Our Towns by James and Deborah Fallows

Our Towns by James and Deborah Fallows

I was jealous as I read Our Towns by James and Deborah Fallows who spent several years flying around the U.S. in their small personal plane visiting towns making a comeback after the recession. As a planner traveling to learn from other communities is an ingrained part of my personality. I love visiting other cities, states, and especially countries to see how their communities are laid out and what new techniques they are employing to create more livable cities. Someday when I'm retired I will spend my days driving across the country in an RV, with intermittent trips around the world. But until that day, I will be content with one trip a year and reading about other great adventures from authors like the Fallows.

After several chapters it was easy to find the theme in each of the cities which included an emphasis on the downtown’s, schools, the airports where they landed, and technology’s impact. I was fascinated by the special schools they visited, never having realized such institutions existed. One placed a focus on music and performance while others were tech heavy. In each, students worked many more hours than in a traditional school environment and gained added skills they otherwise would not have had. Another school focused on health care and medical technology, logistics and transportation, and manufacturing giving students a normal education while equipping them with technical skills the job market now demands. My schooling focused on memorizing facts and equations with some extra curricular options, but I cannot say I graduated high school prepared to work in any field. I needed more schooling, something not everyone has the opportunity or desire to do. Programs like these can serve an important role in preparing students better for life after high school.

“We’re nothing but optimistic about this place,” one of the young entrepreneurs said. “It’s such a large canvas to paint on.” And of their downcast parents’ generation: “It’s time to move on.”

Some of the communities were lucky to have residents that moved back after gaining experience, bringing their successful businesses with to boost the local economy. ESRI is one example of a major company that you would think is located in a booming tech city like San Francisco, but is actually in Redlands, CA. Duluth, Minnesota had a similar story with Cirrus Aircraft headquartering their major plane manufacturing plant there. No doubt these these communities have an advantage with residents returning home and bringing employment opportunities, but as the authors showed, that is not all that makes a community revitalize. It also requires good leadership.

In each town the authors asked the question who made the city run? Often the answer came quick and it was not always a political leader like the mayor, but a resident with a deep running passion for seeing their town survive. If the answer was slow to come or resulted in naming a position instead of a person the town was more likely to be struggling. In San Bernardino their local champion said "I was pissed off...By the time I was old enough to vote, everything was in such terrible shape in San Bernardino." This gave him the fuel to drive investment and action to put the city back in motion.

Old ways of life and sources of income vanish practically overnight. New fortunes arise from enterprises and inventions barely imagined a generation before, and law and custom lag for years or decades in understanding how to blunt their unexpected bad effects.

A main focus of these community champions is often downtown. In Holland, Michigan for example, a private executive took a risk and guaranteed funding if the proposed system to heat the sidewalks went over budget, showing how the public and private sectors can work together to bring a project to life. The new system which used hot water from the cooling system of the downtown coal-powered electric plant run in pipes under the streets and sidewalks to keep them snow free, did not go over budget and was a huge success. The snow free sidewalks and streets created a better environment in the winter, boosting shopping and dining in the downtown. The authors called out downtown’s as one of the ten and a half characteristics of a town coming back, something I have seen in communities across the U.S. as well. The more activity beyond just the 9-5 workday the better the city is doing. Some residents however are quick to jump to calling it a failure if the results are not seen in 2-3 years. As several community leaders commented to the authors though, bringing a city back to life takes time, 20-30 years in most cases.

If you are wondering what the half characteristic was that brings a town back from decline, its breweries. In all the small towns I have been visiting, breweries are in fact one of the staples. The authors found that often they were on the fringes in bad parts of towns due to industrial regulations, but I feel that more recent regulations have been developed to keep them in downtown and near commercial centers since their impacts have been understood to be economic drivers rather than industrial nuisances. They're people magnets that create "little pockets of prosperity in cities that can (and often do) radiate out into the neighborhood." They often attract more business to locate near them to take advantage of the traffic generated by them.

When you don’t have a shared vision, you end up confusing activity with accomplishment. Because you haven’t defined or, worse, prioritized your interest and investments, years later you end up just waking up tired, without any accomplishments.
— Mike Gallo

More could be said about Our Towns, but I would recommend it as a good read to understand how our towns, whether they lean left or right, are taking it upon themselves to develop plans and create partnerships with the private sector to pull themselves back out of a downward spiral. They are ignoring the national commentary saying that they are helpless, giving them labels like Dreary Erie, and instead working with their own talents and resources to bring people and companies back. They recognize that the companies they had will likely not return and instead turn their attention to new technology and ideas to contribute to their economies. They do not live in the past, lamenting the good old days. They are marching forward one year at a time.

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