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How can Mid-sized Cities be Sustainable?

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Wichita, KS, is a large city, a regional center for manufacturing, medicine, finance, and the arts. It's also a politically conservative place, which means that you don't hear a lot of talk about environmentally sustainability coming from our elected leaders, and even less action. Still, there are numerous organizations out there, doing what they can at the margins of our local political culture. For all their worthy efforts, though, they can't avoid struggling with one basic conceptual dilemma, a problem which is tied up in Wichita's own largeness and situatedness.

Specifically, Wichita's size, its reality as a significant regional city upon which the surrounding farmland and farming communities depend, means that it can't--despite the wishes of some--imagine itself as revolving around local, agrarian, and independently sustainable practices. But as a city removed from the large urban megapolises, the global cities, the huge conurbations wherein the real nodes of international systems of finance, information, and energy use are located, it is also removed from the huge flows of people and productivity which shape the big global debates over climate change and other environmental issues. It's not Paris, in other words, nor is it a dedicated small town like Greensburg or rural collective like Dancing Rabbit. As is so often the case, when it comes to sustainability Wichita, like so many other mid-sized cities spread around the country and the globe--cities whose population totals in the billions overall, but who in each of their particulars hang around in the low-growth hundreds of thousands--finds itself wondering where it stands.

Last October, at a Front Porch Republic conference in Geneseo, NY, I met someone who had a possible answer. Catherine Tumber, the author of the wonderful Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America's Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World, spoke at length about the possibilities for local sustainability in places where, on the one hand, the local city leadership, much less the organized citizenry, has no voice at all likely to be heard on a national or global scale, but also where, on the other hand, there is far too much traditional economic development and far too much infrastructure-dependency to simply go green in some radical, self-sufficient way. As she spoke, and as I read her book, lights came on in my head. And when, about two months later, I had the opportunity to speak about sustainability at the Peace and Social Justice Center here in Wichita (presentation here, video here), I turned those lights back on our city, and every other city of similar size and situation that may be wondering what, if anything, they can do collectively on behalf of this particular common good.

My presentation linked questions about sustainability into broad concerns about Wichita's often fearful political culture, its slow-growth economic forecast, its resistant demographics, and its overall self-understanding--but the real focus of Tumber's argument, at least I see it applying to urban communities of this size, is the relationship between nature, food, and land which their physical and topographic context provide. In summary, her argument is that America's inevitable a low-carbon future (whether as a result of the hard and costly realities of peak oil and climate change, or because of a general cultural shift in the direction of greater environmental consciousness, or both) is simply not going to be best managed by the expensive technological innovations that large and wealthy cities are most likely to attract, thanks to their money and likely political receptivity. Instead, the biggest and most consequential alterations in our environmental habits are going to have to be those which involve how we feed ourselves.

Food, obviously, much be grown, harvested, raised, slaughtered, and prepared--and then (and this is crucial) shipped. For all the energy and enthusiasm which goes into local food production, and for all the possibilities of urban agriculture, the truth is that the great bulk of the human race is going to remain specialized urban-dwellers, not rural DIYers, and thus will depend upon others to supply their food for many years to come. And of course, this applies just as well to a great many that do live in rural environments, as they are often prevented from feeding themselves by the monopolistic economic structures of industrial agriculture and the restrictive patterns of property ownership in consequently results in. So a genuine, environmentally sustainable model of food production is going to need urban spaces that provide broad opportunities for commerce and trade, but not spaces so large that the costs of shipping sufficient food in to the people who live there (thinking here of the gasoline, the roads, the exhaust, the waste, etc.) cannot fit into the new reality. Where could those models be found? Well, there's one right here is south-central Kansas, for instance. As Tumber put it:

[T]he sparsely developed, more proximate, and often highly fertile land surrounding smaller industrial cities could be preserved for a revival of market farming....Compared with both recreational farming and traditional commodity agriculture, small and adaptive farms have the best chance of surviving in metro areas. They are better able to accommodate the haphazard, unplanned popcorn development of a city’s outskirts, and their presence helps control it. (pp. 52-53)

In other words, mid-sized cities potentially provide a practical response to those scolds who condemn agrarian thinking with the claimed truism that "sustainable agriculture can't feed the world." Granted that such critics are correct that "recreational," boutique farms, as valuable as they are to your local farmers market, can't produce enough food to keep the population alive--but traditional commodity agriculture is helping to kill off the planet's resources just as well. As many have argued over the past decade or more, it is the "agriculture of the middle" that is in desperate need of a route towards economically feasibility. Figuring out ways for slow-growth regional cities to orient their local food markets around the immediately available agricultural possibilities right there on the outskirts of their suburban and exurban developments, and replicating such methods across the country and around the world, is the sort of perspective which could flip the equation: rather than mostly distant, mostly progressive, mostly thoroughly urbanized elites talking about how places like Wichita need to embrace sustainability, it is just as possible that the whole sustainability project needs places like Wichita, because it is mid-sized, land-locked, regional cities like them which can productively "ruralize the countryside," as Tumber puts it (p. 42), in a way that massive global cities and extended urban agglomerations, however commanding a position they may hold over global finance, cannot.

What stands in the way of mid-sized, mostly steady-state cities embracing this approach and perspective? Lots of regulations, habits, political preferences, and questions of funding and economic transition, most obviously--but Tumber, in particular, points out two. The first is the fact that so many Americans are still captured by a certain kind of suburban dream. The dream she targets is a contemporary commercialized version of the environmentalist's idolization of "untrammeled wilderness," which results in developers selling the myth of pristine nature to their buyers. The suburban and exurban forms are, as Tumber very cleverly puts it, "greenly aestheticized" (p. 40): fountains and paths and nicely contained lawns and woods are built into these developments, using up space that could be used for small to mid-scale farming. So the people who want to pursue the manifest possibilities of more sustainable and localized food systems often find themselves confronting their supposed environmentalist allies, and having to make the case for an inhabited nature, for a truly rural economy, as opposed to pointless, prefabricated green spaces that may provide a home for some Canadian geese for suburbanites, but not cows or poultry or potatoes. Weaning people--and thus local political leaders and business investors--away from their (our!) low-density fixation, thus allowing for genuine mixing of not just urban forms but one's on the urban edge as well, is long-term goal here.

The second is working with government to get it to be responsive to this patchwork approach to sustainability, rather than falling back on the property-centric defaults that business interests prefer. As Tumber points out, developing food-based sustainability policies in slow-growth cities means dealing with "resistance from politicians and developers based on the long-established assumption that commercial sprawl is good for the bottom line" (p. 56). We see that here in the Wichita area quite clearly. The struggle to attract employers to the area results in some governing bodies making a fetish of "property rights" (as if the whole point of this particular struggle wasn't to create sustainable practices that are also economically sustainable and profitable to owners!), and looking suspiciously upon any local urban governmental practice that they think might "kill a development" of any sort, in any place.

The obvious fact that cities require tools that provide "a mechanism for informing neighbors about development projects and promot[ing] healthy communication among builders and residents" is ignored by these folks (embodied locally by the conservative-libertarian majority on our county commission); what they see in attempts to use zoning rules in a way to preserve a patchwork of spaces that could be turned to sustainability practices or at least ought to be protected from monopolistic building agendas are "city-centric" attitudes infringing upon the "personal property rights" which they see as foundation to our "constitutional republic." But struggles between county and city governments aren't anything new, and they won't go away anytime soon, since the agendas of those tasked with making productive use of the urban resources which power the economic and cultural lifeblood of a region, and those tasked with taking care of the interests of owners who want to flee the complications of city life while still making use of its off-shoots and resources, will almost always conflict. There is no easy way to avoid that conflict, and so our only option is to go through. That can be frustrating, especially when one is thinking in global and environmental terms; as one writer put it (unknowingly echoing Max Weber, I think) "the hard stuff of building nuanced and reciprocal relationships with people who can arbitrarily exert a lot of power" is never a pleasant task. But if we think that real, practical solutions to the looming low-carbon reality are going to spontaneously emerge from international agreements, as opposed to making real use of the landed resources right outside the windows of so many millions of people who live in small and mid-sized cities, then we are, I think, in denial.

A true local, mixed, food-oriented economy is one that would make use of--quoting Tumber here one last time--"the liberal populist-progressive tradition of decentralization, with its conservative instincts of independence, preservation, and fair play" (p. 140). It's a way of bringing up the need for local sustainability without driving people into a panic about government overreach and meddling outsiders. It's a way of thinking about the smaller, land-locked, agriculturally and naturally grounded urban environments so many of us live in as providing "strength in a truly democratic, environmentally sustainable national culture--not in competition with global cities, but with a fair claim to [their] respect" as well. Is that happening in Wichita, and can it happen elsewhere? I recently had former student of mine come and speak to my Simplicity and Sustainability class, and what he talked out was the small-scale agricultural and lumbering work he's involved himself in, and the entrepreneurial activity that he's contributed to and which he sees all around himself. Those who think only in terms of filling up Wichita with big developments attracting major investors will find his example pointless; those who think only in terms of fighting the huge battles over climate change on a global scale will probably think the same. But it is people like him, and dozens, hundreds, thousands of others, in cities of mid-size across the country and the world, who I think really are demonstrating the reality of local sustainability, and why it is our steadiness, our middling character, which is allowing all that to happen. The world will always need radical local examples of sustainability, and we'll always need elites that will try to responsibly address the macro issues. But in the meantime? Those of us who live in around the wonderful small and mid-sized, the decided non-global, cities of the world get to work.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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