Why Towns Matter

Submitted by Mallory B.E. Baches for The Civic Hub

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Across the country and throughout the media, we’re hearing about the resurgence of cities.  “Our cities are back!  Urbanism is making a return!  Density is desirable!”  Or so the conversation seems to be going.  And that’s just great, as far as I’m concerned.

I’m a long-standing lover of cities, borne primarily out of my childhood spent living about fifty miles outside of one of the greatest cities in the world, Chicago.  I had the good fortune of benefitting from all that city has to offer: I witnessed my father commute by rail to work every day, I saw theater productions at the Auditorium and Chicago Theaters, I did my holiday shopped along State Street and Michigan Avenue, I swam at North Avenue and Oak Street Beaches, I visited the work of the Impressionists at the Art Institute, and I visited my father’s office high up in the Sears Willis Tower where I could take in the commanding view of the people and places and network of streets reaching outward in every direction.

At the same time, I happened to be lucky enough to actually live across the road from farm fields, a five minute drive into the downtown of St. Charles IL, which sits along the Fox River Valley, an area home to about a million people spread among a couple dozen historic small towns much like my own.

Downtown St Charles, IL

credit: cbishop66 via Flickr

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Ours was typical of any older and wiser and more well-built place from the past.  It had a main street called Main Street.  Along it was a (locally owned) department store where my mother would drag me whenever I needed a new dress, a (locally owned) drugstore where I remember wandering aisles of strange products and contraptions while my mother filled prescriptions, a (locally owned) sporting goods store that was the only place you could buy your completely unflattering public school gym uniforms, a (locally owned) single screen theater with dollar movies that were perfect for teenage tastes and budget constraints, a (locally owned) diner where my high school sweetheart and I fell in love over bottomless cups of coffee, and of course, a (locally owned) corner store that sold every type of soda pop and novelty candy under the sun, and so naturally it holds some of my fondest memories of childhood.

A model young person, I was nonetheless quite anxious to *leave* my small town as soon as I could, and I did so with gusto.  I struck out with a collegiate year abroad in Rome, a summer internship in San Francisco, and after much debate I eventually chose Washington D.C. over New York City as my first post-collegiate home, though the final decision could have gone either way.  Then it was on to Miami, for a job that flew me to Mexico City and Hong Kong and Paris and Sydney and Kuala Lumpur.  When I wasn’t working in a city, I was vacationing in a city, Tokyo and Los Angeles and London and Athens and Singapore.

I’ve earned my city clearance credentials, is what I’m saying.  You name it and I’ve been there or have plans to go, and I would love to talk to you about it either way.

All that said, as an urban designer I feel a fair level of confidence in reporting that for the most part, the cities: they’re alright.  Yes, we could be doing much better at reducing gentrification as a displacement factor and demographic segregator.  Yes, we should have greener solutions for all of our physical investment, from building materials to transportation systems to commercial provisions to public engagement.  Yes, I’ve made it my personal past time to help make our public education system better, and the statistics show that nowhere is that more pressing a need than throughout our inner cities.

The list of ways that we can and should be working on improving our cities is long.

But here’s the thing: we’re on it.

The young folks, in particular, are all over this one.  Plenty grew up in places where there was no there there, homes in subdivisions named for the types of trees that were torn down in order to build the houses and pave the streets, schools that were completely mistakable for the local pillow factory or the county waste management offices, a town square that was more likely spelled “Olde Towne Square” and was actually a mall with a food court and a cheap carousel.  You can’t blame the kids for fleeing to the cities to remake them in a better image, given the deserts of sub-urbanity that they grew up surrounded by.

We aren’t done fixing cities, but we’re talking about it and we’re writing about it and we’re basing entire conferences and think-tanks on it, and we’re arguing about it plenty in the planning world.  It is hard to decipher whether it is the creative class that is going to save cities, or whether it is green infrastructure, or maybe form based codes will do the trick.  I would venture to say that *all* of them are going to contribute, plus a couple dozen more trends and initiatives and avenues of change.

But what of our towns?

While specific numbers depend on what your personal definition of “city” is, about 3/4 of Americans live in or around a major urban area.

The federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) defines 388 Metropolitan Statistical Areas (urban areas based around a cluster with populations over 50,000) and 541 Micropolitan Statistical Areas (urban areas based around a cluster with populations of 10,000-49,999) spread across the United States.  Yet only a couple hundred Statistical Areas are places that most people would describe as a “city,” complete with the tall buildings and sizable economies and population densities that necessarily come with the moniker.

New York?  Of course.

Manhattan amk

credit: AngMoKio via Wikimedia Commons

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Walla Walla?  Probably not.

Walla Walla, Washington Main Street Clock on Snowy Night

credit: jfranklinwillis via Flickr

(If you have a street clock along your main street, you probably aren’t a city…)

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Portland?  Sure.

Portland Oregon

credit: Jamidwyer via Wikimedia Commons

Athens?  No offense, University of Georgia fans, but not really.

Beautiful Downtown Athens, Georgia

credit: J. Stephen Conn via Flickr

If this (gorgeous!) drawing can function as your “city guide,” you probably aren’t a city.

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Toledo?  Yes.

Toledo Ohio skyline at night

credit: NorthernMagnolia via Wikimedia Commons

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Beaufort?  Not a chance.

credit: Main Street Beaufort, USA

When you are named Coastal Living Magazine’s “Happiest Seaside Town,” you probably aren’t a city.

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America has some of the greatest cities there are, and even 9 of the 66 so-called Global Cities of the world.  But we also have a far larger number of great towns, and Beaufort SC, where I have called home for nearly a decade, is unmistakably one.

When I walk down Bay Street in Beaufort, I know the owner of every shop because they are right there personally selling their wares, and when I need a new dress or a watch battery or a book for this month’s book club selection, I purchase it straight from them.  When I meet someone from Beaufort that I haven’t met before, it is guaranteed that we will know at least a dozen people in common, and before long we are fast old friends who suddenly find ourselves bumping into each other all the time.  Beaufort doesn’t have more than about a dozen “hipsters” and those seem a bit surprised to be here, as if they were maybe washed in on a particularly high tide, although the rest of Beaufort welcomes their arrival (and their remaining) as a sign that we haven’t lost “it” just quite yet.

Our tallest building is 4 stories, and it isn’t even in our historic downtown.  Our widest street is the four-lane state highway running into town, but it respectfully reduces down to two lanes once you actually get into Beaufort proper.  Our biggest employer is the county government, and our largest tax draw comes from the Golden Corral even though they give away free meals once a week to honor our town’s large population of military personnel.

And all of that may sound rather sad and small to ardent city lovers, but you should know something else about our town: we’ve been here for more than 300 years, and we aren’t about to go anywhere any time soon, either.

Small towns are often forgotten, in a world where size matters.  In fact it is a critical detail in the American narrative, that anyone growing up in a small town can (and as the narrative goes, should) eventually move to the city to make something of themselves, reinforcing the notion that small towns are supposed to be left behind.  Think: Jay Gatsby, Howard Roark, Abraham Lincoln, and Mr. Smith.

Still, we shouldn’t forget that without all of those great small towns quietly raising fresh new talent for it to then up and leave to the opportunities of the big city, there wouldn’t be the narrative to begin with.  Towns may seem small and un-noteworthy from the skyscraper view of the city, but they are an unsung breeding ground that serves to first support and later cheer the successes of great people, great ideas, and great changes.

Towns have smaller populations and simpler demographics than their larger urban counterparts, and while that sometimes feels stifling and uninspiring, it also means that towns are well-suited to serve as support systems for larger networks and larger communities and larger regions.  Towns provide the essential building blocks to larger metropolitan areas while remaining responsive and responsible within their own cohort.  Groups of townspeople are scaled such that accountability need be no more than a feeling of personal responsibility to friends and neighbors.

Townfolk thrive from a sense of loyalty to each other, and while that sometimes means that your neighbors know more of your business than you prefer, it also means that your neighbors faithfully support your actual business (and you theirs).  Towns serve as excellent incubators for thoughtful family enterprises like Viking Range in Greenwood MS, Interface (makers of FLOR tiles) in LaGrange GA, L.L. Bean in Freeport ME, and even Walmart in Bentonville AR. Both the failures and the successes that happen in towns are shared amongst the townspeople through a collective sense of ownership and pride of community.

Towns are relatively closed-loop systems, and while that sometimes means that you are forever bumping into the couple of people that you would certainly prefer not to, it also means that towns are excellent legitimizers for beta testing.  Towns are populated with real people interacting through real systems that produce real outcomes, without having to control for economies of scale.  Anyone can quite literally take an idea or project or initiative to a small town, launch it, and immediately receive direct feedback that can in turn be incorporated back into the idea or project or initiative, again and again and again without pressure to expand or institutionalize or keep up with outside forces.

Towns are workshops for proving concept.

Towns matter, because they are the microcosm of all of the characters and components and criteria that we work so hard to quantify and organize, as we seek to enact change in our cities.  There are hundreds upon hundreds of towns across America, ripe for influence and full of opportunity, if we are able to expand our collective definition of urbanism toward a more manageable scale and an equally worthy subject of attention.

Towns matter, because they can provide healthy and helpful testing ground for the next big thing(s) in urban design, just as they did for the big thing(s) that came before.  Our nation is dotted with endearing towns that have endured decades and even centuries in modest statement to the power of consistency and character and community, and they are waiting with example upon example of what to do wrong and what to do right.  Our role as urbanists is simply not to fail to look.

And towns matter, because they also stand the most to lose, the most talent and the most  treasure and the most time, as we grow ever more urban-loving as a nation.  They operate on much-reduced margins of capital, physical and fiscal and human and social, and yet they also have lost the most from our economic busts while often gaining the least from our economic booms.  What they lack in quantitative resources they often more than make up for in ample desire and sheer willpower to survive, but they need the help of those who have something to give to their futures.

We shouldn’t fail to remember, our cities once started as towns.  In fact, our greatest cities started as many towns, and it was only with time and growth that those towns have slowly seamed together into an endless web of metropolitan neighborhoods.  And especially in the most thriving of those, we still see the same characteristics of friendliness and shared ownership and community pride that make towns so special, and we have the same opportunities for streamlined and simplified concept-proving.

So yes, let’s continue our good work on expanding alternative transportation options, promoting open-data resources for civic involvement, and establishing crowd-funding platforms that open new opportunities in improving our cities.  And while we’re at it, how about we give these same issues more than just a passing glance in our nation’s towns, too?  The ones that many of us came from, and the ones that some of us still choose to live in today.

Perhaps the solutions that will save our cities might be found in saving our towns first.