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Q & A with Meghan Ashlin Rich on revitalizing small cities

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY
Scranton is known as the ‘Electric City’ for its early installations of electricity and their electric trolley system. The iconic sign was restored in 2004. ";s:

Meghan Ashlin Rich is a professor of sociology/social justice and women's studies at University of Scranton. Her research involves issues like race, class, and social change in urban neighborhoods. Rich has studied revitalization efforts in Scranton and Baltimore, Maryland. Keystone Crossroads' Kate Lao Shaffner spoke with Rich about Scranton's revival, the advantages of small cities, and whether big city revitalization ideas can work in smaller communities.

You hear a lot about city revitalization and renewal these days—this idea that cities are making a comeback and "here's why." But many of those studies or reports that make it to the mainstream media focus on really big cities like DC or Seattle or LA. You actually wrote a paper on Scranton's revitalization--looking at how big city renewal ideas apply to a small city. I was really excited to find your paper because there are so many small cities like Scranton in Pennsylvania. As an academic, do you think those big city trends apply to small cities?

I think there are some really unique differences when it comes to small city revitalization. I do a lot of research in Baltimore--that's where I'm from--and the things that Baltimore can do are not things that places like Erie or Altoona or Harrisburg or Scranton can do.

When you only have a population of less than 100,000, there's not the critical mass that you would need in order to, say, have an opera house or have a major league baseball stadium or football stadium. You know, these kind of things that these big cities do, they just can't be done in small cities.

But what small cities do have is the small footprint, the concise downtown where it is walkable. It's much easier to connect to natural beauty, especially in a place like Pennsylvania where you're just surrounded by either mountains or water or some kind of natural habitat that's within a short distance from the city. You have a population that is really connected to that town that they grew up in.

So I think there are a lot of bonuses to small cities. They can't do the same things that big cities do—and they shouldn't want to. Because big cities also have big city crime, big cities have big city traffic—and small cities don't. So there are some really unique challenges but also unique pluses to being in a small city.

Read the full version of this report at the website of Keystone Crossroads, a new statewide public media initiative reporting on the challenges facing Pennsylvania's cities. WPSU is a participating station.

Kate Lao Shaffner was the Keystone Crossroads Reporter for WPSU-FM from 2014-2015. She reports on infrastructure, economic, legal, and financial issues in Pennsylvania with reporters from WHYY (Philadelphia), WITF (Harrisburg), and WESA (Pittsburgh).
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