Small, Gritty, and Green

Small, Gritty, and Green

The Promise of America's Smaller Industrial Cities in A Low-carbon World

eBook - 2012
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How small-to-midsize Rust Belt cities can play a crucial role in a low-carbon, sustainable, and relocalized future.

America's once-vibrant small-to-midsize cities--Syracuse, Worcester, Akron, Flint, Rockford, and others--increasingly resemble urban wastelands. Gutted by deindustrialization, outsourcing, and middle-class flight, disproportionately devastated by metro freeway systems that laid waste to the urban fabric and displaced the working poor, small industrial cities seem to be part of America's past, not its future. And yet, Catherine Tumber argues in this provocative book, America's gritty Rust Belt cities could play a central role in a greener, low-carbon, relocalized future.

As we wean ourselves from fossil fuels and realize the environmental costs of suburban sprawl, we will see that small cities offer many assets for sustainable living not shared by their big city or small town counterparts, including population density and nearby, fertile farmland available for new environmentally friendly uses.

Tumber traveled to twenty-five cities in the Northeast and Midwest--from Buffalo to Peoria to Detroit to Rochester--interviewing planners, city officials, and activists, and weaving their stories into this exploration of small-scale urbanism. Smaller cities can be a critical part of a sustainable future and a productive green economy. Small, Gritty, and Green will help us develop the moral and political imagination we need to realize this.

Publisher: Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, c2012
ISBN: 9780262299336
Characteristics: 1 online resource (xxxiv, 211 p.) : ill


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Feb 04, 2018

I do not disagree with Tumber's assertion that small cities have been at best lumped into "small towns" and at worst overlooked as planners (and politicians) have attempted to plan for the near- and medium-term future. I found her description of the evolution of the bias against small cities edifying, and I must confess that I was embarrassed to realize that I have indulged some of the metropolitan prejudices she outlines here.

After reading the introductory paragraph alone, it does seem incredible that any professional would focus only on linking large cities and, effectively, let small cities fend for themselves. I wholeheartedly support a vision that takes into account not only "centers of gravity" but also surrounding regions. Further, I am also convinced that smaller cities, given their access to open spaces and historical expertise in both agriculture and industry, can forge a unique economic path.

Of the three paths suggested- agriculture, industry and energy- I was most impressed with the author's arguments in favor of the first two. Several of the areas that the author profiled have already seen successes in the last two decades in agriculture, although the challenge now appears to be making the produce both available and attractive to more immediately local customers. (However, as one of Tumber's subjects points out, the one-hundred mile rule is an arbitrary measurement.) As far as industry, while it would be a mistake to wait for manufacturing on the scale of the car industry to return to this country, many small cities have a legacy left from "Detroit" to be able to take advantage of opportunities to build small- and medium-size parts, and new opportunities in energy innovation.

Tumber also makes the valid point that a small city's size itself is an inherent asset; a large city may take years to even formulate a plan to address deficits in services, but a small city might be able to make a turnaround in just one year. (The city of Rochester, New York was able to do just that to help refinance their public transportation system.)

As much as I found many of Tumber's arguments and examples compelling, this wasn’t a perfect book for me. I cringed when I read her description of Janesville, Wisconsin in the first chapter. According to Tumber, African-Americans were explicitly told to move to another neighborhood, so thus the predominantly white city never had to worry about "white flight." That's one way of putting it, but it would have made for a more complete picture if Tumber had mentioned that city's continuing history of Ku Klux Klan activity. Also, while I felt she made a case for increasing the number of small farms in and near small cities, I didn't feel her argument that "green energy" would be a viable investment for those regions was nearly as convincing, in large part because there were no success stories to draw from as there were for agriculture. Additionally, there was no consideration in her discussion for where the toxic waste products of some of these alternative technologies would go. (Please see Ozzie Zehner's Green Illusions for more on this.)

While I appreciated the short length of the book, it frequently meandered, and at times I wasn't sure what point the author was trying to make. Finally, the book simply ended; it would have been helpful to have had a page or two that provided a high-level summation of what the book had been about, and not simply a final paragraph tacked onto the last section…about public schools.

Overall, I would recommend this book for anyone interested in regional and national planning, with the caveat that this is indeed a book that embraces breadth and not depth and that you will be required to seek out other sources for a more thorough examination of the issues Tumber presents.


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