What do you know about New Bedford, Altoona, or Terre Haute? Should we figure that big-city revitalization work will just trickle down to these former industrial hubs?
A new report from PolicyLink, To Be Strong Again, takes a look at what separates smaller “older industrial cities” (under 150,000 population) from their larger counterparts, and lays out suggestions for revitalization with size in mind.
The report (which I co-authored with PolicyLink associate director Radhika Fox) started from the observation that places like Scranton, Albany, or Youngstown are actually not just mini Philadelphias, New Yorks, or Clevelands. Nor, of course, were they small towns. These small cities, with their blend of urbanness and small scale, history and isolation, have different challenges, and also different assets from their larger counterparts.
We found some interesting things when we looked at the data — small cities tend to be more volatile on many indicators or well-being, often showing either much higher or much lower rates of things like job loss or racially concentrated poverty, while larger cities tended to cluster inbetween in a smaller range. While this means that many smaller cities have large problems that are often overlooked by their states and philanthropy alike, I take this variability to also be a sign of hope: small changes in context can make big differences in results in these smaller cities. The right combination of leadership and action can make a big difference.
If small cities position themselves in their own niche— a best of both worlds kind of approach—and they and their regions and states approach revitalization with the strengths and challenges of small scale in mind, they have a chance, as the report’s title says, “to be strong again.” But they can’t do it alone, and part of our argument is that these small cities, struggling as they are, are crucial parts of our past, present, and future. They are overlooked to the detriment of the nation.
The report has already started some great conversations between mayors and other leaders working in many of these cities.
I’d love to see Rooflines readers weigh in as well. Does size matter? How? What other strategies or examples should be added to the framework we outline?