“Small, Gritty, and Green” just misses the mark

Source: mitpress.mit.edu/books/small-gritty-and-green

Source: mitpress.mit.edu/books/small-gritty-and-green

While quite an interesting read, the book Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World, by Catherine Tumber raised only a few new ideas to this urban planner. Perhaps that was because it was published in 2011 and the ideas that were identified have already been spread across the planning world by now? My guess is that is part of the explanation, but the book also lacked an emphatic call to consider bold, new, and unexplored ideas.

Ms. Tumber’s book does an excellent job of highlighting economic revival efforts taking place in small to medium-sized cities of the Midwest and Northeast like Janesville, Wisconsin; Flint, Michigan; Akron, Ohio; Muncie, Indiana; Youngstown, Ohio; and Springfield-Holyoke, Massachusetts. It also provided a valuable series of interviews with those with their boots on the ground, who are fighting the good fight to save their respective city. I also completely agree with her that the smaller industries cities of the Midwest and Northeast are far too often overlooked in the grand scheme of things – whether it be by the federal government when designing and dolling out programs, by the national media, or by those corporate boards of directors who never set foot in the cities where their business decisions have such a profound and lasting impact.

That being said, any book attempting to instill hope for the future cannot sound like every other prescription for urban transformation. “Been there, tried that,” would not be useful. Likewise, such a book must be realistic about the potential for an economic turnaround. Small, Gritty, and Green successfully avoids these pitfalls. Where the book misses its chance to truly excel is it never really challenges the reader to push the planning envelope and explore entirely new paradigms.

For example, the author accurately refers to the added complexity of including townships in the local and regional mix, but never proposes any ways to streamline or reduce that complexity. So what if it is controversial – new ideas and change seldom aren’t. Likewise, while chronicling innovative revitalization efforts in a number of cities, I do not recall any untried or experimental ideas being cited. Perhaps this is being pie-in-the-sky, but as a resident and urban planner who lives and works in a smaller industrial city of the Midwest, I would have like to have read about and contemplated some envelope-pushing options, if for no other reason than to broaden our collective thought processes.

One of the greatest challenges facing smaller industrial communities (in my opinion) is the debilitating fear of attempting unconventional ideas and they backfiring. To me, one way to open minds to new, possibly untested theorems and to lessen the fear of failure is through the continuous advancement, testing, analysis, discussion, and reevaluation of  new ideas within the public realm. It doesn’t matter if it is in literature, on film, via the media, amid public discourse, or through word of mouth, repeated immersion to new ideas helps foster understanding, acceptance, and innovation. I am certain that is one reason why college towns are more vibrant than their non-collegiate counterparts.

In addition, finding and electing far-sighted public officials whose primary goal is to lift up their community instead of their own political aspirations and agenda would be enormously helpful to many cities.

Small, Gritty, and Green is a useful resource for those striving to reverse decades of downward spiral, as it catalogues a number of innovative approaches already taken by Rustbelt cities.  However, as the book fails to postulate new and untested concepts for thoughtful consideration, it did not meet my own expectations.

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