As part of our continuing series on how the changing nature of work is playing into some strengths of smaller towns, here we look at three interrelated ideas related to city planning and development. While these are not new trends in the broader field of urban planning, the rise of remote work is amplifying them as more and more cities and towns start competing to attract talent.
If there is an underlying theme to these trends, author Roberta Brandes Gratz offers that “successful cities think small in a big way,” in her award-winning book, “The Living City.”
Trend 1: An Abundance of Green Spaces
Spending more and more of our workday wrapped inside the digital world amplifies our compulsion to escape the matrix into the natural world, in the view of architects and urban planners. As David Briefel, Sustainability Director and Global Design Resilience Leader for the global firm Gensler, explained in a recent article for Architectural Digest, expanding green space wherever possible becomes increasingly critical. That ranges from larger parks and wetlands to balconies, green roofs, and micro-parks. It even applies to the use of vertical gardening.
As the future of work continues to evolve, and workers’ locations become more flexible due to remote work arrangements, employees are putting a higher priority on places that offer green space that enhances the livability of their cities and towns, through things like better air quality and an improved sense of well-being.
In fact, researchers have found that rural residents have better health results “because of the amount of green in their direct living environment.” One part of the formula used in research studies like these is to think about a radius stretching outward from a person, and to ask how much green space is within a certain mile radius.
In addition to the effects on worker psychology, the ratio of green space to built environment — grass to pavement, so to speak — will also play an increasing role in reducing the impacts of ongoing climate change, whether it’s helping offset urban heat islands or supporting rainwater management during extreme weather.
The combined importance of livability and sustainability is driving a movement, with major cities from Los Angeles to Stockholm to Mumbai committing to greener cityscapes, and this is an area where many small towns and rural places may already have a head start.
Trend 2: Smaller Functional Radius
The trends in urban planning go beyond managing the distance from point A to the nearest green space. In a recent study from Deloitte, on the concept of the “15-Minute City,” Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director for the United Nations Human Settlement Programme (UN-Habitat), captured a central idea.
“Now that many of us have had the opportunity to work from home, there will be less tolerance for long rides to work,” she explains. “This will change how we lay down our transport network, and how we plan cities.”
The study argues we are moving away from an old model where cities have separate areas—with residential neighborhoods in one section, and then business and entertainment in other sections. In the new model, instead of people having to travel long distances between each of the areas, they are brought together. These multi-use zones allow people to have a stronger sense of community and promote sustainability by shrinking the scale of traffic.
This opens up a particular advantage for many small towns, because they already have a reduced scale and intermingled functionality. Just think of the traditional small-town square, with its mix of businesses, entertainment venues, and second-story living spaces.
In contrast, consider the amount of relocation, renovation, and re-zoning it might take to imitate these town squares in the boundaries of populous, sprawling metro areas, often built around a large circle of residential neighborhoods with a major business district in the center. Transitioning from that to a number of smaller, multi-use circles is no simple task.
There were many reasons the old model emerged, chief among them a need for various businesses and supporting services to be in close proximity to one another. As the nature of work continues to shift though, technology often renders a distance of five blocks between businesses downtown as effectively no different than a distance of 25 or 250 miles between a business in downtown Metropolis and a home office out in Smallville.
Of course, not everyone can shift from the big city out to the smaller rural towns that orbit it, and if they did, those small towns would start to lose the very benefits that gave them an advantage. Shifting some of the imbalance, however, has the potential to benefit both big and small.
Trend 3: More Organic Approach to Business Development
In considering key strategies to revive and grow cities, communities will too often swing for the fences with each at-bat. For example, they might develop a big distribution center, build an industrial park, or work to lure a large factory to the area.
This approach is doomed to fail in towns big and small, according to Roberta Brandes Gratz, author of “The Living City” and other books on the history and future of cities.
“[It’s] the equivalent of the amazing band being sold by con man Harold Hill in ‘The Music Man,’ as the one solution to a bunch of different problems,” she says of these large-scale developments, whether a factory, a stadium, or something else.
“You need a lot of small, locally-owned businesses that are aimed at pedestrians, so people who stop in one can then decide to maybe visit one or two of the others while they’re there,” Gratz explains. “Over time, the businesses that are finding the fit with the community will grow—it’s much more of an organic process, like gardening, than putting all your money and effort into dropping some grand enterprise into the middle of a community and trying to force it to become sustainable.”
By having this small ecosystem, you address several key issues, which can’t be accomplished the same way by a big store where people drive out, shop, and then get back in their cars and drive home.
Gratz uses examples to illustrate her line of reasoning, like a Main Street Project in Corning, NY, or the Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston, MA (two of the success stories) versus a shopping mall launched in Scranton, PA (one of the big failures).
Even in areas where planners and developers try to build up a small group of businesses all at the same time (and all of a sudden)—like when Denver put in a stadium district that included places to shop or sit down for coffee—they never really create growth outward from the initial footprint. Organic growth takes time, and the businesses have to be able to evolve together, early on and each on their own timeline.
When asked specifically about the idea of a small-town renaissance, Gratz pointed out that small towns are a perfect incubator for creating organic, sustainable business growth. They may not bring the kind of destination traffic and large customer volume that can make giant projects alluring, but they take a farmers market approach—both literally and figuratively—which is exactly the mindset captured in her model. There is a variety of small vendors, it’s oriented around foot traffic with minimal distance from store to store, and it creates a sense of community by including not just commerce but also arts, crafts, and entertainment—something that’s proven successful in other stories of rural development.
The Bottom Line
It might feel odd to think of small towns being at the forefront of urban evolution—or to consider the field of urban planning as especially relevant to rural concerns at all. But recent trends show how small towns already boast some of the features that many larger metro communities are now working hard to achieve — from green space to integrated geography and small business development.
Pair that with rising broadband access and remote work, which can lessen the disadvantages of distance for outlying towns, and the opportunity for a small-town renaissance comes into clearer focus once more.