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

Using Sustainable Systems Thinking in the Poorest City in America

Last September, the New York Times ran a story highlighting my hometown.  Reading, PA had officially "earned the unwelcome distinction of having the largest share of its residents living in poverty" among cities with populations greater than 65,000.  Roughly 43% of our residents live in poverty – a staggering 36,000 people in my community of 88,000.  Less than two months later, city residents voted in a mayor whose platform addressed "green jobs" and "sustainability."  Many urban areas are beginning to jump on the sustainability bandwagon.  Reading, a mid-sized industrial city about 1.5 hours northwest of Philadelphia, is just beginning to enter the fray and the new administration is jumping in with both feet. 

Cities are faced with a number of ecological, economic, and social problems and sustainable systems thinking is crucial for understanding and addressing them.  A systems thinking approach – that is, one that encourages us to view a system in a holistic manner by understanding the relationships that comprise the system – provides cities with an important toolkit for addressing sustainability.  Systems thinking and movements toward more sustainable urban practices and policies must go hand-in-hand to ensure that sustainable approaches to urban problems are more than simply old urban policies with a green label. 

In her new book, "Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America's Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World," Catherine Tumber argues that small and mid-sized industrial cities like Reading offer a number of important resources that will be valuable in a transition to a low-carbon economy, including access to surrounding farmland, manufacturing infrastructure, and industrial workforce skills that can be easily transitioned for production of renewable technologies.

Traditional urban development and redevelopment models have relied strongly on attracting outside investment.  By creating an atmosphere favorable to large businesses, many cities have pinned their hopes on outbidding others for these investment opportunities.  However, incentive-based packages have often meant that cities see less benefit from these deals than they may have hoped for.  The enormous tax breaks given to large development projects often mean that cities see little of the revenue they need.  And many investment projects bring workers from previous locations or mechanized processes so as to avoid having to train a new labor force, which does little to help local workers.  The traditional focus on attracting large outside development takes cities' focus away from what can be done to grow strong local systems that hire local workers and contribute to increasing the local economic multiplier.  External investment isn't necessarily a bad thing; cities have the infrastructure and labor power to support the green manufacturing and waste management systems that will be crucial in a low-carbon economy.  However, to be truly sustainable, these development projects must contribute to the local economy rather than simply exist within it.

Two years ago, Reading placed 6th on the list America's poorest cities.  In response to this, many dedicated volunteers worked on the Rebuilding Reading Poverty Commission.  In the report that resulted, we began to see the seeds of sustainable systems thinking.  Since then, the excitement surrounding the promise of sustainability as a means of addressing Reading's dire economic state has only increased.  Recognizing this, Reading is now partnering with the Institute for Local Self Reliance, a Washington, DC-based firm that helps communities to "increase economic effectiveness, reduce wastes, decrease environmental impacts and provide for local ownership of the infrastructure and resources essential for community well-being."  In addition, within the past couple of years, Reading has seen the development of a Sustainable Business Network and an urban farm project based on systems-thinking permaculture principles.  Cities like Reading need to continue on this path, and support local, green economies through the backing of already-existing local businesses and fostering the creation of new ones.  Sustainable business networks are one step along the way, and business incubators and co-working spaces are additional approaches that can be used to support these efforts. 

Tumber writes that, when it comes to sustainable development in small industrial cities, "the technology is under development, the private capital is poised for investment, the foundation world is paying attention… the question now is whether smaller industrial cities can themselves make the case that their destiny is critical to that future" (xxxiv).  Following Reading's distinction as the poorest city in America, local citizens shook their heads and sighed that Reading is a canary in a coalmine – a harbinger of where all similar cities are headed.  If the recent attention to sustainable systems thinking is any indication, though, a focus on urban environmental and economic sustainability may just be where this country is heading.