Small cities poised to thrive

Seeing the future
By JEFF INGLIS  |  April 25, 2012

TJI_SmallGrittyGreen_main
The future of America can be found not in its largest cities nor its deepest wilds, but in the small cities dotting its landscape, recovering from decades of neglect and economic ravaging. So writes Catherine Tumber in Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America's Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World, published late last year by MIT Press.

Tumber, a former senior editor at the Boston Phoenix, will be reading from her book and speaking about what her premise might mean to Maine, the country, and the world, at Longfellow Books on Thursday, April 26, at 7 pm. We caught up with her to get a taste of the future; here's an edited transcript of our conversation.

I KNOW YOU DIDN'T WRITE ABOUT MAINE IN THE BOOK, BUT IT SEEMS LIKE A LOT OF THE PRINCIPLES APPLY. Some of the principles apply. My book really tries to offer a vision for cities of smaller scale. One of the purposes is to restore cities on the size of Portland to their place as cities in the way that we think about cities.

WHEN WE THINK OF CITIES, WE THINK OF THE FIVE OR TEN LARGEST CITIES IN THE US AND THEY'RE BIG, BUT HOW MANY PEOPLE LIVE IN SMALL CITIES? I'M WONDERING IF IT'S NOT MORE THAN LIVE IN THE MAJOR CENTERS. It's hard to say, because demographers don't really collect the information in ways that make it simple to get at that number; they collect it based on the metropolitan area. Estimates have been as much as a third of the American population lives in smaller cities and their suburban areas, smaller metro areas. This affects a large number of people, who tend themselves to think they live in small towns.

Portland fits that profile but most of the cities that I look at have troubles that Portland doesn't have, so that's very much to Portland's advantage.

YOU TALK ABOUT AS BEING IMPORTANT TO REVITALIZING THESE RUST BELT CITIES FOOD SYSTEMS, ENVIRONMENTAL AWARENESS, "INTERESTING PEOPLE" — WHICH MEANS NOT JUST IMMIGRANTS AND PEOPLE FROM OTHER CULTURES BUT ALSO A PLACE THAT PEOPLE WITH CULTURAL INTERESTS AND INVOLVEMENTS WANT TO BE. THOSE STRIKE ME AS THINGS THAT PORTLAND HAS AND HAS WORKED TO DEVELOP. Portland has been unusually attentive to its cultural institutions and its support of artists and art institutions; because the city depends so much on tourism, that makes sense. That is very much a strength.

Also though much of the economy is based on tourism, in the age of global warming, which is nipping at our heels, we aren't going to be able to sustain the sort of long supply chains that have been a part of globalization and that have allowed us to outsource so much of our work. Portland may be in a position to recapture some of its older 19th century productive work.

One of the casualties of thinking of these places as small towns is that it misses the fact that a city of 66,000 is a significant urban market. If you only think in terms of large markets like New York City or Chicago you miss the opportunities to market for a local economy.

Certainly large cities can support more competing services. One of the strengths of smaller cities based on their industrial history and the skills that still exist in their population is that they're suited more for the productive green economy. They could produce for the foreign export market while also participating in a more localized consumer-based economy.

READ MORE: "A new book says 'smaller' cities could be the way of the future" by Jon Garelick.

  Topics: This Just In , Books, green, gritty,  More more >
| More


Most Popular
ARTICLES BY JEFF INGLIS
Share this entry with Delicious
  •   PORTLAND VS. HER PEOPLE  |  March 19, 2014
    This city, which all agree is lucky to have so many options, has leaders who do not behave as if they have any choice at all. To the frustration of the citzenry, the City Council and the Planning Board often run off with the first partner who asks for a dance.
  •   LEARNING FROM FAIRPOINT'S DISASTERS  |  March 06, 2014
    Two bills before the Maine legislature seek to pry lessons from the hard time FairPoint has had taking over the former Verizon landline operations in Maine since 2009.
  •   BEYOND POLITICS  |  March 06, 2014
    Today’s US media environment might well seem extremely gay-friendly.
  •   THE ONLINE CHEF  |  February 27, 2014
    It turns out that home-cooked scallops are crazy-easy, super-delicious, and far cheaper than if you get them when you’re dining out.
  •   RISE OF THE E-CURRENCIES  |  February 12, 2014
    Plus: Is Rhode Island ready for Bitcoin? Two perspectives

 See all articles by: JEFF INGLIS