Looking for the Future of Small Cities

3318954547_4a40ac16bd.jpgThere’s more to Cleveland than you might think. (Photo: BIG Slow via Flickr)

One of our favorite blogs in the Streetsblog Network is Rustwire.com, a great source of news and opinion from the Rust Belt of the Midwest. Today they’re featuring a guest editorial that asks some tough questions about smaller cities in the region that are struggling to retain young, ambitious citizens. Often, those youthful strivers want to go to where the perceived regional action is — Chicago. Is this an inevitable shift? What do smaller cities have to offer? Can they or should they try harder to retain young professionals?

The Rustwire piece examines our misperceptions about places where we don’t live, and wonders if we’re writing off places that might be more viable than we realize:

I have recently returned to Cleveland after several years in the “Capitol of the Midwest,” Chicago. Chicago is filled with Midwesterners from all corners, and those who have committed to living there have a mixture of disdain, pity, and guilty longing for the places they left behind. The opinion they expressed was that leaving Chicago for a smaller Midwestern city would stifle career ambitions and deprive one of big city amenities. All they saw outside Chicagoland was corn fields and closed factories. In a discussion of urban development, one economist (originally from upstate NY) asserted, “Detroit and Cleveland no longer have an economic reason for being.” When I told people in Chicago that I planned to return to Cleveland, most looked dejected and some said, “I’m sorry.”

Having spent a year now in Cleveland, I realize that it is not a small city with nothing going on. It is truly a major city with sufficient scale for most things you find in major cities. We have finance and legal industries. We have designers and publishers. We have bicycle messengers. We have at least a half dozen companies that do nothing but walk dogs for busy professionals. We have a sand volleyball league, a dozen ski clubs, and thirty-some yoga studios. We have immigrants from all over the world in our universities and running ethnic groceries. We have commuter trains, valets, and loft condos with concierges. Life in Cleveland is much more like life in Chicago than people there, here, or elsewhere recognize. Is our perception about smaller cities also wrong?

Just as Chicago collects people from Detroit, Minneapolis, and Columbus, I have found that Cleveland has no small number of people who grew up in Youngstown, Lima, and Wooster. From time to time, I find myself in smaller cities or reading blogs about them — Erie, Jamestown, Flint, etc. I start to wonder about these places as the people in Chicago wonder about Cleveland. How can they have an economic future? Who would move there? If I were a young, educated person, how could I justify staying there? Would I have returned to Flint if that’s where I grew up? If so, who would I work for? Who would my spouse work for? What if I had to change jobs mid-career but there’s only one local employer in my field?

These are vital questions for anyone who wants to see revitalization of the urban landscape in this country — not just in the obvious big cities on the coasts, not just in regional capitals like Chicago. We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

More from around the network: Imagine No Cars comes to the end of a year-long car-free experiment in Missoula, Montana. Biking in Chattanooga struggles to find a good biking route. And Dottie at Let’s Go Ride a Bike shows us in some beautiful pictures why she never gets tired of riding.