It’s been said that New York is the center of the universe. And maybe, in some respects, it is.
“For a number of reasons, the federal government works to take care of the largest cities first,” says David Westendorff. “They tend to drive the urban agenda.”
What does that mean for smaller cities? The University of Memphis wants to find out.
“You can’t expect a one-size-fits-all policy to work across a range of cities,” he says. “They have a different resource base. Certain fixes can only genuinely function when the city is of a certain scale.”
About 10 years ago, Ken Reardon, U of M’s director of the graduate program in city and regional planning, was working on this idea when he was at Cornell. It never got off the ground, but Reardon brought the idea to Memphis.
“There were a number of mayors of decent-sized cities around the country who had been trying to run and improve their cities but felt that basically, policies toward cities in the U.S. tend to get influenced much more by the large metropolitan cities,” Westendorff says.
Memphis is on the larger end of mid-size cities, but has an interesting scale. One of the reasons the city seems to be a good place to enact reform is that it has the same problems as larger cities, but on a scale that is more manageable for pilot programs.
Westendorff, a Charleston, South Carolina, native, recently authored a study about the impact of the Olympics on Beijing’s low-income residents. He has also contributed to five recent books on sustainable development practices, and is considered an expert on international development policy, social housing, and municipal reform and governance issues.
“Planners by nature want to plan things and see they somehow make the place where they’re working and living move from State A, which may not be optimal, to State B, which still may not be optimal but maybe better than it was,” Westendorff says.
The Mid-Sized Cities institute is in the early stages, but Westendorff says they’ll be preparing to do analyses on what kind of policies from the state and federal government will have “the most bang for the buck here.”
“I think, most importantly, we have to have a very open and fluid dialogue with this city. … People really can change their situation and the situation of their city, but it takes a lot of energy and passion.”