I was a presenter a couple of weeks ago at a conference in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, a pretty little tourist town renowned for its theater festival and abundant wineries, a few miles down the highway from the world-famous falls. The event was the annual conference of the Ontario Urban Small Municipalities association, and much of the talk was about change and adaptation and mounting challenges. The speakers before me laid out the demographic case for the inevitability of a great many changes — the aging populations of small towns, increasing urbanization and the steep decline of conventional manufacturing bases in small industrial cities across Ontario and around the world.
The speaker before me put forward a case for cautious optimism. He built it on the idea that many small towns and cities — from regional burghs in France to Niagara-on-the-Lake itself — had reinvented themselves in recent decades as tourism-and-culture hubs. They’d unveiled museums and art galleries both august and quirky, launched theater and book festivals, turned old warehouses and factories into cultural hubs. Among this speaker’s touchstones were the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams and the renowned Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts in a formerly unknown village in Wales.
The foundation of this plan is a growing leisure class of retired people with ample savings and limitless time and means for travel. The prerequisite, in other words, is an extension and expansion of the status quo of the last 30 years into an indefinite future of cheap energy and increasing mobility.
I subscribe to a different outlook for the next generation, one in which rising energy costs, climate chaos and financial instability define the necessity of a very different kind of transformation. While I wish the future leisure hubs of smalltown Ontario all the best, I think they’d do well to check out some of the postings at Rustwire.
Rustwire is a sort of regional news blog for the Rust Belt, "A Voice for Change in the Industrial Midwest.” I first discovered it not long ago through a link to a fascinating photo essay of abandoned factories in Youngstown, Ohio. More recently, there was a short roundup of news stories on the ongoing efforts to build casinos in ailing cities across the Midwest; there’s another excellent recent Rustwire post about how the high price of uncontained sprawl is the great unacknowledged elephant in the room in discussions about municipal financial strife.
Now, I realize a literary festival has a little more in the way of community benefit than a casino does, but I’d argue the logic and intent is still very similar. These are quick-fix panaceas. They fail to address the larger structural problems with our current socioeconomic system, and more than that, they fail to capitalize on the emerging cleantech boom that some call the Second Industrial Revolution.
I was in the Rust Belt myself last spring on a research trip, and I was particularly struck by the case of Toledo, Ohio. Toledo is home of one of the world’s most important solar energy research clusters, which resides in a handful of suburban industrial parks surrounding a charming but half-gutted old industrial city. Owing to uneven institutional and government support at various levels and the general laggard state of renewable energy policy in America, much of the innovation that’s happening in places like Toledo eventually winds up employing more Germans and Chinese than Ohioans.
The obvious case in point is thin-film titan First Solar, born in Toledo, headquartered in Phoenix, Ariz., and driven by its enormous production facilities in China and especially in the former East Germany — Germany’s very own Rust Belt, which is looking less tarnished by the year.
Like I said, I wouldn’t necessarily want to dismiss anyone’s chosen panacea out of hand; the world might well need more theater festivals and quirky regional museums and even casinos. The smart money, though, is on new industry — on making things, not just giving those who make things something to do with their vacation time.
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