Christopher Gray

Over the course of two decades, Catherine Tumber has had a distinguished career as a researcher, journalist and university lecturer. She has a Ph.D. in U.S. social and cultural history, and has been a research associate for the MIT School of Architecture and Planning’s Community Innovator’s Lab prior to assuming her current role as a senior research associate for Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy. Along the way she has also served as an editor for the Boston Phoenix and the Boston Review, and has written for The Nation, Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, Architectural Record, the Washington Post and Commonwealth Magazine.

Catherine’s focus has been squarely situated on the many crises facing America’s small and mid-size cities in recent years—the major theme behind her recent book Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World (MIT Press, 2012).

LEED has been able to establish itself as a major force of market transformation in America’s most rapidly growing metropolitan areas, and it currently sets that market rate in cities such as New York, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, but market uptake in America’s many smaller, post-industrial communities such as Scranton, Pa. and Holyoke, Mass. has been far slower.

As USGBC looks for new ways to achieve its objective of bringing green buildings to all within this generation, we are looking for ways to help develop this market as the next frontier for a truly transformational industry. I sat down with Catherine for a short interview to get her thoughts on how the green building movement can be transformative for these communities and to identify the obstacles that are currently standing in the way.

Q&A with Catherine Tumber

CG: Your research takes a hard look at how social phenomenon such as de-industrialization, larger trends in ‘urban renewal’ and the emergence of the knowledge economy have wrecked havoc on the once dynamic economies of cities such as Holyoke, Fall River, Worcester, Syracuse and Scranton. Why do you think sustainability is the key to the economic revitalization of these communities?

CT: In the age of global warming, low-carbon energy and agricultural production will require land near densely settled cities, land that is not prone to skyrocketing real estate values as on the fringes of, say, New York or Chicago or LA. It will also require access to fresh water and riverways. And finally, the long global supply chains that have made outsourcing so easy during our era will become less tenable in the face of extreme weather and dwindling fossil fuel reserves, which means that manufacturing will have to become more concentrated and less separated from knowledge-based innovation and services. Smaller industrial cities in the United States have all three resources: soil-rich abundant farmland, fresh water and waterways, manufacturing infrastructure and engineering know-how, and—how to put this?—the productive culture to ground what I have called the “productive green economy.” We have become so accustomed to thinking that we can geographically separate “knowledge” and innovation from production, to techno-utopianism, to endless consumption-based disposability, and to the idea of “creative destruction” brought about by bloated capital markets, that it’s hard to imagine even making room for such a thing. We are so imbalanced! But we must, and we must plan for it.

CG: You are an outspoken advocate of reinventing these cities. There are a lot of policymakers and public intellectuals that seem to have lost interest in them after they began declining in the mid-20th century. Why is fostering an economic revival in these communities critical for our national economic health going forward?

CT: I wouldn’t say that the economic revival of smaller cities is critical to our national prosperity, but rather, that their poor condition reflects the short-term economic and political sensibilities of neoliberal market trends that have prevailed over the past 35 years. It’s a fine distinction, but an important one. If these cities were to flourish again, it would mean that we had decided to set off on a new course. The spatial inequality these cities represent is just another face of the economic inequality bred by the financialization of the economy, and the resulting concentration of wealth in large and global cities. And by the way, let’s be clear I’m talking about small and midsize cities, of anywhere from 50,000 to 500,000 population. These are cities, not small towns. Until recently, they have been excluded from the “urban conversation” and rendered invisible through conflation with “small town America.” I have even seen Indianapolis, a city of 800,000, referred to in the media as a small town!

CG: LEED is the world’s most popular green building rating system, existing in more than 150 countries and territories. It has come to set the competitive price scale for commercial and institutional real estate in major metropolitan areas across the U.S. in markets as diverse as New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Houston. However, LEED is still emerging in the cities where you are most invested. Based on what you know about these areas, are there structural barriers preventing businesses and residents in these cities from investing in LEED, and what are some possible solutions to these issues?

CT: Well, smaller industrial cities have not attracted much private investment, period. They have not been called “weak-market cities” for nothing. Unlike megacities that have thrived in the global economy, they need extra policy assists on the state level and imaginative planning and patience on the local level. Because sprawl and urban highway building have had a disproportionately disastrous effect on smaller urban form, state and local land-use planning should eliminate policies that advance such programs in small cities, and replace them with metro-regional smart growth policies. Also, because of their underdevelopment, most of these cities have an abundance of older residential, commercial, and public architecture. To preserve their character, the green building movement would have to integrate its ambitions with this legacy architecture, something that various municipal Green Code efforts have pulled off well. I recently published an essay on how these layers of policy have worked especially well (with one glaring exception) in Buffalo, New York.

CG: There are many good paying "green building" jobs in manufacturing, construction and building operation and maintenance. These jobs cannot be outsourced, and there is a very low barrier to entry in comparison to other fields that require extensive levels of secondary education. In other words, these are precisely the kinds of jobs that are most needed in these cities. How could we use smart policies and social investment schemes to train emerging professionals and the long-term unemployed in these communities to use LEED to enter the green economy?

CT: That’s going to require a cultural shift, as well as institutional change. Over the decades of knowledge-economy hokum and a ramped-up consumer culture, we have undervalued manual skill and working knowledge. This is reflected in the gutting of vocational education curriculum and the exclusion of such knowledge among high-finance-based corporate management. These programs should be restored, and the workers they turn out should be paid livable wages. Also, there was a big push to train the underemployed to weatherize buildings, install solar panels, and so on, with ARRA funds. But the funding went mainly to nonprofits that work with these communities (mainly in affordable housing), and they didn’t have the capacity to manage the sudden huge influx of money, and so many of these programs failed. Plus, the funding was temporary. We need more permanent funding and institutional arrangements. And, of course, we need a national carbon tax to incentivize green energy, agriculture, and urban settlement patterns—including green buildings. 

CG: USGBC promotes many forms of sustainable infrastructure development in addition to LEED such as localized, micro-grids with rating systems like PEER that could change the way the energy system works, as well as larger investments in public transportation. How could these types of changes impact the economic outlook of these cities?

CT: I would say that these cities are not only suited to micro-grids (since they have opportunity to reinvent themselves at this precise moment) but also to municipalization of utilities, as in Holyoke, MA, which was able to attract a high-performance computing center as a result of its low energy costs. Water infrastructure is also badly in need of expensive restructuring in these older cities, since they were built without dual sewage and runoff systems—which is a disaster in Great Lakes cities, where algae blooms are threatening their fresh water bounty. As for transportation, these cities are unusually car-dependent because their rail public transit was ripped out early and completely. For most of them, re- installing rail might not be fiscally feasible at this time, but it would be wise and more appropriate to construct more viable bus transit in these places. I explore these issues in greater depth in a 2013 report for the Gateway Cities Innovation Institute that I co-authored, and which may be of interest here.  

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