Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

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).
Urbanophile has a piece on the topic too, "The small city struggle," which cites other coverage from The Economist and the Wall Street Journal.

Recognizing that we are discussing cities as a whole, not just downtowns, three books that are relevant to this topic are:
The Massachusetts Gateway Cities Initiative is another resource.

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.

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At 11:33 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Well I have made an argument before that our federal funding system for cities (which is limited) basically wants to privilege those "smaller cities" over metropolis.

A city the size of grand rapids for instance can really benefit for highway money. Even the affordable housing money can make sense there.

Not the case once a city hits a certain scale.

The market (and to be clear, I don't know what market we are talking about) might favor larger agglomerations .

At 11:35 AM, Blogger mattxmal said...

Would you be able to add an international/comparative perspective? I'm originally from Poland, from a metro of 130,000, which seems to be doing reasonably well in the globalization era. In fact, most of the cities I am familiar with are doing well, despite populations <1 million, no major airports, etc. (criteria for survival in the Urbanophile article).

It might be that these cities are in the "favored quarter" of Poland, but could it be that the cities in the U.S. Rust Belt were too dependent on individual industries or too decimated by subarbanization to weather the storm? Or maybe how industries are more consolidated in the U.S. versus Europe.

At 1:07 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

mattxmal -- I don't have enough experience to be able to make a comparison to Europe for which I would be confident.

Note though (because of the Germany reunification) the shrinking cities initiative has been strong in Europe, which is an indication of problems.

And the EU interreg program has focused investment in what we might call periphery cities/areas/regions in order to discourage EU in-migration from the east to the west (which separate from unrest related migration from outside of the EU both from the east and from Africa).

I think more generally though European countries have policies and practices that support cities better excepting of course the UK, which has a policy of screwing the cities since cities tend to be Labour as opposed to Conservative --in the austerity practices of the Conservatives cities have experienced as much as a 50% cut in their budget along with the addition of more mandated services (like social care) -- and note that in terms of revitalization (what they call regeneration in Europe) the UK has for the most part "outsourced" financing revitalization efforts in various UK regions to the EU.

As an example of positive programs, look at the urban investment programs, particularly around transit throughout France, funded in part by the transport versement labor tax.

Plus the national governments tend to provide extra funds to cities, especially capital cities.

Plus, European nations at least in the west, tend to be so much more focused on sustainability and environmental policies in ways that support cities (outside of Charlie's frequent point that diesel engines spew out pollutants that negatively impact European cities quality of life).

BUT I THINK YOU HAVE AN INTERESTING POINT ABOUT SPRAWL/SUBURBANIZATION that deserves consideration and further research.

I don't think that the experience in Europe with industrial consolidation has been any different than in the US. At least based on many examples I know of from UK, France, Germany, Eastern Europe, Spain, and Greece.

Plenty of cities were decimated by industrial decline, EU economic industrial integration, integration of eastern states into the industrial economy providing low wage production (probably this has been an advantage of Poland too) such as how the old Yugoslavian states ended up capturing manufacturing from Greece, Osram, the original decline of Soviet era manufacturing (Skoda etc.) but a rise eventually because of wage differentials and a new focus on production, but at the cost of hundreds of thousands of jobs, etc.

But maybe, economically these areas have been able to be somewhat more resilient because the metropolitan areas are more centralized and consolidated and concentrated and less sprawled?

And maybe too, national health insurance makes a difference too, in terms of how residents may be impacted vis a vis the US, which doesn't have a similar system.

At 1:14 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Charlie makes a good point about smaller cities being better positioned to use federal funding tranches in ways that can be transformative.

E.g., wrt Eastern Market, people have suggested using CDBG based on something they learned in PA etc. But DC gets so little money that way, compared to a state. Or Takoma Park too, almost nothing, compared to Montgomery County as a distinct entity.

So there need to be different funding tranches that are better attuned to needs and capabilities.

This gets to my broad discussion of "Transformational Projects Action Plans/Planning."

But it's cities of a certain size sure. Rochester, MN as opposed to Saginaw maybe or Paducah.

Saginaw is half the population of Rochester MN, which is almost half the population of Grand Rapids. Paducah is half the population of Saginaw but better located, more central, compared to Saginaw.

cf. upstate/western New York; western Massachusetts; central Pennsylvania.


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