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America Sings the Small Town Blues

While New York City may symbolize the American Dream, Norman Rockwell and the American small town still epitomizes the country’s spirit. Two years removed from a bitter cultural stalemate that put the future of the country’s small town backbone at the forefront of an election about the future of our industrial soul, the election of Donald Trump and the resurgence of America’s “silent small town majority” has left more questions open than it answered. What, it has left us wondering, is the future of our towns and communities, and how can the “small” coexist with the “large” in a 21st-century economy whose unending appetite for bigness increasingly leaves them behind?

Small cities and towns are far more voluminous, far less homogenous, and growing far faster – than the election rhetoric suggested. Neither the exclusive domain of one political party nor any one shared set of singular beliefs, nor any one set of prospects on their futures, small cities and towns are still yet the anchor of the country, if only because they comprise, perhaps to some big city-ites’ surprise, the overwhelming majority of places Americans live.

This condition is unique compared to other countries. All one has to do is compare a map of the urbanized places in the United States to those of Canada or Australia to see that we are different. The US, for instance, has about 13 times the total population as Australia but nearly 33 times as many cities between 10,000 and 100,000 residents, while we have only twice as many over a million. Compared to Canada, a country about one tenth our size, we have only six times as many cities over 100,000 residents, while we dwarf their total number of small towns.

That America is blessed with this unique network of small places is a testament to our history. Unlike those countries, which developed as networks of a few large cities close to their borders, the United States is a country of small settlements, with a rich DNA of towns, cities, townships, and unincorporated villages spread equitably across the plains. From Thomas Jefferson’s Land Ordinance of 1785, which platted township assets every 36 miles, thereby laying the groundwork for the rural “grid” for which midwestern America is so-well known, to the organic infill of trading posts at railroad junctions that stabilized the settlement of the heartland, America’s landscape of small communities is, as a result, perhaps the most robust and diverse of any industrialized country in the world.

Over time, many of those towns grew into small cities, and today the spread is staggering: of the 63% of America that lives in incorporated places (not to mention the 37% who don’t), 9,000 of those cities are less than 1,000 residents, and 9,000 more are between 1,000 and 100,000. Only a scant 300 cities are over 100,000 residents. 93% of our cities are less than 25,000 residents, and nearly five times as many are between 25,0000 and 100,000 residents as are larger than 100,000.

Rather than a diminishing relic of America’s industrial past, small communities remain the overwhelming majority of our modern urban fabric. Their existence has served the country well in addressing many of its most pressing challenges. More communities means more options for prospective residents. The opposite of countries like Australia, which are struggling with staggering affordability challenges as they run out of space to house people in their largest cities, America has largely bypassed the affordability issue (isolated cases aside: see San Francisco), easily accommodating growth across our broad landscape of communities despite tremendous overall housing demand. Laboratories for experimentation, small communities have given America the opportunity to explore more diverse approaches to design and governance at the local scale than perhaps anywhere else in the world.

More than a collection of Mayburys, America’s small communities today take on diverse forms: some swallowed up as suburban villages buried in the sprawl of large urban regions, and some yet legacy farming and manufacturing towns rusting away in Trump Country. The most dynamic small places are those that are growing: some, like Minot, North Dakota, the fortunate beneficiaries of proximity to natural resources, and others, like Greenville, South Carolina, emerging economies that are poised to break into the big time.

Whether 1,000 or 50,000 residents, small cities and towns remain the picture of what America represents to much of the world. More than the Empire State Building or the US Capitol, America remains broadly represented through the idyllic pictures of sunswept summer evenings in our best small communities. Shocking compared to the placelessness of many suburbs, the classic American Elm Street is one of the most beloved representations of community the world over: tall street trees, vernacular houses, front porches and lemonade stands; kids playing catch, riding bikes in the street, neighbors in rocking chairs talking to each other, enjoying the fruits of their labors whilst breathing in the warm summer air.

The urbanism – or lack thereof – that creates this is a priceless body of accrued policy knowledge we shouldn’t be quick to disown. More than scenes of Paris or London, Main Street USA percolates into the hopes and aspirations of developing nations the world over. And despite cynicism about ourselves from Washington, the Rockwell small town scene isn’t entirely a myth: through years of traveling across America, there are a few things I’ve noticed as constants: the one that’s always struck me the most is the preponderance of basketball hoops in driveways.

Despite their numbers, small communities have suffered from a lack of attention from the national urban planning community. Perhaps because of this, small communities suffer from enormous structural challenges today without obvious solutions.

One of the biggest challenges small cities face is a lack of young talent. Shifting preferences have negatively impacted the prospects of many small communities. Coastal millennials, who the data suggest overwhelmingly treat jobs like commodities early in their careers, are especially turned off by small communities whose economies are often, by necessity, economic monocultures. It’s rare that a town of 10,000 or 20,000 residents can support more than one or two large companies, and, as a result, many young people rule them out and instead pin their hopes on the diverse job markets of large cities. As the Wall Street Journal reported just a few weeks ago, most top colleges are sending their students to only a small handful of large cities on the coasts. Out of over 5,300 colleges and universities nationwide, only 45 cities are among the top 10 graduate destinations for more than 10 colleges, and only ten cities draw from a collection of schools that could be considered truly national in scope. Even thriving mid-size midland cities like Indianapolis, Columbus, and Raleigh draw almost exclusively from within their own states. While millennials are increasingly looking to small towns as they mature, these places will only be able to grow as part of the global marketplace if they are able to attract residents from a broader catchment area.

The result is a self-perpetuating struggle. Small and with few top-caliper graduates, the economic prospects of small cities are often dependent on a single company that can draw from the town’s specialized knowledge pool. These towns’ civic fortunes are intrinsically linked to the ups and downs of particular industries, and all-too-often the end game isn’t pretty: depleted industries ultimately leading to decaying towns. The tribulations of Rust Belt communities now seeking to reinvent themselves have been well-published.

The answer to this challenge isn’t easy. Short of a borderless knowledge economy in which place no longer matters – a prospect that is truer today than it used to be but still a way off in its actual viability – small communities are destined to remain dependent on small collections of companies. The small communities that are the most successful today – at least those below 50,000 residents – are by and large those have latched onto one element of the most thriving modern industries – oil, shale, aerospace, and defense, many of which require geographic luck of the draw. Universities are generally a good bet. Places like Blacksburg, Virginia, for instance, are able to thrive on this backbone, which has in turn catalyzed a small research and tech economy in its periphery.

National trends have helped grow the pool of economic “hooks” to which towns can hitch their fortunes. The decentralization of the federal government is one: the NGA headquarters moving to St. Louis, for instance, is bringing with it 3,500 jobs, more than enough to power a smaller community for a while. Other shifts, like the increased production of domestic energy and policies that have incentivized the democratization of production and shipping back to inland locations adjacent to waterways also offer new opportunities. Small cities on the distant fringes of expanding regions are often the beneficiaries of expanding industries. In these areas, communities often scrape together whatever cash they can to will themselves through public investment to attract those specialized hubs. When it works, it’s well worth the gamble.

At the other end of the spectrum, some small communities do well by staying grounded, less lured by the shiny object and more focused on empowering their own entrepreneurs to strike big on the next great innovation from within. That, too, can bear success. After all, most job creation is home-grown, not attracted.

A lesser-publicized challenge of small towns is the intrinsic difficulty that comes with lower densities and lower average incomes, both of which reduce the income cities receive from taxes. Unable to charge higher taxes lest they lose residents even quicker, small communities on average spend less than half per capita on city services what large cities do. As a result, small communities are forced to spend less on public infrastructure maintenance than large cities, meaning they struggle to stay beautiful. This compounds their other challenges, as it increasingly hinders their ability to lure talent from afar, much less to pioneer innovative strategies in governance and management. Few are able to strategize unique approaches to core investments because few can afford the caliper of long-range masterplanning that big cities enjoy. Because of their size, small communities are also more exposed to the impacts of failures in these kinds of investments if they do pursue them. One unsuccessful large investment in a small community can ruin the fortunes of the city, whereas in a big city it would be a blip on the radar.

Responding to this challenge requires creative thinking in both design and policy. On the design side, cities can help improve their appeal to outside residents by prioritizing the investments most likely to attract them. When a large and necessary investment like a courthouse comes along, cities should use it to the maximum extent possible as a means of pumping up the serviceability of public amenities – for instance, hiring a nontraditional architect to garner it national attention or using it as a catalyst for retail activity along a main street. Visually, a compelling main street is more important than provisioning optional services that can be provided a la carte.

On the policy side, small communities that grow targeted density can quickly grow land tax revenues. Zoning is often all that’s necessary to achieve this, though many communities are pushing the boundaries of policy creativity to incentivize this even further. Few realize how much more development they could accommodate – and how much more catalytic that development could be – if only they planned smarter.

Today, technological innovation is creating another path to ease the pain from lower revenues. Seat Pleasant, Maryland is a 5,000-resident city with low average incomes which is working to make back the difference and compete better with large cities by handing over the keys to IBM to develop an integrated operations center for city services, letting computers optimize what would otherwise weigh down the timecards of civil servants deciding what most to prioritize. In Seat Pleasant, “smart” innovation is viewed as the key to the game: ultimately, they hope, they’ll be able to support large-catchment service operations within their small town. Subscriptions to communities who can themselves save money by buying services from Seat Pleasant may be a source of revenue to the city in the future.

Seat Pleasant’s creativity is among the most audacious of all small communities. Even in communities less willing to gamble, most must operate creatively under the circumstances. 85% have volunteer fire departments, for instance, a well-understood reality in small-town America that is often a surprise to residents of big cities. And increasingly, small communities are operating inter-dependently, sharing services with other small communities as a way to save resources.

This latter approach requires cities to think like a network of strategic real estate developers working collaboratively toward the creation of a strong regional value proposition, rather than as holistic services providers working exclusively for themselves. Much like smart developers working together to develop inter-dependent buildings around a successful park or square, even where small city operators work independently from one another they must operate cooperatively. Many large amenities – such as shopping centers and other community resources – require large population catchments to operate successfully. A community of 5,000 residents cannot support amenities that require 25,000 residents to be viable, but five communities of 5,000 residents might each be able to support one kind of amenity serving that larger population, so long as each community is strategic about which amenities it targets.

The same cooperative approach must be used for pooling and attracting talent to be competitive with larger cities. Few out-of-towners want to move to a community of 4,000 residents, but they well might move to a thriving corridor, like the emerging Austin-to-Dallas tech expanse, so long as its communities each have an authentic look and feel.

Thinking like a developer also means small cities must align their thinking about all departmental operations. City budgets to best when departmental actions are targeted around a common goal – budget-based or othwerwise – and, conversely, when big investments are empowered to support the mission of each individual city department, regardless of who’s implementing them. In Asheville, North Carolina’s recent Comprehensive Plan, for instance, strategies for urban growth were evaluated relative to the strategic outcomes for each of the city’s major department areas. Branded as a sort of “urban pro forma”, growth decisions were based not just on their quality of design, but how well they responded to strategic aims: increasing revenues, reducing public works costs, enhancing sustainability outcomes, protecting character, and enhancing job access, ultimately, they hope, leading the more frequent transit service as a draw for potential residents. The plan will be considered a success if in 20 years the budget is balanced, through whatever combination of increased revenues and lower departmental spending results from the growth plan.

Growing or not, the most important task for a small city is to never lose sight of its soul. By and large, small cities won’t win the day by mimicking the amenities of large cities, though they need the same love and attention. Across the board, the assets that small cities intrinsically offer – low cost of living, pleasant, friendly people and stress-free lifestyles – have appeal in their own right, and are something the big cities don’t offer and which can help offset the gap in resources. These, more than anything, are the tools for sustaining success. Given how many small cities there are, though, winning the competitive battle with their peers for new residents will require each to conjure smart, and sometimes audacious plays to get their name out. After all, that’s how small cities grow into large cities – and how America, the great city on a hill, once took root out of the wilderness.

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