Small, Gritty, and Green

My recent book, which still “has legs”:
MIT Press | Hardcover | $24.95 Trade | £17.95 | ISBN: 9780262016698 | 192 pp. | 6 x 9 in | November 2011


America’s once-vibrant small-to-midsize cities–Syracuse, Worcester, Akron, Flint, Rockford, and others–increasingly resemble urban wastelands. Gutted by deindustrialization, outsourcing, and middle-class flight, disproportionately devastated by metro freeway systems that laid waste to the urban fabric and displaced the working poor, and struggling with pockets of poverty reminiscent of postcolonial squalor, small industrial cities–as a class–have become invisible to a public distracted by the Wall Street (big city) versus Main Street (small town) matchup. These cities would seem to be part of America’s past, not its future. And yet, journalist and historian Catherine Tumber argues in this provocative book, America’s gritty Rust Belt cities could play a central role in a greener, low-carbon, relocalized future.

As we wean ourselves from fossil fuels and realize the environmental costs of suburban sprawl, we will see that small cities offer many assets for sustainable living not shared by their big city or small town counterparts: population density (and the capacity for more); fertile, nearby farmland available for local agriculture, windmills, and solar farms; and manufacturing infrastructure and workforce skill that can be repurposed for the production of renewable-energy technology.

Tumber, who has spent much of her life in Rust Belt cities, traveled to twenty-five cities in the Northeast and Midwest–from Buffalo to Peoria to Detroit to Rochester–interviewing planners, city officials, and activists, and weaving their stories into this exploration of small-scale urbanism. Smaller cities can be a critical part of a sustainable future and a productive green economy. Small, Gritty, and Green will help us develop the moral and political imagination we need to realize this.


“As the former mayor of a mid-sized, declining Northeastern city, I have long argued that the only attention which comes our way is when something negative happens: a major employer leaving town, a failed economic development venture, or a significant outbreak of violent crime. We were rarely seen as centers of innovation and ingenuity, or as having the assets to revitalize ourselves. Now Catherine Tumber has laid out a coherent path for recovery and revitalization of these small-to-medium-sized industrial cities. Hers is based not on academic theory but on observation of what is in place and what possibilities actually exist. Her prescriptions do not rely on pity but on how to play a winning hand.”
William A. Johnson, Jr., Distinguished Professor of Public Policy and Urban Studies, Rochester Institute of Technology, Mayor of Rochester, 1994-2005

“This is a clear and intelligent call for Americans to find the great value waiting in the many small cities across this land. At a time in history when everything has to get smaller, finer, and more local, these places occupy increasingly important geographic sites and need to be brought back to life. Catherine Tumber understands the dynamic completely and lays it out eloquently.”
James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency and the World Made by Hand novels

Small, Gritty, and Green shows how small and mid-sized rust-belt cities can serve as models for sustainable urban living. Tumber’s thesis is presented in a fast-moving mix of history, original interviews, and assessment of received urban planning wisdom. Her compelling argument is that planners, politicians, and the general populace would be wise to try something completely different and that these cities, though largely invisible in past scholarship, represent an important pathway to the future.”
Peggy F. Barlett, Goodrich C. White Professor of Anthropology, Emory University, editor of Urban Place: Reconnecting with the Natural World


Small, Gritty, and Green is indeed an eye-opener, and it’s exciting, after reading so many recent books about the virtues of great cities, to learn about the creative, environmentally sustainable development projects happening in less celebrated towns…[H]er argument is provocative and serious, and everyone searching for a more sustainable urban future should consider it.” Eric Klinenberg, Bookforum

Small, Gritty, and Green offers inspiration and hope for older manufacturing cities that have been written off by the rest of the country as casualties of globalization…[T]heir best years may be yet to come.” Patrick Piuma, Wilson Quarterly

“Catherine Tumber’s hopeful new book, Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World, should be required reading for every community conversation about the future of Rust Belt cities.” Bruce Fisher, Artvoice

“Tumber sends the message to local officials and activists that these small cities still possess the resources and talent, as well as certain advantages, necessary to carve out a future in a viciously competitive global economy.” Journal of the American Planning Association

“[Tumber’s] excellent new book finds potential in many busted and booming-again cities.” Scott Carlson, Urbanite and Grist

“Recommended for anyone interested in city planning or studying the socioeconomic challenges of the Midwest and Northeast regions.” Library Journal

“Plucking ideas from 25 small cities in the US Rust Belt, Tumber outlines a plausible route to a ‘repurposed’ future.” Nature

“[Tumber’s] distaste for municipal defeatism and community apathy in these cities spurs a short, energetic text which argues for their role as critical to the future economic success of the US, particularly in relation to the emerging green economy.” New Start magazine, Tom Stannard



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