Small Cities Can Learn From Bigger Brothers

Like fashion trends and new fads, big cities tend to lead the way with regard to new thoughts, ideas, ways of living, playing, working, and moving through life.  Often what is accepted as normal for a big city is seen as “fringe” for smaller cities until years later.

Case in point.  About 7 years ago I walked into my first exposed-brick cocktail bar in Rochester.  I had been to places like this in New York and Chicago, but this was a first for Rochester.  Anyway, there are now like a dozen of them in our city of 210,000.  Beyond that… cocktails are now on the front page of half the bars in Rochester, and even a handful of coffee shops.

Flash forward to Utica, New York, population 60,000, where their first speakeasy cocktail bar opened this year, nearly a decade after the cocktail revival began in my city.  For Utica, this was a new and different thing.  For me it was old news (though I was still excited to see something like this in Utica!).

This is a brutally oversimplified example of how smaller cities are slower to adapt to trends, but you get the idea.  Simple or not, if you want to anticipate how things are going to go in your own city, try looking around at cities that are near you with, oh, say, 4 times the population or more.  More than likely, those cities are experiencing trends and movements that will reach you on a smaller scale in the next 5-7 years.  This is a rough estimate, but just play along for now.

In a recent post, I addressed a September 1st New York Times article that suggested the urban revival in the United States may be over.  The author noted that larger cities are once again falling victim to suburban migration, implying that perhaps the resurgence we’ve seen in our cities is simply a short-lived trend.  This shift from urban resurgence back to suburban sprawl, however, has not shown up in small cities yet.

Urbanists often shy away from comparing smaller cities to larger ones, implying that their population sizes make them somehow unique.  I could not disagree more… so often, population size differences have less to do with relevance and more to do with the timing of trends and patterns.  Smaller cities aren’t different than bigger ones per se, rather they simply “lag behind” larger ones with regard to population movements and social constructs.

Looking at the successes and failures of other cities that greatly outnumber our population totals, we can often get a “crystal ball” reading of how things might play out years from now in our own city.  Very simply, those of us who live in smaller cities have a front row seat to watch our future play out, so let’s grab some popcorn, maybe we will learn something new!