Small cities struggle
Yesterday's New York Times features a piece, "Why big cities thrive, and small cities struggle," about the issues faced by small cities in the context of an economy that is increasingly global and firms of all types--manufacturing and non-manufacturing--continue to consolidate and relocate to better connected communities (e.g., "Bass Pro completes $4 billion acquisition of Cabela's," Associated Press; "Caterpillar will move global HQ to Deerfield, lllinois," Equipment World).
From the NYT article:
Some of the advantages of big-city living are not hard to find. For starters, big cities have a greater variety of employers and thus more job opportunities in a richer mix of industries than do small cities, whose fortunes are often tied to those of just a small number of employers.
Bigger cities are more productive. They are more innovative. They draw better-educated workers by offering them higher wages. They develop a richer variety of industries. It should not be surprising that they are growing faster. ...
A recent paper by economists from the University of Illinois, the University of Quebec, the University of Lausanne and the University of Utah suggested that there were too many American cities and that they were inefficiently small.
Adapting to these sorts of changes will require something different from reviving the industries of old. Smaller metropolitan areas might try plugging into the economic orbit of more successful larger cities. They might try to become innovation hubs by, say, drawing large teaching hospitals. And yet the future for the residents of small-city America looks dim. Perhaps the best policy would be to help them move to a big city nearby.This has been an issue for a long time. Basically it's a function of a new reality in that communities need a certain level of population, economic and educational infrastructure, and transportational connectivity in order to remain competitive.
The communities that are managing to do so "even if they are 'small'" tend to have within them:
(1) well organized philanthropic, civic, and stakeholder organizations
(2) higher educational institutions with a technical-engineering focus (cf. "More Prince George's County: College Park's militant refusal to become a college town makes it impossible for the city(and maybe the County) to become a great place," 2015)
(3) "legacy" manufacturing that manages to remain competitive;
(4) possessing great transportation connections, especially highways, but also airports, railroads, and ports, depending on the need.
Some that come to mind are Spokane, Washington; Greensboro, North Carolina; and Louisville, Kentucky. Spokane is doubling down on higher education ("President of Washington State University dies: fostered development of the "University District" adjacent to Downtown Spokane," 2015); Greensboro both higher education and manufacturing; and Louisville as a distribution-logistics center ("Aerotropoli and rethinking the scale of mobility networks in the context of a global economy," 2013).
Grand Rapids, Michigan still has some extant industry and higher education institutions, and has moved a variety of branding and cultural initiatives forward ("Detroit can learn a thing or two from Grand Rapids," Huffington Post).
In a different vein is Paducah, Kentucky, which leveraged its central location in the Midwest and access to north-south and east-west Interstate freeways to make the city attractive to working artists active on the art fair circuit ("Artists to the rescue: Paducah, Ky. features broad array of artists, styles," Evansville Courier-Press).
With the widening of the Panama Canal, Savannah's port is getting busier ("New distribution hubs coming to Savannah as part of ports boom," Atlanta Journal-Constitution).
The NYT article mentions an opportunity for small cities in health care. The article doesn't specifically mention the Mayo Clinic and Rochester, Minnesota, but that has to be behind the thinking. However, I think that Rochester is probably the exception that proves the rule.
It developed competitive advantage at a time when location wasn't as prominent a factor and now that it is they are able to trump it as a factor because they are a pre-eminent institution. Still the city and Mayo Clinic are investing more than $6 billion in improvements to maintain their relevance ("$6 billion makeover of Rochester and Mayo underway," Minneapolis Star-Tribune).
Immigrants. Another element is a willingness to accept immigrants. Broken microeconomies need more economic activity. And immigrants can bring that. Certainly, Somali migration to Minneapolis-St. Paul helped that area in a time when the area was otherwise losing population ("African immigrants found to be a powerful economic force in Twin Cities," Minneapolis Star-Tribune).
An influx of immigrants has been an augur of community improvement in many communities across the country, although as seen in the current political climate, it also causes discomfort and reaction against change.
Creative Rural Economy. I referenced the initiative in Prince Edward County, Ontario (Prince Edward County, Canada as a model of rural creative economic development, Martin Prosperity Institute) in the commercial district revitalization framework plan I did for Cambridge, Maryland.
Organized and focused civic system. The thing that strikes me is that the "smaller" places that succeed acknowledge not just that they have assets but that they have to be proactive to remain competitive.
In the vein of the discussion of both "asset management" ("Town-city management: we are all asset managers now," 2015) and the Growth Coalition ("If you don't know urban theory, it's likely you don't understand local land use issues," 2012), a pre-step to creating "broad, comprehensive, visionary, and detailed revitalization plan/s " is a recognition of the need, and highly organized civic capital -- community, social, organizational -- focused on the future and on creating and implementing proactive and practical solutions. See the NonProfit Quarterly article, "A Tale of Two Michigan Cities: Study Highlights the Role of Culture in Fundraising," on Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, Michigan.
These communities seem to have developed a wide ranging planning and implementation process comparable to those common to cities like Bilbao, Liverpool, Pittsburgh, and the Temple Bar district of Dublin ("Economic restructuring success and failure: Detroit compared to Bilbao, Liverpool, and Pittsburgh," 2014). From the blog entry:
The six components of a successful broad ranging revitalization program. In writing about the various efforts [based on pieces I wrote about revitalization efforts in 8 European cities], I drew the conclusion that successful revitalization programs, especially in those cities that were working to overturn serious disadvantages, were comprised of these elements:
- A commitment to the development and production of a broad, comprehensive, visionary, and detailed revitalization plan/s (Bilbao, Hamburg, Liverpool);
- the creation of innovative and successful implementation organizations, with representatives from the public sector and private firms, to carry out the program. Typically, the organizations have some distance from the local government so that the plan and program aren't subject to the vicissitudes of changing political administrations, parties and representatives (Bilbao, Hamburg, Liverpool, Helsinki);
- strong accountability mechanisms that ensure that the critical distance provided by semi-independent implementation organizations isn't taken advantage of in terms of deleterious actions (for example Dublin's Temple Bar Cultural Trust was amazingly successful but over time became somewhat disconnected from local government and spent money somewhat injudiciously, even though they generated their own revenues--this came to a head during the economic downturn and the organization was widely criticized; in response the City Council decided to fold the TBCT and incorporate it into the city government structure, which may have negative ramifications for continued program effectiveness as its revenues get siphoned off and political priorities of elected officials shift elsewhere);
- funding to realize the plan, usually a combination of local, regional, state, and national sources, and in Europe, "structural adjustment" and other programmatic funding from the European Regional Development Fund and related programs is also available (Hamburg, as a city-state, has extra-normal access to funds beyond what may normally be available to the average city);
- integrated branding and marketing programs to support the realization of the plan (Hamburg, Vienna, Liverpool, Bilbao, Dublin);
- flexibility and a willingness to take advantage of serendipitous events and opportunities and integrate new projects into the overall planning and implementation framework (examples include Bilbao's "acquisition" of a branch of the Guggenheim Museum and the creation of a light rail system to complement its new subway system, Liverpool City Council's agreement with a developer to create the Liverpool One mixed use retail, office, and residential development in parallel to the regeneration plan and the hosting of the Capital of Culture program in 2008, and how multifaceted arts centers were developed in otherwise vacated properties rented out cheaply by their owners in Dublin, Helsinki, and Marseille).
Recognizing that we are discussing cities as a whole, not just downtowns, three books that are relevant to this topic are:
- Revitalizing American Cities
- Resilient Downtowns: A New Approach to Revitalizing Small- and Medium-City Downtowns
- Rebuilding the American City: Design and Strategy for the 21st Century Urban Core (this book also addresses big cities, but provides a rigorous methodology and framework)
FWIW, it's all about scales, concepts like "center and periphery" ("Enclave development won't "save" Anacostia," 2006; Can enclave development save Prince George's County," 2012) and networks.
At a Main Street conference once, someone from a small town made a comment in response to something I said about "you in the city..." I said you have it all wrong. We're at the neighborhood scale, not the whole city, and our neighborhoods function a lot like your small town. The processes are the same, even if some external conditions are different -- overall size of the community, crime, whether or not you're recovering from a riot, etc.
Size matters sure. But it's at all types of scales.