Small Cities: Stepchildren No Longer

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?

Miriam Axel-Lute is CEO/editor-in-chief of Shelterforce. She lives in Albany, New York, and is a proud small-city aficionado.


  1. Just wanted to add a couple other recent resources of note on this subject. PolicyLink issued an earlier study, last year, “Voices from Forgotten Cities,” which featured a lot of great quotes from practitioners in these smaller cities on the challenges they face. Also, the Citizens Housing and Planning Association and the Massachusetts Association of CDCs issued a report in 2006, “The State of the Cities: Revitalization Strategies for Smaller Cities in Massachusettts,” which is focused on that state but should still have useful lessons for folks elsewhere. Both reports can be found at


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.