Review: Small Cities, Big Issues

One of the reasons that people eschew academic and general nonfiction literature is the persistent habit of a clinical analysis of subjects instead of actual engagement. For what are often called the “hard sciences,” this approach is somewhat valid based on concrete evidence, and accepted principles and theorems. Unfortunately, the social sciences seemingly suffer from an inferiority complex that demands their practitioners to make conclusions without actually engaging with society so as to appear more unbiased. This is a problem not just for the perspectives of the practitioners but for those whose lives are affected by the consequences of that research. About a third of Small Cities, Big Issues: Receiving Community in a Neoliberal Era can provide guidance for smaller cities looking to enhance the experience of their marginalized populations. Unfortunately, most of this book continues in the vein of observations and statistics rather than actual engagement.

First of all, the overall perspective of this book is too broad and does not give readers insight based on consistent engagement, which is disappointing based on the number of interviews that the authors described throughout the book. The reason that the chapters “Walking in Two Worlds” and “The Inadequacies of Multiculturalism” were so effective was because of the obvious engagement with the populations affected by the topic. Otherwise, the authors seem too far removed to provide a useful accounting of the dysfunction of smaller cities when experienced by marginalized populations. “Needles in Nanaimo” and “Being Queer in the Small City” were as unmemorable as the populations seem to be based on the emphasis of policy and statistics. This tactic has been repeatedly used to justify marginalization in the first place, and is a particularly difficult dilemma in smaller cities that do not offer the anonymity of bigger cities. Because of the detachment, the solutions offered can seem half-hearted, as if no one cares whether those populations are uplifted.

Additionally, there was an emphasis on the manipulation of the populations and not the people themselves; segregation seems to be a key component to many of the case studies depicted in this book. If interviews were conducted, it would have been helpful to read about what people had to say about the enacted policies. For example, “Thrown Out Into the Community” focuses on where people with disabilities were shifted, but there was little information from either the people or their families. In fact, that chapter seemed to be more about the labor issues of dealing with disabilities in an ableist society, which is important but implies that the people themselves have no voices. Caring for people with disabilities in a nation with nationalized healthcare is fascinating for onlookers. “Zoned Out” could have been substantially more powerful considering that there is a growing labor movement among sex workers to destigmatize the workers; it would have been more powerful to include the accounting of how sex workers are shifted not according to demand, but according to stigma. After all, there would be no incentive for sex workers if there was no demand. Policies in larger cities also have larger populations, and it would have been more helpful to review a more intimate account so that smaller cities could see how their policies directly affected people.

Historical perspective matters, as does understanding the effects of policy, and specific individuals can offer helpful insight. However, “Homelessness” seemed to go on forever because the demonstration of neoliberalism was unclear. There was a focus on history, then a focus on policies, then specks of information on one person or another in too many chapters. Basically, the authors were, in essence, doing too much, and further confusing readers in understanding how neoliberalism even relates to the conversation.  When too much information goes into a chapter, it is difficult to navigate the responsibilities of the federal government versus the provincial government versus the local municipality. This also removes the understanding of how much autonomy a municipal government has, as opposed to the amount of legislation required for enactment at the provincial and federal levels. Even though neoliberalism was purportedly the focus of this book, the most useful chapter for anyone to understand that concept was “Small City, Large Town.” In a perfect world, this chapter would have been first and “Homelessness” would have been last, because having a localized accounting of what neoliberalism means would have helped readers understand that their current municipal problems has a name. Providing an international example also demonstrates how the problem is standard rather than unique to Canada, and even though this chapter covers more than one city, it specifically identifies neoliberal issues in ways that more novice readers can comprehend.

Another issue with this book is that parts of it fall into the trap of self-important scholarship. “Social Planning & Dynamics of Small City Governments” was almost identical to a book called Capital City by Samuel Stein, in which the author repeatedly mentions that he has been trained as a planner. Social planning has been responsible for some of the most atrocious human rights violations on an international level; planners are not exempt from criticism. Many marginalized populations have been stripped of their voices due to neoliberalism and the need for cities to stay relevant, and it was appalling to see the lack of social responsibility placed on people who justified urban renewal policies that made people homeless and infrastructure divestment in neighborhoods without “sufficient political power.” All professions should expect to be held accountable, and if the scholars of the professions believe their practices sacrosanct, then the neoliberalism has infected the upper echelons to the point of no return. Both that chapter and “Municipal Approaches to Poverty Reduction” were equally egregious in not addressing the neoliberalism. Instead, the authors seemed to be more focused on how residents were acting instead of the role that planners had played, further stigmatizing populations are regularly viewed as problems.

Cities are painted as hapless victims, unable to do a thing as businesses take over and the federal government stalls on support, or so most of this book would have readers believe. One of the more honest chapters was “Integrated Action & Community Empowerment,” which illuminated how the power of small-town networks can be activated to solve social problems. Unlike larger cities, smaller cities can have tighter social networks, making it easier for community engagement and seeing people in need. Instead of going through endless policy, readers are reminded that there is no barrier preventing direct help and compassion. Rather than seeing people who are marginalized, Caillouette reminded that if people are more aware of their neighbors and the consequences of businesses leaving small cities, the experience of those areas will be infinitely improved. This was a welcome change after “Fitting In,” which seemed to exonerate residents and municipal governments alike for not recognizing the vulnerability of women who were previously incarcerated. It was as if the authors believed that the women deserved the hostile stares and inability to thrive.

The most glaring omission from this book is a discussion on race, which is astounding as Canadian society becomes more racially aware and is having more discussions on how to address inequities. Sánchez-Flores, Matthew and McKinnon are the only authors to discuss the issue because they are authors of color; otherwise, readers are left to wonder whether any of the scholars even acquired racial data. One of the biggest problems with how race is addressed in most Western societies is the need to cling to the idea that if race is a social construct, ignoring it will eliminate problems and absolve municipalities of the role placed on race in creating those small cities. Canada is a country with land acknowledgments in honor of the previous Indigenous communities which inhabited certain areas. Segregation and urban renewal were such problems in Canada that Vancouver was recently awarded the Pierre L’Enfant International Planning Excellence Award for a plan that includes dismantling a highway that was explicitly installed for segregation. Smaller cities are usually full of highways, have fewer living wage employment opportunities, and are more intensely segregated based on the ease of “othering” people. Race is problematic regardless of the size of a municipality, and it is clear that the editors did not care to address the issue unless it was impossible to avoid.

The conclusion seems to indicate that different sorts of chapters preceded the conclusion, i.e. a much more socially descriptive accounting of the issues discussed. With the title of this book, it is clear that many people would initially be thrilled to read it because of the ecosystem of smaller cities that is truly variable from larger cities. However, the fishbowl approach to academics means that there is no intimacy, which is counterintuitive for a book about smaller cities. Academia has been considered the training ground because of the education society requires for leadership, and if academia teaches leaders to be socially removed and emotionally absent, then it is no wonder that cities of all sizes have become neoliberal. Everyone expects literature full of statistics and policy, but it was particularly disappointing in this case based on the topics in the table of contents. Four chapters of this book are useful and helpful, and if the editors are interested in future collaboration, they would do well to demonstrate that they actually engaged with the people whom they are discussing.

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