Reviewed by Rupert Cutler
RUPERT CUTLER is a member of the Roanoke Valley Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and lives in downtown Roanoke.
First, there was Ed Walker’s CityWorks (X)po in Roanoke’s renovated Market Building last October. Promoted as a festival conference celebrating big ideas for small cities, it was a rousing success. Some 500 fans of the burgeoning small cities movement packed Charter Hall to learn how people in small cities are effecting big changes for the greater good.
Now we have Catherine Tumber of Boston, journalist and historian in MIT’s department of urban studies, to flesh out some of the ideas that surfaced in Walker’s expo in her book, “Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World.”
It’s an inspiring read for those looking for ideas to enhance the economic future of Roanoke and its neighboring jurisdictions.
Tumber grew up in America’s Rust Belt and did her field work in smaller industrial cities in the Northeast and the Midwest, but she gives Joe Schilling of Virginia Tech’s Metropolitan Institute effusive thanks for help with the book and cites North Carolina’s Raleigh/Wake County integrated school district as one of the best in the country.
Roanoke fits into the class of city analyzed under Tumber’s microscope. Remember, The Roanoke Times described Roanoke as the “Rust Bowl of the South” in its “Peril and Promise” series of articles in 1993 and 1994. “Rust Bowl of the South” may have been Roanoke then, when practically no one lived downtown. Now, thousands live in downtown Roanoke, and the joint is jumping. How do we keep that momentum building?
Tumber’s thesis is that smaller industrial cities could have a bright future if they prepare now for a low-carbon world in which they could play a central role.
Small-scale urbanism, she says, could be a virtue and a strength, because small cities (1) have population density and the capacity for more; (2) have land assets (in our case, Roanoke’s neighboring jurisdictions) needed for re-localizing agriculture; siting windmills, solar farms, anaerobic digesters and other low-carbon energy harvesters; and growing raw vegetable material for biomass production, and (3) have manufacturing infrastructure and workforce skills that can be retooled for the production of renewable technologies such as clean-fuel automotives, trains, and windmill, solar and hydropower components.
She advocates greening the metropolis with community gardens, farmers markets, green roofs and ecologically balanced waste management, weatherizing current structures, and erecting new, energy self-sufficient green buildings.
Does the following observation of hers resonate with you? “I know the joy of getting out into the countryside just fifteen or so miles from the city center, past the big-box stores, and encountering an older, if more conservative, agrarian culture grounded in its own sense of rural beauty and pride in work — one that resents the city but, here and there, longs to be better integrated with it.”
That’s the urban-rural interface where the Western Virginia and New River land trusts, the Catawba Sustainability Center, the Roanoke Community Garden Association, the Extension Service, and the Soil and Water Conservation Districts labor to see that fresh local produce continues to be available to Roanoke City Market and other farmers markets in our urban neighborhoods — part of what makes our downtowns so attractive.
Tumber would have us dig out the plans for Roanoke prepared by landscape architect John Nolen in 1907 and 1928 and check to be sure we’ve finally implemented his recommendations: Save our beautiful river and stream banks, create parks and parkways, provide for excellent schools, adapt our historic buildings for re-use, provide for compact, walkable streetscapes and convenient public transit, allow for mixed-use buildings.
Local elected officials are given a strong message: “U.S. mayors and city council members have a policy tool chest that enables them to invest, contract, zone, tax, lobby, and police. They have the ability to spend public funds on almost anything. While these powers are not unlimited, it’s fair to say that the problem facing U.S. local governments is not the absence of powers, but the absence of political will to exercise them.”
Summarizing pages of prose, Tumber concludes: “Today’s localists call for new rules that even the playing field and make it possible for small, independent businesses to function again in communities beloved by their citizens, for whom stewardship of place is a moral obligation of the first order.
“By developing both knowledge- and manufacturing-based low-carbon industries, re-localizing agriculture and food systems, developing appropriate transportation systems, reviving local retail and curbing sprawl, and putting their smaller scale to advantage in creating truly great public schools, small cities could thrive economically, with productive work that people of all classes can do with integrity. In the process, they could also thrive culturally, as places that testify to the idea that a sustainable economic culture allows us to flourish as a people, in all our manifold ways.”
Small cities, says Tumber, should not aspire to perfection or the simple “good fellowship” of small towns, but must be populous enough to facilitate economic creativity, class diversity and the “drama” of the chance encounter. Sounds like Roanoke to me.
Let’s make the most of our good fortune.