Book review: Revitalizing American Cities

On more than one occasion I’ve been approached by economic developers or policy advisors working on behalf small or mid-sized cities. These people want to know how their town can grow so-called new-economy jobs to replace those in traditional sectors that have declined.

Many such cities, particularly the smallest ones, lack a driving knowledge-based institution like a research university, and these are the toughest cases. They may host a primarily instructional undergraduate campus of a big public university, a private liberal-arts college or a community college. While these places do have students, sometimes in ample number, they offer neither a reservoir of promising intellectual property derived from federal R&D  nor concentrations of graduates (and especially postgraduates and professional students) superbly trained in the so-called STEM disciplines or well suited to startup management. As a consequence, these cities have little to offer the investors and business executives who control the allocation of startup and expansion capital in our system. And without financial investment and the jobs it creates, even the best-educated do not remain long: they simply have no choice but to leave upon graduation, deepening a cycle of trouble.

These small and mid-sized places are not the coastal metropolises and cannot easily pursue Richard Florida’s vision1 of dynamism based on coolness, tolerance, diversity, and density (though that hasn’t stopped Florida from pitching to small and mid-sized cities). Nor are they the small-city oases with high quality of recreational life that Joel Kotkin has highlighted (along with their suburbs and exurbs of course) for their appeal to rootless software engineers and other professionals2. No, they are flyover territory in the old, industrial heartland, burdened with all the cares of aging infrastructure and population, but without much taxing capacity left, and without enough private wealth creation to drive a virtuous cycle of renewal or even dynamic philanthropy.

Really, these places are at the mercy of forces well beyond the control of the usual civic and business establishments, and they are desperate for answers. With encouragement from the Obama Administration’s Strong Cities, Strong Communities initiative3, many such cities have come to understand they need this kind of guidance. But it’s always seemed that we were flying by the seats of our pants. Data are scarce, good theory scarcer. Experience rules.

When I saw the notice for Revitalizing American Cities — which doesn’t have the words “small cities” in its title but is nonetheless focused on them — I was curious to know what the latest scholarship says. Comprising papers by academics and practitioners, this useful review of current research and thinking is published by University of Pennsylvania Press (ISBN 978-0-8122-4555-4). It is co-edited by Susan Wachter at the Wharton School and Kimberly Zeuli at the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, a nonprofit institute created by Harvard Business School’s Michael Porter.

Revitalizing Cities is divided in four parts, nicely summarized, paper-by-paper, in Jeremy Nowak’s fine afterward, which should probably be read first. For the book’s first three sections, I will highlight only papers of particular interest to me, but I willcomment on all three contributions in the fourth section.

Part I, a survey of current knowledge on growth and decline, is a competent if unexciting review of what little can be concluded with clarity from current data about what makes a city thrive or shrivel. One depressing take-home: at least up until now, it has been bad news to have been historically over-specialized in manufacturing. As the nation has de-industrialized, automating and offshoring such work, such cities and their populations suffered the worst.

Part II is an exploration of resilience – that is, the ability of troubled places to stabilize or even recover in the face of stresses in the macro economy. I particularly appreciated a finding reported by Kodrzycki and Muñoz (both researchers with the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston) that resilience is linked only weakly to geography, is uncorrelated with population size, and can occur across a range of choices for industrial modernization. Rather, it depends greatly on intangible factors of leadership. These authors conclude that “cities ultimately play an important role in determining their own fates” – exactly what I have often told my own clients, and a point reinforced by at least one other paper in the section.

Part III addresses land and neighborhood policy. Brophy, a consultant, smartly emphasizes the importance of stabilizing “middle neighborhoods” vs. focusing on downtown development. He correctly highlights structural barriers such as federal tax law and the language of the CRA, which build in a bias by philanthropic foundations and financial institutions, respectively, toward support of affordable housing versus an equally compelling need for attraction of middle-class households into economically integrated neighborhoods. Another good paper by Alexander, of Emory Law School, focuses on “tactical approaches” to deteriorated property. In this case it would have been useful to see called out those substandard conditions that emanate from deteriorated property markets around “eds and meds” institutions. These have often come to depend on over-occupied, absentee-owned properties to house students who in prior generations would have lived in dorms or owner-occupied boarding houses with greater social control. This kind of town/gown tension over out-of-control neighborhoods that serve as attractive nuisance is an issue on which I have direct personal experience from my time in community association work in the neighborhood immediately surrounding Penn.

Part IV is the one most germane to my interests, a review of the prospects of small and mid-sized cities in the new economy. Birch, a scholar of urban studies at Penn, begins with the assertion that cities have neglected their anchor institutions, failing to see “eds and meds” as a cluster in and of itself. Actually, as I see it, most cities fall all over themselves to assist eds and meds in their plans for physical expansion, because these are obviously their largest and most dynamic employers. What they don’t give sufficient thought to is what they might demand in return by way of faculty and student “engagement” with the local civic and business communities, solving problems and creating opportunities through the energy stored in their intellectual reservoirs. Taking as examples both small and large cities in the Northeast, Birch reviews the potential of anchors to catalyze large-scale redevelopment and to leverage their payroll and purchasing budgets to improve the conditions of (and relations with) surrounding populations. Indeed, that was the essence of the plan Penn followed under President Judith Rodin. Unfortunately, Birch’s insight on eds and meds in the largest cities of the Northeast is limited to these aspects of their operations (nothing at all about innovation, for example) and substantially outweighs what she is able to contribute at all about smaller cities.

Next, Tumber, a journalist/historian and currently a visiting scholar at Northeastern University, contributes what is the most readable of the essays, a thought-provoking but sadly data-free exploration of what global trends like climate change and peak oil are likely to mean for the role of small metros. She clearly envisions sustainable economic systems built around local food production and artisanal or low-run/high-value/long-tail “mass customized” manufacturing. Much of her argument recalls similar polemics by James Howard Kunstler on the potential for small cities to revive the cropland/marketplace dynamic after the collapse of long supply chains enabled by cheap energy. Sadly, Tumber tarnishes her own credibility by incorrectly attributing the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster to disruptive weather patterns rather than to tsunami consequent to earthquake, and by inappropriately characterizing the Silicon Valley innovation economy as driven by “basic science,” which it certainly is not. Admirably, though, she challenges the pattern of incentive-driven “smokestack chasing,” which she rightly calls a senseless race-to-the-bottom that counterproductively forces geographic sprawl within regions.

Perna, a scholar in the education school at Penn, concludes the section with a people- rather than place-based approach: a plea for raising educational attainment and for emphasizing non-traditional paths to work, such as modernized Career and Technical Education. As with Birch, his focus is on urban areas generally, not small and mid-sized cities in particular, and the recommendations are general in nature and regrettably burdened with education jargon. What may be said in the essay’s favor is that it at least doesn’t wield the acronym STEM as a magical totem, and that’s a relief.

In summary, this final section was a good start at gathering lessons that might be of use to small and mid-sized cities as they think about their place in the new economy, but it seemed to me to have a lot missing. A great deal of innovation-based economic development is shaped by a subtle interaction of federal urban policy, which is covered well by this book, and several other important domains of national policy that are nearly completely absent from the discussion.

For example:

  • The section includes no introduction to the knowledge-based institution (whether research-oriented or simply undergraduate/instructional) and it how responds to incentives in federal S&T and education policies and to the professional norms of the disciplines represented in its ranks;
  • it includes very little about federal innovation policy, which is aimed at increasing the technical sophistication of small industrial companies, building robust supply chains into export-oriented regional clusters, and repatriating key manufacturing sectors where possible;
  • it says nothing at all about national entrepreneurship policy, which is aimed at tightening the linkages among inventors, entrepreneurial managers, and sources of investment and risk capital; and
  • it says nothing about the way state governments interact with and leverage federal science, technology, innovation or entrepreneurship policy, and what tools and levers are available to the civic and business leaders of small/medium cities.

Without understanding these components, how can anyone advise a small or medium sized city whether it is best to pursue an innovation economy based on development of physical products (whether engineering-based or biomedical); or one based on capital-efficient app-writing by students well trained in computer science; or one that emphasizes cluster development and “economic gardening” among so-called second-stage companies4; or one based on inward-attraction of the most innovative company that can be swayed in this way? This choice is a critical and difficult one for small cities of the type that are being addressed, for example, by New York State’s Startup-NY tax-free zones program, and whose only knowledge institution may be a four-year or two-year college. These choices represent topics of constant and urgent discussion in the community of economic-development practitioners, but sometimes all-too-absent from the urban-studies or urban geography world.

There’s room for more and deeper surveys of knowledge and best practice, and maybe we’ll see it from projects like the National Resource Network5 (with which I hope to be involved in some way) serving the Strong Cities, Strong Communities project. Meantime, with its good range and excellent bibliography, Revitalizing American Cities is worth adding to your reference shelf if you study or work in urban redevelopment.

  1. See for example []
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  4. That is, those firms that are later in the life cycle than startups but not yet mature middle-market businesses. []
  5. See []

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