Small, Gritty, and Green:
The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World by Catherine Tumber
I was immediately lured in by a quote in the Introduction:
It’s fair to say that the 2007 Pixar motion picture Wall-e’s portrayal of the denizens of post apocalyptic consumer culture – floating, fat, and feckless – captured something of the cosmopolitan regard for places like Dayton and Peoria.
A Brief Recap:
The author, having spent most of her life in smaller industrial cities, has seen them deteriorate and more or less become invisible compared to our nations bigger and sexier metro areas.
Born from her alarm over what was happening to smaller industrial cities throughout the U.S., this book provides the perfect balance and counter-argument to much of the popular thought regarding the future of small cities.
What Ms. Tumber notes had happened in Syracuse, the small city she would frequent as a child, happened all throughout the Northeastern “rust belt” and the Midwest. A rich, vibrant downtown was gutted by an interstate, the dispersion of retail to suburban malls, and white middle-class flight. Deindustrialization, outsourcing, and globalization emptied the city of jobs and then people. The world of prosperity as they knew it – gone.
She traveled and spent time in areas like Janesville, Rockford, Akron, Dayton, Flint, Grand Rapids, Peoria and more. She compared the squalor of nearly every smaller industrial city to that of a Third World country.
As our attention gets drawn to those bigger, sexier metros, middle-America is left screaming, “What about us?” As Ms. Tumber points out, it is a long road ahead. As she puts it, manufacturing has all but dried up, and most economists will tell you the economy has shifted to a knowledge based industry – this book suggests a hopeful new playbook for the small city.
In order to have success they must put the past behind them. First, we must end our dependence on fossil fuels and second, we must inhibit sprawl and make better use our development patterns.
In an area where a bounty of natural resources exist, one of the richest in the world, we have overlooked, abused, and underestimated them. The key to our future has been growning right beside us.
Smaller cities have the manufacturing, infrastructure and workforce skills that just need to be retooled for the production of renewable technologies – ie: clean fuel, trains, wind, solar, and hydro power components.
We must first value these things and understand they are critical in the success of smaller cities to realize a fundamental shift in how things are done. State, county, and city must all begin to realize that, yes the world has changed, but smaller, once gritty cities can become green and lead the charge to a new reality that is once again prosperous.
It was an easier/shorter read than most jargon heavy or deep in theory books – which was much appreciated.
As someone who lives in one of the small industrial and quite gritty cities she mentions, I couldn’t agree more as to the conditions that are currently present. I also feel that the old ways and mild successes have become a barrier to a cultural shift that needs to take place.
I, myself have been very curious about why cities of this size all “seem to be the same.” For me, those are Aurora, Elgin, Joliet, Rockford, and Peoria. You know how you have all those feelings in your head, but someone puts it into words better… yeah this was that.
She mentions some cities like Grand Rapids and Akron have made the transition to a post-industrial economy faster and more cleverly than others and their urban fabric and neighborhoods remain intact. Others are looking to make up for lost time. – I have this feeling about Grand Rapids, and that must be what it is.
“Trapped by their own parochialism.” describing the old regime
“Like a turd in the punchbowl.” President of the Congress for New Urbanism, John O. Norquist, speaks in regards to Hartford’s highway complex.
“It represents a reset. It’s an emotional, social, economic reset.” General Electric CEO, Jeff Immelt, observing conditions of the economy in 2008.