In her new book, Catherine Tumber argues that cities like Flint and Syracuse will lead the way to sustainability

New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston. These cities get a lot of ink and attention from urban scholars, journalists, and critics. Each offers vivid examples of American urban planning and design, the merits of which are constantly debated and picked apart. Struggling big cities like Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo also transfix us with the scale of their problems and the possible foretelling of nationwide decline.

Journalist and historian Catherine Tumber thinks smaller industrial cities, like Syracuse, New York, Flint, Michigan, and Muncie, Indiana, need serious attention and—"don’t laugh," she writes—could be instrumental in moving us toward an economically dynamic, low-carbon future. 

Initially, Tumber rooted for these urban underdogs for personal reasons, but they quickly turned into scholarly ones. She grew up in a small farming town outside of Syracuse, which was later subsumed by that city’s outlying sprawl, and later lived in Rochester, New York, and Detroit. "I watched these cities die," she says. "I felt there was a disparagement of these places as cities, full of sophisticated people and ideas."

She began to research smaller cities—those with populations of 50,000 to 500,000—only to realize that the last significant study of small cities was 30 years old. She attributes this lack of interest in smaller cities to a "metropolitan bias" among urban thinkers. She set out to correct that gap with her new book, Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World, traveling in upstate New York and the Midwest, meeting activists, farmers, economic development specialists and local officials looking for stabilization strategies and innovative policies that could point to a new future for these places.

Many of these cities have been battered not just by the loss of manufacturing jobs, but also by federal policies designed for larger cities. While urban highways damaged cities of all sizes, Tumber argues their effects were disproportionately felt in smaller urban areas. Such one-size-fits-all planning, she argues, still haunts much contemporary urban thought, which tends to focus on larger, global cities. "Undoing the urban planning mistakes of the past could also have a disproportionally positive effect on these places," she says.

Her book lays out the under-appreciated assets of small cities, including proximity to highly fertile farmland, residual manufacturing skills and available facilities and open land, and nimble government bureaucracies. She see a variety of strategies at work in different places: land banking in Flint, sprawl containment in Janesville, Wisconsin, an emerging wind energy industry in Muncie and local agriculture in Holyoke, Massachusetts. These cities still face massive challenges, but she detects stirrings of activity and innovation.

One area where her book has encountered some criticism is in her assumption that we face a low carbon future. "I think the kind of disruptions we’re facing, due to weather and energy costs, means we won’t be able to rely on long supply chains, for food, or for energy or goods," she says. "I’d like to see us get ahead of the problem. I think there’s an opportunity for small cities to take the lead here."

"Scale really does matter," she says. Localized energy and food production and development of small businesses in walkable neighborhoods and downtowns could not only help revive these cities. Diversified, place-specific development can help make them productive, self-sustaining satellites of larger cities, rather than the tax revenue-reliant cast-offs of the global marketplace. Small, Gritty, and Green might just point the way.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user runJMrun.

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