one or two county metropolitan areas) can more practically close the donut effect.  Urban schools are typically a hurdle for city redevelopment in Ohio and the midwest in a land of exponential suburban and township school districts.  By their sheer smallness, such regions could offer a streamlined and equitable education to all students with a few less territorial fights.

Beyond the Metropolis mainly looks at the Census defined Micropolitan Statistical Area (there are a few articles covering international cities in Mexico, Canada, and Isreal).  These are communities that have  an urban core from 10,000 to 50,000 population and are not encompassed by a larger Metropolitan Statistical Area.  Though it may take a statistical eye to differentiate between smaller Metropolitan Areas, there are 29 Micro Areas in Ohio.  The articles collected in Beyond the Metropolis vary from covering smaller Mexican cities to towns of Iowa, but for those wanting to know more about Ohio’s small cities, there are three interesting articles to check out.

– “Demographic Changes in America’s Small Cities: 1990-2000” by Christiana K. Brennan and Christopher Hoene – Good overview of what a “small city” is and general demographic changes (though now somewhat dated.)  Ohio is in the Midwest.

– “Micropolitan Ohio: A Study of Internal Structures of Small Cities” by James W. Fonseca.  Everything you wanted to know about the demographics, housing, education, etc. of Ohio’s 29 Micropolitan areas.  The article spends time differentiating between the micropolitan urban core and surrounding areas, which I have not come across before.  Micropolitan areas differ in this regard from metropolitan areas – the urban core is typically wealthier, more educated, and with more valuable homes.

– “Downtown Retailing and Revitalization of Small Cities: Lessons from Chillicothe and Mount Vernon, Ohio” by Andreas Otto.  Interesting study of the forces that promote change in smaller cities’ downtown districts, which lost their monopoly on commerce around 1950 and eventually lost their groceries and department stores.  Otto’s research involves several surveys distributed to business owners.  One, probably obvious if you think about it, finding is that the specialty stores (antiques, coffee shops, art galleries, etc.) choose downtown locations based on lower cost (rents or, as often is the case, ownership of the building).  I have always noticed that small cities have downtowns full of creative class businesses (the time-honored coffee shop) that are missing in the downtowns larger cities of Ohio, where such business succeed in residential business districts/strips.  Want to think about opening a record store?  Think Chillicothe.

One problem I foresee with current financial shortfalls in municipalities large and small is that it seems less likely that smaller cities will be able to try big ideas.  For example, Cincinnati had a lot of difficulty getting its light rail project going, losing state funding with a new administration and having to fight off a referendum.  Could a city one-sixth the size of Cincinnati take a drastic move to redefine itself?  That said, for smaller cities, Tumber’s sustainable ideas do present an alternative plan for the future.  Currently, the action plan is more of the same – small cities losing relevance and fighting and stealing jobs from other small cities.  In theory, a smaller city can only help itself by becoming more sustainable (supplying its own energy and food).  A community not dependent on national or international trends for food and energy will have a better chance of developing the finer points of community life.  This would definitely attract the creative class.

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