The principles of sustainability are normally thought of in terms of recycling, environmentally sensitive use of resources and reducing our carbon footprints. But for smaller cities in the United States the list of ingredients is not nearly so simple.
I believe that failures in urban policy and private sector investment parameters since the 1930s have adversely impacted the economic development trajectories of thousands of smaller post-industrial communities across the US, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest.
There are more than 12,000 communities with populations of 15,000 inhabitants and about 950 with more than 50,000 but fewer than one million inhabitants.
Smaller communities tend to have fewer resources and are less likely than larger ones to be able to reinvent themselves. Innovation and reinvention are critical factors in continuing growth in communities. Economic health in communities will also reinforce the creation of social safety nets that go beyond government programs.
Even as the demand on services in smaller communities rises with unemployment, low inventories of affordable housing, the criminalization of significant parts of the population, lower local tax revenues and a multiplicity of small, highly specialized taxing jurisdictions make responding to those demands more and more difficult. Cities are the first entities to have to face social change (such as homelessness, returning prisoners, food deserts, declines in available affordable housing, welfare dependency), but cities, especially smaller ones, do not have the taxing or spending power to be able to do much about it.
There has been plenty of research on larger cities – New York, Chicago and Los Angeles have generated libraries of academic, political and social research. Larger cities also tend to attract more private sector and foundation resources intended to repair social dislocation. But, relatively little has been done to consider the best strategies and responses of smaller communities.
How have thriving smaller cities achieved that success? What other factors need to be considered with smaller cities? What lessons can be drawn from larger communities? How far are these lessons applicable?
One set of answers revolves around planning for a material change in economic activity, relying as far as possible on leveraging local or regional strengths and being prepared to develop and sustain a variety of new businesses, the kind most likely to develop the highest rates of job growth.
In coming posts, I will consider the economic history of one such town, Benton Harbor, Michigan. I will consider how it came to be a vibrant industrial and food processing center. I will also look at why and when it fell from grace and why I believe that it has the ingredients to show the way forward to many other small- and medium-sized communities. In doing so, I will develop a roadmap for bringing capital to new business ideas in that community.