[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

One of the essential themes in my continuing study of and reflection upon the character and dilemmas of mid-sized cities is their “regional” character, and the temptation which exists for such cities to pretend that they–or to aspire to convince themselves and others that they are about to become–players in the global economy. I don’t mean to say that towns and cities which don’t make the list of “global cities” have been completely untouched by globalization; on the contrary, especially (but not solely) because of the internet, a dependence upon global supply chains and a cosmopolitan awareness of global economic, political, and humanitarian concerns has shaped the lives of people all across the country, no matter whether their lived environments are rural or urban. But it is, I think, undeniable that the capital and information flows which characterized our globalized environment have created real hierarchies among the metropolitan centers of the world, and the lure of that hierarchy is strong.

No one can pretend to be completely immune to that lure. At a recent commencement address at Ell-Saline High School in the tiny Kansas town of Brookville, Josh Svaty, a farmer and former state representative, made it the centerpiece of his comments. Success, he said, so often is equated with studying business or finance at a prestigious Ivy League university, and then getting corporate job in a major city: New York City, Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, or Kansas City. A city the size of Wichita “might do,” he added–but only maybe, one must assume. Real success, Svaty commented, is assumed to be found somewhere else, somewhere bigger and faster and richer, someplace that promises us that particular freedom which allows us “to get boxed into little groups that don’t really want to interact”–or aren’t even assumed to want to interact–with one another.

And why wouldn’t one assume that? Besides all the problems of perception and politics which small and mid-sized cities have to struggle with in our interconnected capitalist and cosmopolitan world, there is the fact that the possibilities of a more steady-state approach to urban life, one which attempts to articulate the means that cities that are not fully absorbed into either 1) the great metropolitan agglomerations of the world or 2) the supply chains with sustain them receive comparatively little attention. I recently read a little book that presented itself as an thorough exploration of “small cities”–Jon Norman’s Small Cities USA. It wasn’t a bad book, but aside from some of the admittedly interesting data is crunched about relative levels of socio-economic inequality and racial mixing in small and mid-sized cities (particularly those which lack a strong “creative” component–p. 90), it ultimately had no real argument to make about what is particular, in either a positive or negative sense, of the effort to strengthen and find value in regional communities of something other than a truly metropolitan scale. On the contrary, Norman repeatedly made use of exactly such a scale, measuring regional cities as successful or not primarily in terms of their “glocality”–that is, the degree to which “they look like global cities in terms of economic diversity and activities but operate on a much more local level, be it regional or national” (p. 9).

In other words, the same metrics of success which Svaty called out in his commencement address were left essentially unexamined by Norman: rather, he simply stipulates that successful cities are growing cities, growing cities are those which imitate that which characterizes or that which is provided by the global cities at the top of the urban hierarchy, so therefore a study of urban areas which is limited in size needs to center itself upon those cities which have been able to globalize themselves on a local level. Should we contemplate the possibility that the experiences of such regional urban communities might give us a different way of talking about localism and globalism? Nah. Let’s just look at everything Colorado Springs, CO, and Salem, OR have done right, and everything Wichita Falls, TX, and Duluth, MN, have done wrong.

This is no surprise to any of us who live in any of the latter category of cities, because it’s hard to go a month without hearing of some new city commission or local service organization which is sending a group of people to study how Salt Lake City, UT, or Ann Arbor, MI, have done so well. We are constantly already doing the kind of comparisons which Norman built his book around (which makes it odd that in the end he concludes that “it is likely better to spend energy on dealing with local issues than on attempts to make a small place into something similar to a larger place that is viewed as more successful”–p. 139; perhaps Norman’s next book could make that its thesis, because it certainly wasn’t the implied message of this book). It’s a consequence of living in a place larger than rural or micropolitan areas like Brookville, and reflects tendencies known to statisticians and social scientists the world over: once one enters into or achieves an environment which is suggestive of certain extensive possibilities, such possibilities become expected–and their absence becomes a source of embarrassment or derision. (“How can Wichita possibly be considered a serious city? We don’t even have a Spaghetti Factory.”) What I call mittelpolitan places are, as Norman corrected notes, not-insignificant population draws within their particular regions; the greater the mass of a place, the greater the likelihood it will become a regional subsidiary anchor for the service-oriented economy of the United States–education, banking, medical care, insurance, real estate, etc.–thus going through in miniature the same declines in manufacturing and relative increases in the “cosmopolitan” trappings of the global cities of the world (pp. 103, 112, 131). But such observations only entrench exactly the patterns of agglomeration which leave small and mid-sized cities ever more unable to compete, whether in terms economic development or retaining population: the kids who grow up in such places will only receive, again and again, the same implied message: the real action, the real opportunities, the real tests of success are to found in bigger places (and if they aren’t to be found there, they’ll be found in places bigger yet). No, if you’re open to the possibility that the towns and cities of America which obviously benefit from–as well as struggle with, as we all do–the consequences of globalization might nonetheless have something to contribute as themselves, and not as places which, because of the historical accident which placed them in Montana or Kansas or Arkansas or Maine, can only ever aspire to imitate the global cities of the world, you need to think in different terms.

James Fallows, one of country’s great (if not especially imaginative) journalists and essayists, sometimes seems to want to reach for such terms, but he can’t quite find them either, perhaps because the presumptions of bigness are just too deep in his work history and outlook. For the past three years Fallows and his wife Deborah have been flying across the United States, visiting cities, looking into the hundreds of different ways, in his view, “a process of revival and reinvention” in underway. What they’ve written about is often inspiring; their observations about regional concentrations of talent, blue-collar resistance, city libraries, racial and civic assimilation, local arts movements, and more all give hope to those wanting to extricate our thinking about city life away from the global bias. Yet Fallows can’t help (like David Brooks, with whom he shares more than a few similarities) but mourn hasn’t yet responded to the transformations of globalization in a holistic, top-down way; he wishes President Bush had used the terrorist attacks of 9/11 the way Eisenhower used the “ten-terrifying ‘Sputnik shock’ of the late 1950s” to give us a moral equivalent of war moment, and push for “real national improvement.” Fallows’s “Eleven Signs a City Will Succeed” are entertaining, worth pondering, and probably often correct, but the fact that “big plans” and “research universities” are part of his perspective just goes to show that he, too, assumes that the best regional cities are those which can right-size the bigness associated with success, rather, perhaps, than those which can rethink success entirely.

For Wendell Berry, thinking about locality must escape from bigness, from the lure of globalization, however much it may actually be that even the smallest towns and rural environments are themselves, on some level, globalized. The reason that such an escape is imperative is that thinking big cannot ever not be an exercise in abstract thinking–abstraction in the sense of “simplifications too extreme and oppressive to merit the name of thought.” As he put it years ago at greater length:

Global thinking can only be statistical. Its shallowness is exposed by the least intention to do something. Unless one is willing to be destructive on a very large scale, one cannot do something except locally, in a small place. Global thinking can only do to the globe what a space satellite does to it: reduce it, make a bauble of it. Look at one of those photographs of half the earth taken from outer space, and see if you recognize your neighborhood. If you want to see where you are, you will have to get out of your space vehicle, out of your car, off your horse, and walk over the ground….Abstraction is the enemy wherever it is found. The abstractions of sustainability can ruin the world just as surely as the abstractions of industrial economics. Local life may be as much endangered by “saving the planet” as by “conquering the world.” Such a project calls for abstract purposes and central powers that cannot know, and so will destroy, the integrity of local nature and local community.

A powerful sentiment–the sort of thing which led Alan Jacobs to observe that “the old slogan ‘Think globally, act locally’ gets it precisely backwards, I believe: it is only by thinking and acting locally that we can make the right kind of difference globally.” But what does that tell us about cities, practically speaking? In our globalized and outsourced economies, most urban areas been transformed by the outsourcing logic of late capitalism, making the service-based work available within them increasing abstract by definition (writing code for programmers to execute in factories elsewhere, designing ads to attract consumers to buy products manufactured elsewhere, etc.) and thus in term leading the cities themselves to think in terms of expanding and maximizing their inherent ability to generate spaces of anonymity and abstraction: to see themselves as places of privatization and cosmopolitan experimentation. There is a huge part of human culture which longs for that particular kind of freedom and opportunity, so perhaps cities that reach a middling size and tip the perceptional scale in the direction of agglomeration ought to simply throw in the towel, and rush after whatever “glocalism” they can find?

It is easy for people to treat agrarian thinkers like Berry as resolutely anti-urban–and that accusation is true, if one assumes that all urbanism must partake of globalism. But Berry has another vision of cities in mind, a more sustainable one: a “city in balance with its countryside: a city, that is, that would live off the net ecological income of its supporting region, paying as it goes all its ecological and human debts.” Such a city would have to have a robust local culture, one robust enough to generate sufficient local affection to support a movement away from globally mediated and thus abstracted sources of the requirements of life (food, most obviously, but also other essential resources), a move which could not be made without accepting genuine costs. For people who want to articulate an actual positive value for cities that are stuck between rural life and the global agglomerations of the world, though, those costs–which, of course, couldn’t ever emerge comprehensively, all at once, but might instead be embraced democratically, bit by bit–might be worth paying. At the very least, teaching ourselves to think about such costs and benefits–costs and benefits which are, I think, particularly well realized by trying to think about what the situation of mid-sized, regional, not-yet-entirely-globalized cities presents us with today–would spare us from mucking about in some ersatz “glocal” category…which, really, shouldn’t even be a word in the first place, should it?

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. Lots of good food for thought here.

    1. I had trouble parsing this sentence: “Yet Fallows can’t help (like David Brooks, with whom he shares more than a few similarities) but mourn hasn’t yet responded to the transformations of globalization in a holistic, top-down way….” Did something get left out?

    2. Do you or Wendell Berry have any examples of a city moving toward a balance with its countryside, even if only partly successful? If so, it would help us move away from yet another example of the abstract level thinking that you decry (rightly IMO, though I never thought about it that way until I read it here).

    3. I still wish we could sign up for mail notification of new posts, like we used to get.

  2. Here’s my question for any given city: How sustainable are you, in the financial sense? I.e., how much of your city budget is produced yourself, vs. how much comes from bigger entities, state or federal? This question is heavily influenced by the Strong Towns movement, which I think has much more to offer than Wendell Berry’s agrarian contrarianism, which I find difficult to respect given that he is a tobacco farmer and basically wants the federal government to massively subsidize his own way of life.

    I live in a tiny city, and it’s mind boggling how little financial control our local government has over its expenses. The overwhelming majority of the budget comes from the state. Now, some may argue that as the economic base of the city has evaporated over the past half-century, we have become wards of the state by necessity, but I rather think a strong case can be made that the causality runs the other way.

    If one were to go back 50-60 years, we were economically self-reliant, and then gradually, in the name of “fairness” and “progress” and other high-minded empty terms, none more horrific than “urban renewal”, have become completely dependent on outside interests. It will be a multi-generational struggle to try to get back to self-sufficiency, if indeed the road can be travelled both ways. One of the major problems, to return to my own little obsession, is that at the start of the decline, rural and small urban areas still held onto the bits of political power they had been granted by the founders of the country, but that’s now been entirely swept aside, not that there was ever a popular vote to do that.

  3. Jane,

    Thanks for asking! That line comes from “Out of Your Car, Off Your Horse: 27 Propositions on Sustainability,” which has been reprinted in a couple of different places. You can read a copy of one version of the essay here.

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