17.04.2021

Our Towns: How small cities aren’t just surviving, but thriving

A kind of journalistic cottage industry has sprung up since the last presidential election. Writers parachute into an area – identified as a rural or small town, real, authentic, yet mostly forgotten – and ask them about national politics and local struggles.

While these pieces have become so commonplace to warrant parody, they do offer up important perspectives of Americans often left out or stereotyped.

But what if the problem isn’t that we’re not hearing enough stories about the frustrated residents and economically depressed parts of the country?

What if we’re so focused on the negative that we’re ignoring successes in our midst?

The idea behind Our Towns, a new book by co-authors Deborah and James Fallows, who have been married since 1971, was asking the right questions – namely, where are things working, and where are exciting things happening. Subtitled as “A 100,000-mile journey into the heart of America,” it’s an engaging panorama of how small cities and towns from nearly every corner of the country have proven to be more resilient, flexible, and dynamic than many realize.

The Fallows don’t want to oversell the extent of this grassroots energy. The economic inequality that has harmed small-town U.S.A. in the last few decades isn’t resolved, and the federal government remains gridlocked when it comes to solutions. But after extensive reporting (both are widely published authors, and James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic), they believe that if more Americans knew about the reversals that remain underreported and under-appreciated, they’d feel more optimistic, and likely to take action.

Our Towns is admittedly an anecdotal analysis. But the Fallows’ on-and-off journeys between 2012 and 2017, when they studied more than two dozen communities in so-called flyover country by flying themselves across the country in a single-engine plane, found common threads between seemingly disparate communities. There’s a groundswell of energy in moving to, returning to, or staying in the country’s smaller urban centers.

“People feel anonymous in a big city,” says Deborah Fallows. “In the places we visited, they can be visible, be operators, and feel the fruit of their labor.”

Here are some of the lessons drawn from the couple’s travels and observations, and the reasons they believe American communities can reinvent themselves better than comparable communities in other countries.

“If you want to consume a great community, you go to Paris,” James Fallows told Curbed. “If you want to create one, you go to one of these places.”

Deborah and James Fallows
Kyle Chesser, Hands-On Studio
Small-town urbanism has large-scale benefits

Deborah Fallows said that after visiting three or four towns on their trip, they quickly realized that every town seems to have a riverwalk, even if they don’t have a river. What she means is that smaller cities are investing in revitalizing main street shopping districts and creating their own versions of engaged, egalitarian public spaces that become attractions. The most famous example they visited was Greenville, South Carolina, where the town’s layout and fidelity to New Urbanist principles have been studied by mayors and planners from across the globe.

The focus on dense, walkable, multimodal urbanism, regardless of the size of the city or town, was a common feature of areas the Fallows felt were bouncing back. Many cities are taking advantage of their 19th century building stock, investing in historic preservation and adaptive reuse, and adding art and music spaces showcases how small-town urbanism is alive and well.

Even more encouragingly, the Fallows found that most of these investments in urbanism showed government actually working. By combining federal support, in the form of community development block grants and transportation funding, with state-level investments and support from cities, local businesses, and NGOs, these urban revivals offered a great counterpoint to the argument that all politics is paralyzed, twisted, and corrupted.

“I now think public-private partnerships is the way the country actually works,” says James Fallows.

Cities don’t necessarily need a “head start”

The city profiles in Our Towns often focus on how successful cities turned small advantages into sustained growth. Sioux Falls, South Dakota, earned dividends from being the site of early military research in satellite imagery, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, had established, world-class educational institutions that helped the former steel town become a center for tech.

But, especially at a time when many areas get written off, or may seem like they having nothing going right, the Fallows found evidence of success in unexpected places. San Bernadino, California, which declared a civic bankruptcy in 2012, had a dysfunctional city government and the bad luck to “combine nearly every destructive economic, political, and social trend of the country as a whole.” Erie, Pennsylvania, suffered from the standard symptoms of Rust Belt decline; shuttered, caved-in factories, a shrinking downtown, and young adults rushing to leave for better opportunities.

But both cities are turning things around. San Bernardino has seen a new generation of civic leaders reform government and invest in local talent and educational programs, including the establishment of a new technical school and the Generation Now – San Bernardino economic development and civil advocacy group. Erie is seeing its downtown slowly but surely recover, as locals have invested in building businesses downtown, turning dilapidated buildings into restaurants, coworking spaces, and video game companies, creating what the book describes as a “shifting mosaic of old and new.”

Erie exemplified how local leaders want to invest in the “scrappiness” of young entrepreneurs and businesses, Deborah Fallows says.

“Younger adults are saying we want to build up this town and make it a place to raise our families,” she said, “and older people are saying it’s your turn, and we’ll help you however you want to do it.”

There’s no single solution or formula. But the Fallows feel any city can tap into that drive and civic energy. Over and over, they found examples of great local leaders who, due to closer connection to their constituents and the impact of policies on the ground, were proving to be effective politicians.

There’s tangible hunger for community, and real effort to come together to solve problems

This observation flies in the face of studies that show the country is more and more polarized, especially at the national level. While the Fallows made it a point not to ask about the election or national politics during their travels, they didn’t sidestep differences. They just found more tangible examples of local communities working together.

“There’s practical value and emotional reward for people to think they’re part of something,” says James Fallows. “That’s the immediate benefit of letting people know something is going on.”

Take immigration, one of the most polarizing issues on the national stage. It can be a unifying factor. The Fallows found that, in cities such as Burlington, Vermont, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where large immigrant and refugee populations are enmeshed in everyday life, locals said immigrants made life better, stronger, and more interesting. Deborah Fallows said there are so many loud voices talking about this issue on the national stage, it can be hard to hear a quiet chorus of local leaders explaining how important these communities are to their cities.

Pointing out the similarities between today and the Gilded Age – another era of wealth inequality, political strife, and economic disruption – may seem straightforward. But James Fallows says the comparison is apt because that era’s dysfunction birthed the kind of local experimentation, in both government and business, that informed future national policies.

The country is filled with local laboratories testing new solutions and strategies.

“The basic resilient capacity of the country hasn’t been extinguished,” says he says. “But we have lost sight of it with so many national problems. It’s important to remind people that we’re still us, in American terms. That’s what we’re still doing.”

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