The future of America can be found not in its largest cities nor its deepest wilds, but in the small cities dotting its landscape, recovering from decades of neglect and economic ravaging. So writes Catherine Tumber in Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America's Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World, published late last year by MIT Press.
Tumber, a former senior editor at the Boston Phoenix, will be reading from her book and speaking about what her premise might mean to Maine, the country, and the world, at Longfellow Books on Thursday, April 26, at 7 pm. We caught up with her to get a taste of the future; here's an edited transcript of our conversation.
I KNOW YOU DIDN'T WRITE ABOUT MAINE IN THE BOOK, BUT IT SEEMS LIKE A LOT OF THE PRINCIPLES APPLY. Some of the principles apply. My book really tries to offer a vision for cities of smaller scale. One of the purposes is to restore cities on the size of Portland to their place as cities in the way that we think about cities.
WHEN WE THINK OF CITIES, WE THINK OF THE FIVE OR TEN LARGEST CITIES IN THE US AND THEY'RE BIG, BUT HOW MANY PEOPLE LIVE IN SMALL CITIES? I'M WONDERING IF IT'S NOT MORE THAN LIVE IN THE MAJOR CENTERS. It's hard to say, because demographers don't really collect the information in ways that make it simple to get at that number; they collect it based on the metropolitan area. Estimates have been as much as a third of the American population lives in smaller cities and their suburban areas, smaller metro areas. This affects a large number of people, who tend themselves to think they live in small towns.
Portland fits that profile but most of the cities that I look at have troubles that Portland doesn't have, so that's very much to Portland's advantage.
YOU TALK ABOUT AS BEING IMPORTANT TO REVITALIZING THESE RUST BELT CITIES FOOD SYSTEMS, ENVIRONMENTAL AWARENESS, "INTERESTING PEOPLE" — WHICH MEANS NOT JUST IMMIGRANTS AND PEOPLE FROM OTHER CULTURES BUT ALSO A PLACE THAT PEOPLE WITH CULTURAL INTERESTS AND INVOLVEMENTS WANT TO BE. THOSE STRIKE ME AS THINGS THAT PORTLAND HAS AND HAS WORKED TO DEVELOP. Portland has been unusually attentive to its cultural institutions and its support of artists and art institutions; because the city depends so much on tourism, that makes sense. That is very much a strength.
Also though much of the economy is based on tourism, in the age of global warming, which is nipping at our heels, we aren't going to be able to sustain the sort of long supply chains that have been a part of globalization and that have allowed us to outsource so much of our work. Portland may be in a position to recapture some of its older 19th century productive work.
One of the casualties of thinking of these places as small towns is that it misses the fact that a city of 66,000 is a significant urban market. If you only think in terms of large markets like New York City or Chicago you miss the opportunities to market for a local economy.
Certainly large cities can support more competing services. One of the strengths of smaller cities based on their industrial history and the skills that still exist in their population is that they're suited more for the productive green economy. They could produce for the foreign export market while also participating in a more localized consumer-based economy.