Sustainable Cities Collective has re-launched as Smart Cities Dive! Click here to learn more!

Is "Thinking Little" the Next "Big Thing"?



Are small towns and "thinking small" gaining traction lately? "Little" in the sense of "small business" and perhaps, "small town living"… certainly not little in the sense of "insignificant" ideas.

My friend Jack shared an excerpt from Wendell Berry's book from 1970s, A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural & Agricultural. Jack is promoting small artisans to join a co-op style venue here in town called the Queen City Marketplace. This segment of the essay resonated with me (emphasis added):

For most of the history of this country our motto, implied or spoken, has been Think Big. I have come to believe that a better motto, and an essential one now, is Think Little. That implies the necessary change of thinking and feeling, and suggests the necessary work. Thinking Big has led us to the two biggest and cheapest political dodges of our time: plan-making and law-making. The lotus-eaters of this era are in Washington, D.C., Thinking Big. Somebody comes up with a problem, and somebody in the government comes up with a plan or a law. The result, mostly, has been the persistence of the problem, and the enlargement and enrichment of the government.

But the discipline of thought is not generalization; it is detail, and it is personal behavior. While the government is "studying" and funding and organizing its Big Thought, nothing is being done. But the citizen who is willing to Think Little, and, accepting the discipline of that, to go ahead on his own, is already solving the problem. Extended excerpt here.

This excerpt could be read from a right-leaning perspective, but, I think instead that it gets back to the fundamentals many people intuitively crave. Fundamentals such as: being part of a community in a physical sense and building something for yourself. Of course both can be achieved in larger cities, but what interests me is how these desires can be achieved in smaller towns.

The creative opportunities present in small towns most obviously rests in the ability to create something that isn't already there.

This doesn't make creating such a thing any easier… only a fool would think that their experience in a larger market automatically ensures success in a smaller one. I think, too, that the appeal of creative efforts in small towns is that, once achieved, there is greater potential for influence and than doing the same thing in a larger market. Surely, the presence of completed projects is more easily felt.

Will the future include a return to the "old" model of artisans, shopkeepers, and farmers held in esteem? It could certainly incorporate a few of those elements. I think there is growing demand for the lifestyle benefits of small town living. (For example, being close to nature, or minimizing a commute.)

The trickiest part? Knowing that whatever you do can't be easily erased in the minds of everyone around. Large cities present varying degrees of anonymity; small towns require you to be brave when you succeed and most especially when you fail. For that reason, I think life in a small town enhances a certain kind of toughness that might surprise the casual city observer.

Image Credit: Polta Drugstore in Minnesota, U.S. National Archives, Flickr