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Small Towns Can Be Resilient, Too

A postindustrial town in Pennsylvania and a tourist town in Michigan show that small town America is more complex than politicians make it out to be.

During the 2016 presidential race, Donald Trump painted small-town America as a postindustrial waste where there were no jobs and no opportunities. But a closer look at two small towns in Trump-voting counties in Pennsylvania and Michigan reveals some communities that are emphasizing resilience by investing in affordable housing, clean infrastructure, and public spaces–and making a name for themselves in the process.

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Both Carlisle, Pennsylvania and Traverse City, Michigan are winners of the Strongest Town competition. Hosted by the media nonprofit Strong Towns, which supports a New Urbanism-inspired definition of resilience, the competition aims to cover the little-told stories of infrastructure, transportation, and economic growth of small-town America. It takes the form of a March Madness-style bracket, where towns from across the country explain their resilience strategies, and then readers vote for them. Each town is judged on the nonprofit’s definition of resilience, which emphasizes community engagement, economic growth, and effective transportation through small, smart incremental investments (rather than large, expensive projects), all rooted in a bottom-up, citizen-driven ethos. Carlisle won in 2016, the competition’s inaugural year, and Traverse City just became the winner for 2017’s bracket.

While metropolitan centers are often the focus of conversations and resources around resiliency due to the establishment of Chief Resilience Officers and other initiatives, they aren’t the only places focused on resilience. Both Carlisle, population 19,000, and Traverse City, population 15,000, illustrate what citizen-backed resilience looks like on a smaller scale. Their existence is a rebuttal to Trump’s sweepingly negative stereotypes of small-town America.

Carlisle, Pennsylvania. [Photo: courtesy of Brenda Landis]
A Postindustrial Town Rethinks Its Factory Sites

Between 2008 and 2009, a tire factory and an automobile parts factory closed in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, costing the town and the surrounding community hundreds of jobs. But eight years later, both spaces are set for new development, including housing, a hotel, and a stormwater retention park.

“With the two factory sites that closed down, we lost a lot of jobs. It’s easy to only focus on that and say that now we are less strong community because we don’t have these,” says Brenda Landis, a citizen of Carlisle who entered the town in 2016’s Strongest Town competition. “They were very creative and forward thinking in the way that they planned out these spaces, rather quickly after the factories shuttered, to create a plan that would then get developers interested in putting specific things in there that the community needed.”

Landis, who works as a multimedia specialist at nearby Dickinson College, lives directly across the street from the shuttered Carlisle Tire and Wheel factory. The second major vacant site in Carlisle was once the International Automotive Components factory. Owned by Trump’s Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, it was shuttered in 2008. “He sent the jobs to Mexico,” Landis says.

But Carlisle has managed to stay resilient despite the closures. One factory’s land will be redeveloped into townhouses, rental flats, restaurants, and a hotel. The other will host a green space that will help with stormwater retention while eventually providing a community space for neighbors.

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Carlisle is an example of how a postindustrial, working class town has initiated new development in the wake of the automotive industry factory closures. It’s located in the red Cumberland county that voted for Trump during the election–but Landis believes that Carlisle is a moderately progressive outpost, especially given the steps that the community took to bring new development after the factory closures. Still, the town faces continued challenges in terms of employment as the economy continues to change.

I think that as a whole, when you look at the entire U.S., there are questions about the economy,” Landis says. “But we are not afraid to adapt. We know that things change and initial changes aren’t always for the best.”

Traverse City, Michigan. [Photo: courtesy of Traverse City]
A Tourist Town Invests In A Resilient Future

A tourism hotspot in northern Michigan known for its annual Cherry Festival, Traverse City sits on the banks of Lake Michigan. Long a two-season tourism town, with the festival in the summer and skiing and winter sports in the winter, the town has managed to start attracting visitors all year-round. And with a deeply engaged group of citizens dedicated to investing in the community, Traverse City was awarded the 2017 Strongest Town award.

“Even though we’re a small town of 15,000, a lot of people know about where it is and we have a lot of visitors,” says Russ Soyring, Traverse City’s planning director. “We are really a regional community that draws people from 100 miles away to come for cultural activities, shopping, medical needs, and our airport.” (He’s particularly proud that the town’s airport has flights to big cities like Chicago and New York.)

Soyring believes that Traverse City won the competition fundamentally because of its community engagement. In 2016, some residents started advocating for bike lanes on the town’s main street, an idea which lead to a community-wide project to redesign the main street. Soyring says that the city put on a design charrette–a community based design sprint–and that hundreds of people showed up to participate in what the redesign would look like. Once the town can find $5 million, they plan to add a widened pedestrian area and bike lane to the entire main strip. The town is also investing in new sidewalks in order to make the parts of town that aren’t walkable more accessible. Soyring says he’s also pushing for more public space in the form of a civic square.

Beyond urban design, Traverse City’s citizens have decided that preserving the environment–particularly the clear waters of Grand Traverse Bay–is vital for the city’s future, and have indicated that they were willing to pay more taxes to make that happen. “You could probably take a big glass of water out of the bay and not get sick,” Soyring says. “Protecting the water is a big priority.” Clean energy is another focus. The city passed a resolution to replace their entire electrical supply with 100% renewable, clean power by 2020.

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Not all is peachy–the town is lacking in affordable housing, which Soyring says the city government is desperately trying to incentivize developers to build. The rising housing prices are making it more difficult for working class families to support themselves within Traverse City, including the town’s teachers, firefighters, and mechanics.

Still, the focus on green infrastructure and environmental sustainability are somewhat unexpected priorities for a city located squarely in a Trump-voting county, though Traverse City went blue during the 2016 election, given that the president is on his way to gutting Obama’s Clean Power Plan. But the conversation around small towns and what they represent has become deeply politicized over the last decade. Ultimately, every town faces its own unique challenges, so it’s important not to generalize the places that so often turn into topics for political debate. A closer look reveals that the actual stories of real towns are more complex than talking points.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Follow her on Twitter @kschwabable.

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