[R-G] [BillTottenWeblog] Small, Green and Good
shimogamo at ashisuto.co.jp
Tue Mar 3 19:10:18 MST 2009
The role of neglected cities in a sustainable future
by Catherine Tumber
Boston Review (March / April 2009)
Growing up in a small town, I regularly took bus trips with my mom and
little sister into "the city": Syracuse. Like most middle-class families
in the 1960s, we had only one car, which my dad drove to work. So we
would buy our tickets at the village pharmacy, board the Big Dog, and
barrel though miles of farms and sparsely developed land until we
reached the highway. Nearing the final stretch, we had to endure the
stench of the Solvay chemical works to our right, and the creepy mint
green of polluted Onondaga Lake on our left. But we would disembark in
Syracuse's vibrant downtown, all glittering lights and vertical planes,
filled with department stores, jewelry and candy shops, theaters and
movie palaces, "ethnic" food, and people who were interestingly not like us.
Smaller American cities, places like Syracuse - and Decatur, New
Bedford, Kalamazoo, Buffalo, Trenton, Erie, and Youngstown - were once
bustling centers of industry and downtown commerce, with wealthy local
patrons committed to civic improvements and the arts. In the 1970s they
began a decline from which they have not recovered. Today, most are
scanted as doleful sites of low-paying service jobs, with shrinking tax
bases and little appeal to young professionals or to what urban theorist
Richard Florida calls the "creative class". In Syracuse itself the
center of gravity has shifted northward, toward Carousel Mall, leaving a
ghostly downtown where Rite-Aid, now the largest store, presides over
parking lots and abandoned buildings.
Historians and economic demographers generally attribute the decline of
small-to-mid-size cities of 50,000 to 500,000 souls to
deindustrialization, since many sit in the Midwestern Rust Belt or the
Northeast. But the history of smaller-city decline is more complex than
that. Smaller cities were also victims of post-war development policies
better suited to large cities - or rather, that were painful, but less
disastrous, for large metropolitan areas.
Extraordinary mid-twentieth century changes in transportation, zoning,
housing construction, mortgage financing, and domestic taste facilitated
the creation of wide swathes of "bourgeois utopias" that now ring our
cities far out into the exurbs. They are the products of a radical
transformation of land-use policy that extended supply chains with vast
highway systems, further separating people from their workplaces, energy
producers from consumers, and farmers from their markets. Large cities
survived the changes and the resulting onslaught of suburban shopping
malls - itself a reaction to extended supply-chains - in the late 1970s.
In smaller cities, malls decimated what was left of retail districts
already damaged by massive downtown highway systems that choked off
commercial centers from surrounding urban neighborhoods.
Neglect of the smaller city, as both place and idea, continued through
the rest of the century. As large-metropolitan real estate values
skyrocketed in the 1990s, big cities attracted millions of dollars in
capital improvements and large-scale development. "New Urbanism" among
designers and architects, though not in theory intended only for big
cities, attracted funding for pedestrian-friendly thoroughfares,
mixed-use building, open spaces, and the preservation of historic
architecture that enhanced the metropolitan boom. Now, with the call for
reducing the urban carbon footprint, cosmopolitan living is going green.
Two recent books proposing models for a low-carbon economy - Thomas
Friedman's Hot, Flat, and Crowded (2008), and Jay Inslee and Bracken
Hendricks's Apollo's Fire (2007) - speak throughout of "villages" and
"large cities". Not a word for the distinctive role smaller cities might
play in a low-carbon world.
That is too bad. Smaller cities have idiosyncratic charms of their own -
worthy of sustained attention and renewal. And, fortuitously, they have
a distinctive and vital role to play in the work of the new century:
smaller cities will be critical in the move to local agriculture and the
development of renewable energy industries. These tasks will almost
certainly require a dramatic rethinking of land-use policy, and smaller
cities have assets that large cities lack. Their underused or vacant
industrial space and surrounding tracts of farmland make them ideal
sites for sustainable land-use policies, or "smart growth".
Yet current urban planning models offer little guidance on how we might
begin to make those changes. Nor, until recently, has there been a
national forum that matches smaller-city renewal initiatives to national
needs. The Revitalizing Older Cities Congressional Task Force, formed
just last year, held its first national summit (organized by the
Northeast-Midwest Institute) in mid-February. Local governments and
advocates of eco-sustainability must build on this new conversation for
they have a shared stake in the future.
Sustainability advocates could be missing the large, strategic, regional
and economic advantages smaller cities can offer a national policy over
the long term.
The Portland, Oregon-based Post Carbon Cities project offers one bold
way to start thinking about national policy, with its call for the
"relocalization" of cities, a form of decentralization grounded in local
food systems and energy resources. An alternative to the traditional
idea of "balancing" economic and environmental needs, relocalization
aims to maximize both by dramatically reducing reliance on costly and
environmentally damaging supply chains - long transportation routes
geared to truck or air transportation - while increasing sustainable
agriculture and energy security and creating local jobs that cannot be
Taking energy security first, the smaller cities of the United States,
with their large parcels of vacant, relatively low-value property and
proximate surrounding land, could serve the alternative energy industry
well. Smaller cities are not only more likely to be located near sources
of clean energy - such as waterways, forests, and fields - but they can
also generate more energy proportionate to their size.
One large obstacle for the clean-energy industry and its advocates is
that the current energy infrastructure disadvantages them in competition
with coal, natural gas, and oil, which together provide about seventy
percent of electrical power in the United States. Achieving "grid
parity" - the point at which renewable energy is as cheap as or cheaper
than power from prevailing sources - is extremely difficult. The grid,
built decades ago for local utility monopolies and now used by a
deregulated national energy industry, is in a terrible state of
disrepair. More immediately, it is oriented toward large "base loads"
traveling over long distances to major population centers, a strain that
threatens the fragile system. The United States's "third-world grid", as
many are now calling it, is particularly unsuited to storing or
transferring small, supplementary loads of electricity - the kind of
loads produced by renewable energy sources in their current form.
Moreover, keeping energy more local has the advantage of limiting grid
transmission loss, which can run as high as ten percent.
If smaller cities are to reap the benefits of renewable energy
development, the transmission and distribution network must be both
modernized and decentralized - changes that electrical energy experts
agree are necessary anyway. Local contributions to a first-world energy
grid would then vary, depending on terrain and natural resources.
Hydrokinetic power harvested from underwater ocean currents shows
promise in coastal areas. Hydropower from rivers would generate the most
electricity in the West and Midwest, where the drop is higher and the
water rush more forceful than in other parts of the country. Solar power
on a large scale works best in sunny climates, and wind power on the
coasts and in the Great Plains. And, according to a Washington Post
report, geothermal energy tapped from the thirteen Western states that
sit within the trans-Pacific "Ring of Fire" could provide up to half of
the nation's current level of electricity output.
But smaller contributions from alternative energy sources should not be
overlooked. Small hydropower, defined as producing up to ten megawatts
of electricity (enough to support 10,000 homes), is underdeveloped in
the United States, lagging far behind Canada, Australia, New Zealand,
parts of Asia, and the European Union, where it is found mostly in its
fast-developing smaller cities. In New England, a number of projects are
under way that will generate three megawatts or less, enough to power a
hospital, large shopping center, or small factory.
As ideal sites for new energy industries, smaller cities would in turn
gain from job creation.
Alternative energy technologies are in various stages of development,
but one thing is already clear: if they work, they will require space
that dense metropolitan areas cannot provide. Solar power, which among
alternative energies has come closest to achieving grid parity, can make
use of rooftops and awnings in big cities, but offers far greater
potential when staged on ground mounts on polluted brownfields, suburban
greyfields, or open land. One of the world's largest solar farms,
sitting on more than one thousand acres in Kramer Junction in
California's Mojave Desert, consists of row upon row of solar panels,
which power generating stations at the facility. According to the
company that operates it, at capacity, it produces enough power (150
megawatts) to support 150,000 homes. A good rule of thumb, at this
point, is that one megawatt of solar-generated power requires about
eight acres of land.
Wind power, unless sited offshore, also requires large tracts of land.
And, by definition, biomass and biogas technologies require farm and
forest land to generate the raw resources required, as well as space for
the physical plant that conducts the conversion. This year BioEnergy
Solutions announced a partnership with Vintage Dairy, of Riverdale,
California (just outside Fresno) to convert manure from its 5,000 cows
into methane by flushing animal waste into an anaerobic-digester, a
covered lagoon "equal in size to the area of nearly five football fields
and over three stories deep".
As ideal sites for new energy industries, smaller cities would in turn
gain from job creation. A 2007 American Solar Energy Society report
claimed that renewable energy and energy-efficient industries had
already created nearly 8.5 million jobs in the United States, a little
more than half in indirectly related fields such as accounting,
information technology, and trucking. Many are blue-collar jobs in
maintenance and manufacturing. A September 2008 proposal from the Apollo
Alliance estimates that its New Apollo Program - a renewable energy
proposal on a scale akin to that of the Kennedy administration's space
program - could create five million "high-quality" green-collar jobs
over the next decade. Indeed, many have pointed out that bold low-carbon
policy initiatives could launch the next Industrial Revolution. Happily,
the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, signed by President Obama in
February, is consistent with Apollo's aims and suggested funding levels.
Smaller American cities could participate creatively in this emerging
world. In the past, jurisdictional disputes over land use have plagued
urban development in smaller cities, so federal investment in regional
transportation and energy infrastructure must include pressure to
The proximity of abundant, relatively cheap land also gives smaller
cities a structural advantage in meeting the growing demand for local,
sustainable agriculture. As Michael Pollan demonstrates in his
best-selling The Omnivore's Dilemma (2007), agribusiness puts down an
enormous carbon footprint. Sustainable agriculture and animal husbandry
not only produce more nutritious food and less cruelty to animals, they
are also far less dependent on petroleum for long-distance
transportation, fertilizer, and neurotoxic pesticides (not to mention
antibiotics). Building on the work of organic farmers and environmental
activists since the 1970s, Pollan's call for relocalizing agriculture
coincides with rising alarm about the perils of climate change and
dependence on foreign oil. Even the United Nations, which has long
embraced agribusiness as the key to famine prevention, is beginning to
recognize the role of sustainable, localized practices in food security.
The change in public perceptions has created a critical mass of
"locavores", most living in big cities far from the heart of
agribusiness, who are driving a growing market for organic products.
Farmers' markets, community-supported agriculture, community gardens,
and green roofs have become increasingly popular, forcing big
supermarket chains to offer local, organic produce. New York City alone
went from two farmers' markets in 1979 to more than 45 in 2008.
Meanwhile, the appeal of farming, on a smaller, more diversified,
independent model, is growing among young adults and mid-life
professionals. The number of organic farms in New York State almost
doubled between 2003 and 2007, from 404 farms to 735. And the number of
people aged 45 to 54 operating farms of under fifty acres shot up by
seventy percent. Increasingly, urban professionals are investing in
farmland and taking on agricultural work as a second vocation.
If urban farming - growing food within city limits or on nearby
small-scale market farms - and sustainable agriculture in general are to
succeed, however, they must be integrated with the larger workforce and
with urban and regional planning. Detroit, home to one of the country's
first urban farms, pioneered this work. Today eighty acres throughout
the city have been appropriated for agriculture and are under
cultivation through the Detroit Garden Resource Program Collaborative.
Its member organizations provide training in soil management and crop
cultivation, bee-keeping, orchard building, composting, and the like
through various faith communities and the local schools, and provide
on-the-job training and summer employment to teens and adults. The yield
for 2007 was 120 tons of food and promises to grow much higher. The
county treasurer's office allowed the nonprofit Urban Farming to grow
produce on twenty tax-foreclosed vacant properties in 2008.
To some extent, the urban agriculture movement is primarily a big-city
phenomenon, not least because large cities have received
disproportionate publicity and funding. The W K Kellogg Foundation
sponsors one of the larger and more daring philanthropic initiatives.
Its Food and Fitness program provided planning grants to nine
community-based projects that emphasize access to local food and
physical exercise among disadvantaged families. Six of them are located
in big cities (including Detroit), two in rural areas, and only one in a
smaller city - Holyoke, Massachusetts.
Funding and advocacy organizations have nothing against smaller city
initiatives. Far from it. Kellogg's Ricardo Salvador notes that "the
metaphor of sustainability itself is lots of small communities, whether
they are city neighborhoods in densely populated areas or small rural
communities". As Daniel Lerch, of Post Carbon Cities puts it: "This is
not just an issue of scale. Very soon we'll see cities of any size going
down the path of sustainability with regard to food and watershed."
By minimizing the importance of scale, however, sustainability advocates
could be missing the large, strategic regional and economic advantages
smaller cities can offer a national policy over the long term. Martin
Bailkey, coauthor of a 2000 Lincoln Institute of Land Policy working
paper on the history and viability of entrepreneurial "farming inside
cities" says "it shouldn't matter whether farms are fifty or sixty miles
from, say, New York City, or ten miles from a smaller city like Madison,
Wisconsin". But he notes that post-industrial cities with declining
populations, particularly in the Midwest, are better positioned to shift
urban land-use policy toward farming.
Even more intriguing, he says, is the notion that the "mosaic" of
smaller cities located in the heartland could one day anchor a regional
agricultural shift from industrial monoculture to more localized
biodiversity. Large farms now used for federally subsidized commodity
crops - mainly corn and soy - could over time be made available in
smaller parcels for market farming on a scale that cannot be undertaken
within city limits.
The Land Connection, based in Evanston, Illinois, is working to do just
that. One program helps heirs to farmland put agricultural easements on
their property, and its training and transition programs assist farmers
who want to replace monoculture with sustainable, organic practices.
Founder Terra Brockman says that some of the newer farmers, who may be
first-timers or returning to the family business, "are making the
decision to sell in smaller cities ... where the demand didn't exist
fifteen years ago". What they need, says Brockman, "is really quite
simple: land, trained farmers, local processing facilities (which
disappeared in the sixties), and logistical transportation".
Why not turn the roof and vast parking lot of Irondequoit Mall into a
solar "brightfield", and the indoor space into hydroponic market farms?
Developing an effective transportation infrastructure is critical to
making smaller cities hubs in a relocalized, agricultural economy. As
Kellogg's Gail Imig suggests, it might be easier for smaller cities "to
work out local distribution systems for transporting food" than for big
cities. Still, federal leadership will be crucial. Gayle Peterson of The
Headwaters Group Philanthropic Services - consultants for foundations
ranging from Kellogg, Mott, and Weyerhouser to community foundations -
says: "There is a huge movement among foundations supporting regional
food systems uniting networks of cities and towns in a large
agricultural food basket ... but there are as yet no group initiatives
that cut across the issues". Her colleague, John Sherman, adds: "If
anything significant is to take place, the thrust will have to come from
economic development agencies" that can provide government funding and
coordinated policy leadership.
One nonprofit, the Michigan Land Use Institute (MLUI), is emerging as a
model of state and regional planning. One of the projects it supports,
The Grand Vision, aims to integrate economic opportunities into a
working rural landscape and provide land-use experts to help grassroots
groups organize and manage their campaigns.
Located in the area around Traverse City, a large town of 14,532 that
anchors a "micropolitan statistical area" - a term established in 2003
denoting a new federal census standard - with a population of 131,342,
The Grand Vision emerged in 2006 when plans for a highway bypass and
bridge around Traverse City met with community protest. With the
cooperation of Senators Debbie Stabinow and Carl Levin and US
Representative Dave Camp, federal highway funding was diverted to a
two-year community-planning process. The process was coordinated by
consultants with the full involvement of local citizens, municipal
bodies, businesses, environmental groups, and social services agencies,
all organized into "charrettes". The final results will be unveiled in May.
One of MLUI's highly successful programs is Farm to School, which is
part of a growing nationwide movement that connects local farm products
with school cafeterias. MLUI links the program to a larger state
initiative based on a study showing that helping farmers sell to local
supermarkets and farmers' markets could increase net farm income in
Michigan by nearly sixteen percent and generate up to 1,889 new jobs.
Smaller cities might also be better able than large ones to recover for
market-farming pusposes land lost to suburban sprawl. Filmmaker Nancy
Rosin - who produced a documentary on the history of Rochester, New
York's farmers' market - explains that before the rise of grocery store
chains after World War I, small-market farming appealed to working
people, particularly immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe, who
brought their horticultural skills with them. They grew food on city
lots where they lived and, over time, grew much larger quantities in the
adjacent suburbs - or what we would now call suburbs - in particular,
Irondequoit, less than ten miles from Rochester's downtown market. A
sizeable number, she says, held full-time jobs with companies such as
Kodak and became known as "Kodak farmers". By mid-century Irondequoit
"had the largest square footage of greenhouse glass in the world to
support the demand for food in a climate with long, cold winters". A
fifty-something Irondequoit native who blogs for the Rochester Democrat
and Chronicle brings that world to life:
"I grew up in the Flats, on Saint Joseph Street. My dad was born there
in the old homestead, his parents farmers. My siblings and I were raised
there. Although it had changed from when my dad was growing up, I still
remember all the farming that went on down there. The greenhouses, the
tractors, listening to the frogs on a hot summer night ... it was like
living in the country. A drive through the Flats today shows quite a
different story. The farms are gone. There are no tractors going up and
down the street with trailers bobbing behind them. The greenhouses are
gone. Most of the 'old timers' have passed. There are houses where there
were fields and wetlands. There has been a lot of change."
By the early 1960s Irondequoit was fast being paved over, making way for
homes, highways, and strip malls. In 1963 the once-powerful Irondequoit
Grange closed and later became the House of Guitars. The gigantic
Irondequoit Mall opened in 1990, and, today, after only eighteen years
in business, it is considered officially "dead", with less than fifty
percent retail occupancy and an uncertain future. What should become of
such worn-out retail outlets, which were multiplying by the thousands
across the country even before the current economic downturn?
A happier future for a smaller city like Rochester, where Kodak alone
shed some 45,000 jobs over the past twenty-five years, may involve the
restoration and growth of sustainable food systems. One of Kellogg's
earliest Food and Fitness pilot programs tried to do just that on
several acres where a small vineyard tended by an Italian family years
ago still grows. (The program is currently languishing due to conflicts
among the community organizations that originally established it.) A
series of community "Vision Plans" similar to those in Traverse City
called for continuing an existing program of riverfront development, as
well as more affordable housing, mixed-use buildings, and
pedestrian-friendly streets - all familiar New Urbanism strategies. One
recent charrette also called for tearing down part of the Inner Loop
freeway, built in 1965, that circles the downtown business district.
Here is another idea: why not turn the roof and vast parking lot of
Irondequoit Mall into a solar "brightfield", and the indoor space into
hydroponic market farms? Why not rebuild those greenhouses? And why not
introduce green job-training programs in Rochester, a city that has one
of the highest high-school dropout rates in the nation?
There is no question that the infrastructure of large metropolitan areas
can and must be redesigned and retrofitted for energy efficiency. And
not surprisingly, that is where green urban planners have been focusing
their efforts: after all, big cities contribute the largest share of the
world's carbon output. But focusing on big cities may also reflect what
urban historian James J Connolly calls "metropolitan bias". Even those
who have written about smaller urban areas, he argues, have "made little
effort to distinguish large and smaller cities from each other",
treating them as "essentially interchangeable case studies of
developments that unfolded on a national and even an international
scale". That model, established by sociologist Louis Wirth's influential
1938 essay "Urbanism as a Way of Life", assumes continued modernization,
growth, and centralization of political and economic power in big
cities. The idea of the "metropolis as the quintessential urban form"
was further reinforced by the postmodern cultural turn, which saw global
cities as "sites" for the formation of "transnational" identities; by
implication, smaller places are repositories of more provincial,
outmoded, and "destructive nationalisms".
If we temper the metropolitan bias that pervades the sustainable cities
movement, green advantages and opportunities distinctive to smaller
cities come into focus. But we first must abandon the perpetual-growth
paradigm and, when appropriate, embrace shrinkage, not as decline but as
a framework for creative reinvention. Several American cities are taking
a cue from Europe's Shrinking Cities project, spurred by radical
population decline particularly in the former East German Republic.
Youngstown, Ohio, the population of which dropped from 170,000 to 82,000
with the decline of the steel industry, was the first American city to
make downsizing a matter of formal policy. The Youngstown 2010
initiative has spent upward of $3 million to date to demolish vacant
houses and buildings; open access to the Mahoning River; cut back
sewage, plowing, and other costly services; further concentrate the
population; and open green space for parks and agriculture. According to
the city's chief planner, Anthony Kobak, urban-farming incentives are
not yet under consideration.
Other so-called weak-market cities have launched similar efforts, with
greater emphasis on environmental sustainability. In 2008 nearby
Cleveland's Neighborhood Progress, Incorporated announced a major
project, supported by a grant from the Surdna Foundation, exploring the
possibility of turning vacant city lots into agricultural and renewable
energy sites. Similar plans are under way in Flint, Michigan, which now
owns ten percent of the city's vacant property through the Genesee
County Land Bank.
Meanwhile, we need to revisit the cultural mythology about smaller
places. Sociologist Kenneth Johnson's 2006 study, which tracked
demographic changes in rural America, found that since 2001 rural
population gains have swung modestly upward in an "uneven" pattern.
"Gains have been greatest", he writes, "in the fringes of metropolitan
areas and in rural areas that are proximate to metropolitan areas that
include smaller cities and that contain natural and recreational
amenities". Johnson's study also contradicts two seemingly intractable
stereotypes. Immigrants, particularly Latinos, "are dispersing more
widely" and account for much of this small metro growth, thus belying
the notion that large urban areas are the exclusive preserve of
"transnational" pluralism. And rural does not necessarily equal farming.
Johnson shows that "the proportion of the rural workforce employed in
manufacturing is nearly double that in agriculture", while "many rural
areas have also now become thriving centers of recreation and retirement".
A new literature is taking shape that recognizes the distinctive
characteristics and potential of smaller cities. From the Journal of
Urbanism, launched in March 2008, to recent studies by the Brookings
Institution's Jennifer S Vey, to PolicyLink's 2008 report To Be Strong
Again: Renewing the Promise in Smaller Industrial Cities, to the work of
Ball State University's Center for Middletown Studies, small cities are
gradually being taken seriously again. That quiet shift reflects changes
in the rest of the world. A 2008 UN population study predicted that, by
the end of that year and for the first time in history, half the world
would live in urban centers and that the trend toward cities would
continue, with most of the growth taking place in cities of less than
half a million. China alone is planning to build 400 small cities by
2020, to accommodate its shifting rural population. All of this is
attracting attention from urban planners and architects. But the growing
interest in smaller cities also reflects an imaginative resizing, a
spiritually overdue compression of the gigantic, "unsustainable"
ambitions of economic-bubble culture.
When it comes to the urban-rural divide, small-to-intermediate-size
cities may offer the best of both worlds. For all the rural romanticism
of the 1970s-era homesteading movement - or for that matter, the vaunted
folksiness of "small-town values" - urban life has its allure. Smaller
cities are large enough to offer the diversity, anonymity, and vibrancy
of urban culture, as well as levels of density that offer efficiencies
of scale. They are also small enough to maintain proximity to
sustainable food production and renewable energy resources.
An inversion is at work here: placing smaller cities at the center of
analysis leads to an imaginative template that is decentralized,
deconcentrated, relocalized. One of the Obama campaign's strokes of
genius was bypassing big-city power centers, where self-appointed
national leaders claim to speak for minorities, and working directly
with the decentralized grid of smaller-city community organizations
across the land. As policymakers rethink the American agricultural
economy and invest in renewable energy, they, too, should be looking at
smaller cities. Local and municipal leaders also have much to gain in
the twenty-first century if they have the eyes to see it.
Catherine Tumber is former news and features editor of The Boston
Phoenix, and the author of American Feminism and the Birth of New Age
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