Small Cities Have It All

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Every morning my wife and I walk out the door to find a wide swath of green grass and the protective cover of tall trees that scatter the landscape of our apartment complex. Squirrels and chipmunks give chase to one another and the birds chirp at the coming of a new day. Otherwise, it’s quiet, save for maybe a brisk wind that tickles the treetops.

Typically, I jump on one of my bikes and ride to work, a simple 4.7 mile trip to the first-ring suburb of Henrietta. My wife drives the opposite direction into the heart of the city for her work, about 2.4 miles and 8 minutes by car.

I was born in Chicago, and have always had a hunger for the bustle and pace of big city life. My wife, on the other hand, grew up in the quiet confines of the country. She likes being near the city very much…. but she also likes to be able to leave it.

I like to get out and explore the newest restaurants, see the bright lights and conquer the urban landscape on two wheels. Amanda is more likely to enjoy a night in, relaxing, reading and working on her hand-lettering, for which she has quite the talent!  Sometimes we will take a walk, and when we do, it’s usually in nature. When we do go out together to see friends and enjoy our city, she prefers to drive.  She loves her car, it gives her a sense of personal freedom.

In many ways we are very different people, but living in Rochester gives us the ability to be who we are as unique individuals, while still providing a plethora of options for us as a couple. You could say that our city is the perfectly sized canvas for our relationship, allowing us just enough room to paint our own pictures and blend our worlds together.

Americans live in a world where we increasingly make decisions in a “multiple-choice” fashion. “Do I live in A) The City, B) The Suburbs or C) The Country?” Of course the internal images elicited by each of these options are clearly defined in our heads, however stereotypically. For answer A, we picture bright lights and tall skyscrapers. For B, we might see a row of homes or a small village. For C we might picture a house on a grassy hill with a long dirt driveway. In truth, none of these environments are so statically structured. They exist in a blend of all three with regard to proximity to one another and a number of other factors.

We are in an interesting time in which our country continues to sprawl away from urban centers, but at the same time many of our central downtown areas are also growing in population. Like the country’s political leanings, there appears to be a polarization between those who crave the dense, fast paced urban lifestyle and those who enjoy the comforts of suburban and rural living.

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In reality, most people, most couples, most populations desire a blend of both. We see this in the massive push for the implementation of greenspace in our cities, and on the other hand, the construction of mixed use buildings and additives like increasing walkability in our suburban communities. Each is trying to take the positives from the other, attempting to appeal to the changing needs and desires of tomorrow’s residents.  Just like we as individuals are never “one thing,” our cities and communities must offer a multi-dimensional approach when catering to the next generation of residents and visitors.

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Small to mid-sized cities have a unique ability to appeal to a population that enjoys the excitement of the city and the ability to quickly leave for a quieter setting.  Traffic congestion tends to be less of an issue than in larger cities.  Parking is more plentiful in small city downtowns, and is typically far more affordable.  Housing costs less.  The time it takes to get from the heart of a small city to the calmer areas on the outskirts of the city limits is far less, and the frustration it takes to get there is minimal.

For visitors, small cities offer a great night out, a family trip to the museum, or connection with arts, music and culture with minimal difficulty. Utica, New York, for example, features the Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute, an excellent resource for residents and visitors looking to connect with a little creativity. Is it The Met? Is it the Louvre? No. But it’s a delightfully approachable way to see some great art without the hassle of big crowds and parking disasters.

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Rochester’s Strong Museum Of Play attracts hundreds of thousands of families each year. These are residents as well as suburban and regional visitors. With a key family amenity in the heart of downtown Rochester, the city has something to conveniently offer families that no big city can… a family friendly museum at an approachable price with adequate parking.

To all the pure Urbanists out there that are cursing my name for talking about parking like it’s a good thing, stay with me for a moment. Rochester has done well to increase density, and is one of the few small cities to fill in an underused highway, replacing it with hundreds of thousands of square feet of development-ready space. While I’m not a fan of massive parking lots, I am a fan of a small-to-midsized city that accommodates the serious Urbanists and the occasional urban visitor. Finding this balance is the true equalizer, one which smaller cities have the distinct advantage providing.

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With that in mind, small cities can make make reasonable changes to create a walkable, people-first downtown where residents and visitors can park their cars and cover the breadth of downtown on foot.  Take Schenectady, New York for example… a city of around 60,000 with a downtown that spans about 3/4 of a mile in diameter, this “city of light and power” has focused on creating an environment with plenty of unobtrusive parking that feeds one of the most walkable city centers in Upstate New York.  One can drive into the city, park, and reach all that this hidden gem has to offer on foot easily, safely and attractively.  In a larger city, the task of creating an environment in which people can walk between neighborhoods, entertainment options, jobs and resources makes for a much more ambitious project.

 

Perhaps the most important advantage of small cities is the fact that one person with a great idea can make a difference.  Enter Vic Christopher of Troy, New York.  A Brooklyn transplant, Vic sought to create the same kind of progressive vibe in Troy that was happening in the storied New York borough.  Vic has been credited with being one of the most influential economic engines in Troy, emphasizing small business communication, collaboration and growth.

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People like Vic can change the attitude and landscape of an entire small city.  One voice, one, group, one unified effort can make a big difference.  With the overlapping voices of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of residents in larger cities, it is difficult to feel like one person can significantly affect their surroundings.  In a city in the tens and low hundreds of thousands, one person with the right ideas can see the effects of those ideas first hand while feeling motivated by the knowledge that they are making a positive impact.

Small cities also benefit from the ability to be well-kept secrets.  People might not see Rochester as that “just right size” city for young people who are looking for a sort of flexible urban experience, but here it is.  Many might not consider Schenectady and it’s incredibly vibrant, walkable downtown just steps away from a quiet and beautifully historic Stockade neighborhood, but it’s an incredibly powerful “best of both worlds” experience.  Americans are not likely to move to these places in droves… they aren’t New York, Boston, D.C., Chicago or L.A.  They are hidden gems known by a few, and while hopefully that few will increase over time, it’s not likely that these small cities will become massive centers of population evolution.  They will hopefully grow incrementally, slowly and sustainably, allowing them to move forward while retaining their unique urban character.

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The time for the small city is here.  The time for Americans to realize the benefits of a flexible urban environment that blends the needs of many is right now.  Our small cities have the ability to provide everything we as humans need in a package that sparks our greatest interests without the overwhelming sense of chaos and havoc.  You’ve heard the phrase”Go Big Or Go Home?”  How about “Go Home To Something Smaller.”

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