Small, Gritty, and Equitable

At the United Tenants of Albany annual dinner last week, Mayor Kathy Sheehan spoke about her “equity agenda” for the city of Albany. We’re only as strong as our weakest neighborhoods, she said. We have to bring everyone along.

She then told about how a neighborhood activist showed up to hear her speak to the Chamber of Commerce recently. “This is going to be a bit repetitious for you,” she told the community leader, “as it’s basically the same speech I just gave to CANA [Council of Albany Neighborhood Associations].” That’s exactly why I came, the leader told the mayor—to see if you’re really saying the same thing to everyone about this equity agenda.

As someone who has been watching a national movement for equity take root, with phrases like “shared prosperity” making their ways from organizations I’ve worked for (peripherally) to the White House, it’s very very exciting for me to hear Albany’s administration (and Common Council too!) taking on the rallying cry.

I was recently reminded at the Philadelphia Federal Reserve’s Reinventing Older Communities conference that the research showing that regions prosper when they are more equitable, which I have mentioned in this space before, keeps growing. Economic growth, sustained economic growth, and resilience to economic shocks are all correlated with lower levels of income inequality and racial segregation, and the research is starting to point to causality as well—equity encourages better economic growth.

There are going to be disagreements on how to grow equitably. (Notably, I have argued that a casino anywhere in the region is a terrible idea.) However, the fact that that is a goal we would be arguing over how to reach is still a very exciting thing.

Of course, I started my intellectual journey as an environmental studies major—my first economic text was Beyond Growth, so I do feel a little more kindly toward the notions of sustainable, resilient local economies than some notion of never-ending “growth.” Perpetual growth is just not possible, and aiming as close as we can get is just not desirable.

Nonetheless, Albany, as a small city, could be well positioned to be both equitable and green, if we play our cards right. Catherine Tumber, a historian and journalist who hails from near Syracuse, studied in Rochester, and spent some time in Albany, argues as much in the book Small, Gritty, and Green. Small cities have been left out of the Wall Street vs. Main Street political framing of the country, she argues, long ignored or lumped in with suburbs and small towns with which we share little.

But in fact, in the low-carbon future we need to be headed toward, small cities can play a central role. We are efficient urban centers still near to accessible farmland, well set up for a more sustainable regional food economy (as is amply demonstrated in the Capital Region already). And we can retool to do the middle-skill, blue-collar, green-economy manufacturing work that needs to spring up everywhere, but ideally where the infrastructure and labor force already exists in sufficient, but not overwhelming, density. The creative class is wonderful, but the low-carbon future needs utility workers and wind turbine engineers and decentralized supply chains more than it needs dot-com executives. Small cities can be the right scale for the world to come.

The conventional wisdom of globalization, writes Tumber, which says that all the winners are going to relocate to expensive, crowded megaregions, leaving the rest of us in the dust, doesn’t necessarily square with our environmental realities. This could be good news for small cities like Albany—if we’re on the ball enough not to further hobble ourselves with tax breaks and subsidies for deals and development that would bring us more long term costs than benefits.

It seems that the Albany Industrial Development Authority is slowly improving its practices in this regard. Now we need some better support from the state, which instead seems bent on a high-tech version of smokestack chasing and sprawl subsidizing via tax breaks. It will likely take some concerted effort by upstate cities working together to promote a better vision.

Meanwhile, we can take local steps. Here’s hoping that the rezoning the city is undertaking, the equity vision the mayor is promoting, and new tools like the land bank will all be aligned with each other and help position Albany as one of a network of small, thriving upstate cities—ones that are not aping the New York City metro area or derivative of it, but places with their own characters and economies, leading the way to a resilient, low-carbon future.

(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on June 19, 2014.)

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