Sept/Oct/Nov 2011

Cities on the Plain

Eric Klinenberg


Don’t laugh.” It’s the very first paragraph, and Catherine Tumber is already worried that we won’t take her seriously. She has good reason, since the thesis of her new book is that small Rust Belt cities can help all of us turn green.

It’s a bold and hopeful thesis, but also a tough sell. After all, as Tumber notes at the outset of Small, Gritty, and Green, debates about urban issues have long been dominated by big-city people who tend to disparage or ignore the dull, diminutive towns scattered across “flyover country.” H. L. Mencken, the master of the “cosmopolitan sneer” in Tumber’s view, depicted small-city residents as credulous, crude, and conformist, while Jane Jacobs, who grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, championed “great cities” but had no interest in the little ones. Today, condescending views of small cities are commonplace—and nowhere, Tumber says, are they more cold or cruel than in the work of Richard Florida, whose book The Great Reset (2010) urges policy makers to stop pumping money into fallen industrial cities. “Ultimately,” he wrote in The Atlantic, “we can’t stop the decline of some places, and . . . we would be foolish to try.” Instead, Florida advocates retraining small-town residents for the new economy, and helping them move to the “creative cities,” where there are realistic opportunities.

Tumber believes we need an even greater reset. She’s less concerned with short-term economic development than with using urban planning to curb the effects of climate change, exploit the rising demand for new sources of energy, and transform the way we farm. Politically, large metropolitan areas are too clumsy to act quickly, and they lack the open land required for the kinds of low-carbon energy projects and localized agriculture that we need. Small cities, by contrast, have land assets, and many of those hit hardest by deindustrialization sit atop extraordinarily fertile ground. They also have manufacturing infrastructure, skilled workers who could adapt to the green economy, and the capacity to scale up production if and when they succeed. What’s really foolish, Tumber insists, is that America’s urbanists have failed to see what small cities can offer.

Small, Gritty, and Green is indeed an eye-opener, and it’s exciting, after reading so many recent books about the virtues of great cities, to learn about the creative, environmentally sustainable development projects happening in less celebrated towns. The bulk of Tumber’s book consists of short, captivating field reports from places where forward-thinking political officials, entrepreneurs, or community groups are rightsizing cities largely abandoned by industry and recalibrating the local economy for a low-carbon world. Take Toledo, where the glassmaking industry was nearly gutted when auto manufacturers began moving production of windows and windshields offshore. In recent decades, some glass producers have stepped up production of solar panels, and at the University of Toledo, the Wright Center for Photovoltaics Innovation and Commercialization has supported their efforts. Tumber reports that by 2009, the Wright Center and its affiliates had spun off seven solar start-ups, and some six thousand people worked in the local solar industry.

The most engaging sections of Small, Gritty, and Green are Tumber’s stories about innovative experiments in agricultural urbanism, which move beyond recent memoirs such as Novella Carpenter’s Farm City (2009) and Manny Howard’s My Empire of Dirt (2010) by showing the kinds of political work that make local farming possible. In 2005, for instance, Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm created a Food Policy Council, with divisions at the state, county, and municipal levels dedicated to “food security.” These councils, Tumber explains, play a key role in creating large, reliable markets where small farmers can find consumers looking for homegrown alternatives to industrial fare. Similarly vital to a revival of sustainable farming are new institutional marketing projects such as the National Farm to School Network, which began as a collaborative local project in California, and now—after receiving support from the US Department of Agriculture and the W. K. Kellogg Foundation—provides incentives for buying local produce to public schools, colleges, and universities in all fifty states, as well as to hospitals, senior centers, and other public institutions.

Without support from the federal government or major foundations, it’s nearly impossible for promising local projects such as the Farm to School program to expand into something large enough to alter the nation’s agricultural system or land-use patterns. Tumber’s survey of sustainable development in small urban areas identifies exemplary local projects—but not, alas, the innovative national policies or the surging political will necessary for the wholesale transformation she advocates. There’s a good reason for this, of course: They don’t yet exist.

Tumber doesn’t say much about the obstacles that prevent small cities from realizing their promise, other than that there’s a long history of local leaders acting parochially, opposing environmental regulations, and resisting new industries, even when old ones have moved away. Nor does she give any evidence that mayors or congressional officials representing small cities are working together to win more federal support for the kind of reset that she advocates. Her research method, which she calls “jerry-rigged” and “suggestive and broad rather than penetrating and thorough,” isn’t designed to persuade skeptics. But her argument is provocative and serious, and everyone searching for a more sustainable urban future should consider it.

Eric Klinenberg is a professor of sociology at NYU. His new book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, will be published by the Penguin Press in February.

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