Shrinking Cities Reading Series Part VII: “Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World”

By Torey Hollingsworth, GOPC Manager of Research and Policy

In her book Small, Gritty, and Green, Catherine Tumber makes an argument for the value of small older-industrial cities in a low-carbon future. Tumber aligns smaller cities’ sizes, industrial pasts, and proximity to agriculture with broader societal needs she prescribes for a less fossil-fuel dependent future. She argues that for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to climate change, the United States needs to move away from a fossil-fuel based economy. Additionally, she suggests that land use patterns in the United States are not currently sustainable. Tumber argues that both sprawl and concentrating population in a handful of dense, global cities are negative and that small cities present the possibility for more sustainable, equitable, and human-scale communities.

Tumber traces much of her argument back to early urban planners and intellectuals, particularly Lewis Mumford. Mumford argued against the inherent value of the metropolis, and suggested that a truly equitable United States required both economic and spatial democracy – or a network of cities of different sizes set among protected natural and agricultural land. This kind of arrangement would help keep land values within the cities reasonable and would also provide for a more equitable distribution of cultural relevance among places. Smaller cities were particularly important because of their abilities to maintain a more cohesive community while still affording some of the “drama” of the urban experience. Mumford’s distrust of New York’s cultural hegemony and financial powers echoes Tumber’s own concerns, voiced throughout the book, about bigness and coastal perceptions of small city culture. Her concern about growing inequality among people and places is tied to increasing consolidation of economic power in the hands of a few large corporations. These economic winners have also created spatial winners – places where the creative class gathers and the knowledge economy flourishes.

Tumber argues that it is exactly some of the features that have caused these cities to decline that could make them catalysts and proving grounds for new, green urbanism. In particular, she focuses on transportation systems, local food systems, energy production, and manufacturing as key opportunities for small cities to exploit in the green economy. In many ways, each of these issues either historically or currently represents a deficit for small cities. For example, even more so than in larger cities, these cities’ transportation networks are largely reliant on automobile use. But population decline and new interest in alternative forms of transportation means that some cities are looking to dismantle some of the very highways that contributed to suburban flight and neighborhood disinvestment. Highway removals give small cities the opportunity to remake their urban form and reconnect neglected portions of the city. Similarly, the decline of large-scale manufacturing in the United States decimated many of these cities’ local economies, which did not pivot quickly enough to diversify. But even there, Tumber sees opportunity. Although not all of these opportunities are explicitly green, new technology will require the kind of specialized manufacturing at which many of these cities excel. Some cities like Muncie, Indiana, have intentionally sought to broaden their local expertise to include green industries like wind turbine production. In all of these cases, Tumber argues that small cities’ size gives them the advantage of agility, even though their local political systems might be more volatile because of that. But even in distressed cities like Youngstown and Flint, Tumber finds reasons for optimism in their innovations regarding vacant property reuse, local food systems planning, and visions for a greener future.

This article is the final installment of a blog series exploring books and articles written about shrinking cities, or communities that are losing population and dealing with housing vacancy and abandonment. These summaries are provided only for educational purposes and opinions expressed in these summaries do not necessarily reflect those of Greater Ohio Policy Center.