Small Scale Lessons for New York City Skeptics

Urbanists love to fawn over Jane Jacobs, the New York city native who wrote the seminal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities and inspired the New Urbanist movement. They love Jacobs’ mixed use developments and “sidewalk ballets,” her short blocks and lively waterfronts. On the other side of the spectrum, there is also a popular criticism of her writing, which argues that Ms. Jacobs’ ideas can only really work in a big city like New York, and that she has glamorized the whole New York experience into something that we’d be completely naive to try to implement in our own cities. Beyond (and because of) Jacobs’ work, New York is frequently painted as the ideal city by urbanists. As a result, many people are--quite justifiably--skeptical about how all these big ideas could possibly work in their small town or even mid-size city. How could this gigantic subway system and these high-rise apartments have anything to do with a little town in Iowa, for instance?

Big city ideas can work in smaller towns and cities.

After attending college in a small town (Walla Walla, WA), then spending a good chunk of 2013 and 2014 living in New York City and having now relocated to a much smaller city (Milwaukee, WI), I can speak to several ways that big city ideas can work in smaller towns and cities. These ideas might not manifest exactly like they do in New York, but they can have just as much impact on the strength and quality of life in your town. Here are some ways I see New York City’s big ideas scaling down to mid-size city and small town life:

Good public transit is achievable, no matter where you are

When we think about public transit worthy of praise, we think about massive subway systems like the one in New York City. It’s easy, then, to get caught up in this vision that public transit has to be a huge infrastructure project that will cost a city billions of dollars. But it doesn’t. Even the smallest town can start with a single bus line and grow from there based on what the town needs. For instance, the Milwaukee bus system is far from perfect, yet I have managed to get around without a car for more than eight months here. Even in my college town of Walla Walla, WA, I used the miniscule bus line to get to work and to the grocery store. No public transit system is built in a day. It’s something a community has to commit to for the long haul and shape based on its own needs.

Mixed use development doesn’t have to be complicated

A coffee shop and a bar with apartments above, on Brady Street in Milwaukee, WI

A coffee shop and a bar with apartments above, on Brady Street in Milwaukee, WI

In New York City, you’ll find highrises that house supermarkets on the first floor, dentist offices on the second floor, preschools on the third floor and condominiums on the next twenty floors. Nearly every building in the City would qualify as “mixed use” and new urbanists adore this. However, this is not the only model of mixed-use development possible. Mixed-use can be as simple as a one-unit apartment above a barber shop in a small town, or an art studio above a garage in a suburb, or even a daycare inside a home. The purpose of this concept is to make the best use of whatever space you have, be it big or small.  It’s doable pretty almost anywhere.

Delicious food makes a place appealing

New York is home to some of the best, most diverse cuisine in the world. I know plenty of people who would make a trip to the Big Apple just for the food. However, any city can draw tourists and locals in with good food. My college town had 40,000 people. That seemed small to me, coming from Minneapolis (where I grew up), but then during my senior year, I was introduced to this incredible cocktail bar in a town called Waitsburg that was 30 minutes outside of Walla Walla and about 30 times smaller than my college. The bar was basically the only reason any of us went to Waitsburg, but it was so good, it put the town on the map. A handful of delicious restaurants might be all you need to make your town feel like a world-class city and draw outside visitors, as well as keep your own residents full and happy.

Green space should be a priority

When I lived in New York, I constantly marveled at how much green space I saw around me. In a city where land costs are at an ultimate premium, I knew how hard the government and the citizens must’ve had to fight for even the smallest triangle of grass inside an intersection. I’ve heard it said that New York City was planned in such a way that no child would live more than one mile from a park. I’m not sure whether this is true, but based on how many parks I saw during my time in the City, I’d believe it. Conversely, while smaller cities and towns are usually blessed with plenty of green space to begin with, they don’t always make the best use of it or prioritize its preservation. With more land at their disposal in a midsize city or small town, public and private entities could easily make use of green spaces and create outdoor places that their communities truly value. We’ve seen the fantastic examples of Strong Citizens who take matters into their own hands and transform an empty grass lot into a beautiful garden or a dog park. This can make a world of difference for a smaller community who suddenly has a gathering place to be proud of.

Embrace neighborhood character

New York City is not just one big, bustling metropolis. It’s a conglomeration of dozens of unique neighborhoods with diverse identities, from the African American cultural mecca of Harlem to the dense, Orthodox Jewish area of Crown Heights. People love New York for all the bits and pieces that make it up. Fortunately, distinct neighborhood character is already present in almost every city in the United States--it’s just a matter of capitalizing on it. Hosting a street fair, or even just putting up signage can serve to highlight neighborhood character in a prominent way and draw new business into different parts of a town.

I know our small towns and cities will never be New York City, and most of us wouldn’t want them that way anyway. But we can gain valuable lessons from what works in New York and apply them almost anywhere provided we’re using the right tools and the right attitude.


Rachel Quednau is a Midwesterner currently working to end homelessness in Milwaukee, WI. She draws from her experiences living in New York City, Washington, DC, Walla Walla, WA and Minneapolis, MN to help her build better places wherever she is. Rachel writes for her blog The City Space, and also for Urban Milwaukee. One of her favorite ways to get to know a new city is by going for a run in it.