With ample freshwater (including the nearby Great Lakes), rich agricultural land, and a cool climate, upstate New York was well positioned in a hot, thirsty, and oil-starved future. It was almost a Manifest Destiny. “It is our ecological responsibility to grow here,” he said.
Catherine Tumber would have agreed. Her excellent new book, Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World, finds potential in many busted and booming-again cities in the Northeast and Midwest, cities like Flint, Mich.; Muncie, Ind.; Peoria, Ill.; and Youngstown, Ohio. She could have swept south and also included Hagerstown, Md.; York, Pa.; and maybe even Richmond, Va.; and Greensboro, N.C., and still stuck to her thesis. Even my hometown of Baltimore — which might be larger but has so far avoided unchecked sprawl — may fit into Tumber’s vision. These places, she writes, are both big enough and small enough to manage a coming societal transition, in which people may have to live on constrained oil supplies and rely more on local networks for food and other goods.
Tumber’s thinking goes against the grain of urban thinkers who contend that cities will organize themselves into giant “megaregions,” sprawling into one another, often along interstates. (In this future, my hometown would be one node in a megalopolis that includes New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.) Megaregion futurism has its champions among pundits and policymakers: Richard Florida shuns smaller cities in the hinterlands with his theory of the “creative class” — society’s Alphas, who allegedly seek out cosmopolitan cities. Barack Obama’s $50 billion high-speed rail plan — which, for hefty ticket prices, would connect megaregions like Miami-Tampa, San Francisco-San Diego, and the Northeast Corridor — likewise ignores smaller cities, which would benefit from investment in regular old rail.
The megaregion concept is a product of globalization, which values ruthless efficiency and specialization, with most of the benefits going to elites. But Tumber believes that globalization is a historical anomaly, not necessarily a new world order. “Globalization relies on cheap, long-distance transportation and industrial food production, both highly dependent on finite reserves of oil, whose bounty is already belied by spiking fuel prices and mounting alarm about climate change,” she writes. Or, as put by James Howard Kunstler, the peak-oil prophet (whom Tumber cites here and there in her book): “The world is about to become a larger place again.”
So how do these small cities, long derided as provincial and irrelevant, prepare for the future that Tumber sees coming? She focuses on several broad topics: controlling sprawl and redeveloping the suburban fringe, developing agriculture in and around the city, reviving small-scale manufacturing, and redesigning economic networks and school systems. All of these topics involve interlocking policy conundrums that may be more easily navigated in small cities, where relationships are closer and bureaucracy less entangling.