We all know that Albany is no New York City (thank goodness!). But neither is it Cobleskill (no offense to Cobleskill) or Malta. Small cities like Albany, Schenectady, and Troy often fail register in the larger conversation about urban revitalization, with large philanthropies and federal programs funneling a lot of their innovative work into the big cities, whether it's New York, Philly, or Cleveland.
As anyone who lives in one knows, however, small cities are different. Not entirely different, but different. We have buses, but no subways. We have culture, but not a lot of anonymity. The distance from the poorest neighborhoods to the wealthiest is smaller, physically and psychologically. Our civic capacity is thinner, but our ability to implement large scale change (given the right leadership) is greater.
The unique challenges and assets of Capital Region cities and dozens of other smaller (under 150,000 population) older Northeastern and Midwestern cities are explored in a new report put out by the national equitable development organization PolicyLink called To Be Strong Again, co-authored by PolicyLink Associate Director Radhika Fox and yours truly.
From the introduction:
Smaller industrial cities contain rich connections to our past, institutions and services that their regions rely upon in the present, and untapped human capital, neighborhoods, infrastructure, and natural assets that can be the foundation for a sustainable way of life in the twentyfirst century.
Past: Smaller industrial cities are the custodians of hundreds of historic landmarks, grand
cultural institutions, public buildings, parks, and historic neighborhoods. From Utica’s
stately train station to the quaint, narrow streets of row houses in Schenectady’s
Stockade district to the New Bedford Whaling Museum, these legacies represent links to
our history, pieces of our collective memory, and public resources that cannot be easily
replicated in newer communities.
Present: Smaller industrial cities are hubs of vital public and nonprofi t functions that
serve their regions. Many are state capitals, such as Albany, Hartford, Harrisburg, and
Trenton. County governments and courts, colleges and universities, clinics and hospitals,
cultural centers, social services, and affordable workforce housing for the broader region are concentrated in these cities.
Future: We live in a world where regions are the primary economic units, and where
workers and businesses are seeking vibrant urban centers with a high quality of life.
Smaller industrial cities have the amenities many Americans say they are searching
for—neighborhoods, waterfront locations, arts and cultural venues, and a greater sense of
community. Their diverse housing stock is well suited to mixed-income communities. Their
incredible waterfronts—from the dramatic Niagara Falls to the historic Ohio and Erie
Canals to the banks of the Susquehanna River (Harrisburg’s “front yard”)—can be key
elements to propel revitalization efforts. The challenge for smaller industrial cities is how to renew and capitalize on these assets to both attract newcomers and expand opportunities
for existing residents.
Economically, smaller industrial cities can fill a gap in the menu of location options for
businesses and households: opportunity-rich, dynamic cities, well-linked to the larger region, but offering the intimacy of a smaller scale. What this looks like will vary by city and be shaped by the broader region: some of these smaller cities are the hub of a stand-alone region, some are satellite cities, and some are positioned in larger “mega-regions” (such as the Boston to New York City corridor or the
Chicago to Pittsburgh corridor).
Smaller industrial cities have much to offer. But they need help overcoming economic isolation and physical decline to become vital centers of prosperity and opportunity.
The report goes on to tease out some quantitative and qualitative
differences between small and large cities, and detail a number of
promising, scale-appropriate development strategies, with case studies,
that can lead to equitable (i.e. including everyone, not just a small
slice of tech workers) renewal.
It is by no means a final word, but I (not surprisingly) think it's worth a read. I'd love to have the Capital Region join the conversation around it, here or over at PolicyLink's EquityBlog.