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.
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  1. See for example http://www.creativeclass.com/richard_florida/books/books_home []
  2. See for example http://www.joelkotkin.com/content/00832-surprising-cities-creating-most-tech-jobs []
  3. See http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2011/07/11/announcing-strong-cities-strong-communities []