Small, Green, and GoodThe role of neglected cities in a sustainable future
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.