Revitalization Of Small Cities: Challenges and Advantages

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Everyone knows larger cities with populations upward of 200,000 people are surging as residents continue to embrace the movement toward livable, walkable, vibrant downtowns.  We hear the intriguing stories about the transformation of cities like Minneapolis, Austin and Portland and revel at these mid-to-large urban rebirths.

What is rarely mentioned in blogs, Facebook and Twitter posts featuring large scale urban revival is that the same movement is also taking root in cities with under 100,000 residents.  In my own state of New York, cities like Utica, Schenectady, Binghamton, Troy and Rome are experiencing their own downtown invigoration.  In these cities of less than 70,000 people, the concept is alive and well and very much in progress.

Downtown Binghamton, New York

As these small cities find their way out of the “rust belt” perception and make their way back toward a former glory, they face a unique set of challenges in contrast to larger urban growth movements.  However, they also enjoy some seldom-realized advantages that might not be obvious to the average onlooker.


1. Resources

While large cities can draw on significantly greater financial resources, smaller cities are often very limited by budgetary constraints.  Small cities often rely more on grassroots community movements and private investment more than local government-funded campaigns.  Local governments CAN publicly support these movements and establish relatively inexpensive branding campaigns that highlight citizen involvement and entrepreneurial initiatives.

2. “The Mayberry Condition”

Smaller cities are often islands in rural oceans where the pace of life tends to be slower and the desire for change is significantly less.  The fast-paced, big city lifestyle is typically not what people in these communities are looking for.  When local government or citizens begin a dialogue about changes and improvements, there is often a backlash from those who want everything to stay exactly the way it is, especially when taxpayer revenue is involved.  I call this “The Mayberry Condition,” the desire to keep things the way they are or return to “the good old days.”

3. Lack of Visible Examples

Convincing citizens outside and even inside the limits of small cities that walkability and urban revival should be a priority when so many of these smaller cities struggle with joblessness, poverty and crime is a tall order.  While there are countless small city examples of how simple improvements such as pedestrian and cycling infrastructure can spur socioeconomic growth and a higher quality of life, these often go unseen by the general public.  They are seen as “big city amenities,” likely because citizens identify them with places like New York City or San Francisco.  While small cities like Schenectady, New York have worked to create a beautiful, pedestrian friendly downtown, sadly most outside the community will never see this shining example of what a small city can do to create a vibrant environment.

Downtown Schenectady, New York


1. Ease of Impact

People generally want to feel like they have the power to positively affect their community.  In larger cities, this can feel like an endless swim against the current.

In a smaller community, even a single voice can inspire movement in a positive direction.  On my recent blog visit to Rome, New York, a city of 30,000 people, I spoke to countless residents who had moved back to Rome from larger cities because they felt they could make a greater impact on their community.  They spoke of feeling relevant again, feeling like their contributions made a difference and were appreciated by their neighbors.

Rome, New York

Another example is in nearby Utica, New York where a local organization called “Made In Utica” works to promote and highlight local business while fostering community pride.  While Made in Utica functions with only a few young individuals, it has an incredible influence on a city of over 60,000 people, breathing life once again into a city that is on the rebound.

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Downtown Utica, New York

2. “What’s Going On Tonight?”

Humans have a finite amount of attention to spend on the world around them.  Even in my home city of Rochester, New York with a population of 210,000, there is so much going on any given night that it can be overwhelming.  Concerts, restaurant openings, charity events, festivals, and gallery showings… there’s a lot to do here!  Often, however, there is so much to do that many of these happenings are overshadowed by other events.

In contrast, smaller cities still have lots to do without the overwhelming factor.  It’s easier for residents to collectively get behind an event, an activity or an organization because there are simply fewer choices.

“Saranac Thursdays” in Utica, New York

When there is an event in these communities, the chance it will get lost amidst a flood of other happenings is far less.  And when communities come out and collectively support the same activities and organizations, residents receive a greater sense of community involvement and participation, and a powerful sense of local pride is the result.

3. Social Media

In a city like Chicago, it is much easier to walk down the street and stumble upon an inviting cocktail bar, smooth live jazz or a gallery opening.  This isn’t the case in smaller cities, where “what’s going on” isn’t always obvious to someone strolling through downtown.  Social media has given local residents a chance to not only share and view what’s happening around them, it connects them to these happenings on a personal level as they see friends and community members out and about and enjoying all there is to do.  This is a “local visibility” factor that simply wasn’t possible up until a few years ago.


Smaller cities can benefit from walkability, repurposing of historic architecture and other urban revitalization projects, just like their larger counterparts.  Challenges exist, but since many residents who live in these communities do so because they prefer a closely-knit, personable environment, the potential for people to work together for a better tomorrow is that much greater.