A few years ago, I co-authored a post here that featured the small town in which I grew up in Pennsylvania. I tried not to be nostalgic, but the town did have many of the design features that help define sustainable, smart growth: a walkable street plan with short blocks and lots of alleyways, some moderate mix of uses and densities, easily accessed daily destinations like schools and libraries, parks and playgrounds, a grocery store and small restaurants, and a lot of greenery. All of these features could have been strengthened, but all in all, not a bad small town model.
A tale told too often
What I didn’t write about was local business disinvestment and downtown decline. I think it’s a cautionary tale, and unfortunately not a unique one across America.
For seventy years, my family ran a small business in the town just across the river, where most of the local commercial activities were located along the half mile-long Main Street. These included men’s and women’s clothing stores, shoe stores, jewelry stores, hardware stores, Woolworth’s and J.C. Penney’s department stores, optometrists, a movie theater, drug stores, and the like. Often, professional offices or apartments were located on the second or third floors. There were strip shopping centers a few miles away, but for the most part, the town thrived. Several things happened by the late-1960s that changed all that and quite deeply (and, as it turned out, fatally) challenged that model, spinning small downtowns everywhere into decline.
First, the interstate highway system was completed. No longer did people need to travel secondary roads that took them through commercial areas in small towns to get somewhere else, and the routes out to more “open” land were made quicker. So open land was where the newest thing landed like a space ship: the enclosed mall. Where better for shopping than air-conditioned, fully weather-protected spaces that pumped in canned music and canned fountains, where one could find national chain stores – and better yet, tons of free parking?
Second, local demographics and tastes or “lifestyles” changed. In many small towns there began an outflow of newly educated baby boomers looking for brighter lights and better jobs, leaving an aging population behind. At the same time, in the 1960s and ‘70s suburbia exploded, even in small towns. Why live in older housing stock with a neighbor just 30 or 40 feet away, when one could buy a nice, new house on a bigger new lot, in a bright new subdivision beyond the edge of town? And once living out there, wouldn’t it be easier just to drive out to the strip shopping center or the mall, rather than go into town and hassle with parking, in order to get to the drugstore or buy a new shirt?
Finally, local economies changed. Many small towns that had depended upon a local industry or natural resource as their biggest economic component and employer (think steel, coal, textiles or small manufacturing) saw the economies of such sectors shrink or the industry relocate elsewhere where labor or capital were cheaper. At the same time, big banks were swallowing small local ones, changing local financial relationships that had lasted fifty years or more.
(Of course, there’s also the drastic change in retailing that has occurred over the past ten years, as small independents fell by the wayside, and even the larger “brick and mortar” stores have felt increasingly pinched by the rapid rise of e-commerce.)
The legacy of disinvestment
The results of all these trends, taken together, included newly un- (or under-) employed workers, shrinking small town local economies, and struggling small businesses that had trouble obtaining operating loans and credit. Better to try to sell out if one could, or maybe just go out of business.
Sustainability as a strategy
Beyond the kinds planning, zoning, and economic development solutions noted above, there’s a set of new ideas out there which could make an important difference in certain communities that may already have a few key assets already on hand. This school of thought might eschew almost entirely the “traditional” economic development approach (which usually involves searching for “savior” industries and the holy grail of landing clean, new businesses).
Gar Alperovitz, Thad Williamson, and Steve Dubb discuss these alternatives in a recent article in the July 2012 edition of the on-line magazine, Solutions Journal.
In their view, just doing the same thing as the last time around leaves towns that have already experienced commercial and economic decline vulnerable to yet another wave of disinvestment when the newcomer manufacturers decide a few years later, based on the bottom line and the near total mobility of capital these days, to pull up their stakes and move where the grass is even greener – or at least cheaper—yet again.
Instead, these authors suggest it may be time to opt for a more sustainable approach to reinvestment and commercial renewal. They offer a variety of solutions, some of which apply to larger communities, cities and regions in distress. But one idea worthy of note here is that a community of any size could develop a “green community wealth building” approach (my emphasis). This strategy would look to create forms of business ownership anchored directly in the community itself.
This approach would use financial investments directly provided by local private institutions (for example, the so-called “eds” and “meds”—the hospitals and specialty clinics or colleges and universities in town or nearby, though this could also apply to key banks or a town’s largest businesses), as well as public entities, to foster locally created, green businesses with different forms of ownership and not the usual business objective. From non-profits and employee-owned firms, to public enterprises and neighborhood-owned businesses, such enterprises could produce goods and services in town, in sustainable ways. There may even be charitable foundations in the region or state willing to help jump-start such activities, with technical start-up assistance or investment.
Full Story: The fall - and rise - of small downtown America
Source: NRDC Switchboard, September 7, 2012