With Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm imbibing heavily of the green tech “cool” cities Kool-Aid, the state’s economy grew a meager two percent during the entire 2000s, the slowest by far in the nation. By contrast, rising fuel prices had an immediately catastrophic impact on manufacturing. Within months of the onset of peak oil prices, the era of the SUV had ended and GM and Chrysler were bankrupted. Green jobs did not come to the rescue. Unemployment reached 14 percent. Michigan’s square, folksy policy-makers didn’t have any idea how to create sustainable or creative cities. Terrible municipal governance cursed southeast Michigan cities. Congress’s failure to pass energy legislation or back a sustainable tech market left the state’s green initiatives isolated.
This paradigm of stalled industrial progress, experienced by small manufacturing cities throughout the Midwest and Northeast, and helped along by a federal infrastructure and housing policy morass, forms the backdrop of Catherine Tumber’s thought-provoking new book, Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World. A former news editor and currently a researcher at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Tumber animates Small, Gritty, and Green with character-driven storytelling and digestible revisionist histories of urban theory framed through the interests of small cities.
Ebenezer Howard gets revived as a rootsy regionalist, Lewis Mumford a defender of local culture against large cities, Scottish biologist Patrick Geddes an inspiration for ecological urbanism before the term existed, and Jane Jacobs as too embedded in Greenwich Village to appreciate regionalism and later as an advocate of economic localism. Most of the story is free from professional architecture-and-planning jargon except for its heavy reliance on the unfortunate term “transect,” a New Urbanist concept for how to encourage rural-urban connectivity through mixed-use neighborhoods and a variety of scales and building types. This commonplace is presented as if it needed defending against the cosmopolitan elites—entertainingly portrayed at a 2009 Harvard GSD conference where the rubric of “ecological urbanism” is introduced. Andres Duany makes a grandstanding appearance (too much the loner to agree to be on the program alongside his would-be peers), and pretends to be a canary in the coalmine of a modernism that has already completely adopted his logic by way of Jane Jacobs.
We follow Tumber as she crisscrosses the Great Lakes region, interviewing young mayors, regional planners, small farmers, windmill manufacturers, and urban gardeners, uncovering innovative sustainable practices in little-studied places like Youngstown, Ohio; Muncie, Indiana; Flint, Michigan; Janesville, Wisconsin; Rochester, New York; and Holyoke, Massachusetts. Glorification of cosmopolitan mega-regions has become the conventional wisdom within urbanist theory, Tumber argues, neglecting the interests and disregarding the integrity of small-to-midsize cities. The prevailing assumption is that every place should look like Saskia Sassen’s Global City, a networked metropolis where new-economy elites converge in a romp of science, technology, finance, and leisure.
Tumber frames her defense of small cities with the story of two policy factions in Janesville, Wisconsin at war over metropolitan development, both potentially disastrous. The regional planners want Janesville to expand its highways and annex townships, McMansioning their way into the parallel air-conditioned world. The farmers of LaPrairie Township object: they want to protect their high-yield crops and corporate agribusiness seed testing stations for Pioneer, Monsanto, and Syngenta. Federal policy promotes a lose-lose scenario. Compris.
Tumber envisions an alternative for Janesville and cities like it: a low-carbon future. Small-to-medium-size cities have an inherent competitive advantage that enables them to restructure in a sustainable manner. Their depopulated centers are perfect for installing urban gardens and community farms. Their sparsely developed suburban belts are ideal staging grounds in an emerging market for sustainable agriculture. Their slow growth patterns are opportunities to develop green manufacturing. All they have to do is plan for the eventuality of oil running out, tear down all the highways running through downtowns, plant vacant lots with vegetables, get the government to build a trillion dollar high-speed rail system that connects to small cities, and wait thirty or forty years.
The practices for a low-carbon future that Tumber documents are good in themselves, as far as they go. They are in some cases the only thing productive happening on abandoned property and should to be encouraged for promoting healthier lifestyles and environmental stewardship. Municipal transportation authorities in Rochester reduced bus fares, contracted with the school system, increased ridership, and bought new hybrid vehicles. A skilled farmer in Illinois is profiting from the Yuppie obsession with fresh food at farmer’s markets in Evanston. Muncie, Indiana succeeded in stealing several hundred jobs from Chicago by offering a new rail spur and nonunion labor to an Italian producer of windmill gearboxes, attracting an additional German turbine company.
But the small cities heralded by Tumber are already intensely local economies restructuring around regional-protectionist ideas. At times it sounds like in the future everyone is supposed to be a peasant farmer growing vegetables for local consumption in places like Flint. These cities are valiantly installing riverfront trails, remediating brownfields, restoring wetlands, and land-banking disused lots. But the die-hard localism Tumber champions is not new: it’s part of a deeply conservative tradition that isn’t expanding the economy, it’s shrinking it, year after year. Ironically the suburbs in areas she describes are often more economically and ethnically diverse than the cities.
Underlying Small, Gritty, and Green is a certain kind of magical thinking: somehow Congress, persuaded by the inexorable logic of a future without oil, will evolve into a happy bipartisan consensus and initiate a massive shift in federal transportation, housing, agriculture, and infrastructure spending. A shift in federal policy would make an enormous difference, but it will not happen at this stage without a massive national revolt. Until then, attracting capital investment from multinational corporations, redeveloping downtown centers to draw middle-class professionals, and connecting local economies to global markets centered in cosmopolitan mega-regions will remain essential to restructuring small cities.