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Providence and the Virtues of Scale

After visiting cities and doing some research on them, I like to come back and write a “master narrative” survey of my impressions of a place. I’ve been able to do this fairly successfully – at least natives have viewed my take as basically fair – and pretty easily for Midwest cities.

I’ve spent some time in Providence, Rhode Island recently, a small city reasonably comparable to the ones I focus on in the Midwest, and was hoping to do something similar there. But I’ve found it difficult. New England culture is something I just don’t grok, so unlike with cities in the Midwest, the South, or the West, where I have more basically cultural familiarity, it’s hard for me to get a feel for Providence. So a full take on it will have to wait for another time.

I can relay a few basic facts though. The Providence metro area has 1.6 million people. The entire state of Rhode Island only has about a million. So Providence has the unique feature of having a metro area bigger than its entire home state. But Providence is also unique in that it’s so close to Boston, making the entire metro area almost a suburb of greater Boston in some ways. Providence is actually on the MBTA commuter rail system, with a slightly over one hour ride into South Station. With wi-fi equipped trains, this isn’t a bad commute. This shares tracks with Amtrak’s Northeast corridor, and Providence is served by both Acela and regional trains, giving it key connectivity both to Boston (only 36 minutes away on the Acela if you’re in a hurry) and New York City. (Providence is the 17th busiest Amtrak station).

Being so close to a thriving tier one city and not far from America’s premier metro hasn’t helped Providence that much though. Its population is stagnant. It has been losing jobs. Unemployment has been stubbornly in the double digits. Any visitor to Rhode Island immediately notices how old everything is. I’ve yet to find anyplace that is of the pristine new suburban variety. It looks like not much has been built in quite a while. Various decrepit mill downs like Woonsocket dot the landscape. The state is among America’s worst for pension problems. If the state were bigger, this would certainly loom larger in the national consciousness.

Although Rhode Island/Providence has its struggles, there’s still a lot to like and enjoy about the place. Rhode Island has some extraordinary natural beauty. As the Ocean State, coast line and beaches abound. Towns like Newport remain picturesque if no longer very economically active apart from tourism. The flip side of having a lot of old stuff is that you are clearly aware this is a place with history to it, and a ton of character. There is excellent food to be had. This isn’t just the stereotypical Italian – if there’s one thing that might stick in people’s mind about Providence it’s a reputation for being mobbed up – but includes things that might surprise you like good Indian cuisine.

The people in Rhode Island are much friendlier than you’ll encounter in Boston or New York, and probably on par with what a Midwesterner would expect. Also like the Midwest, I was very surprised to find that, despite the postage stamp size of the state, lots of people there are lifelong Rhode Islanders. Traffic is a breeze and the city is very livable. You can enjoy small city living while only being a short train ride away from all that Boston has to offer.

With Providence’s demographic, economic, and fiscal issues, it might be tempting to dismiss the place as simply lacking the scale necessary to compete in the global economy. It doesn’t have the critical mass of amenities or industry to draw the talent it needs to build a truly dynamic 21st century economy, or vice versa. This might be the traditional “spiky world” view in which it seems to be primarily very large, dense cities that have the advantages, save for a few very special places, normally major college towns like Madison, Wisconsin.

If that’s all there is to it, most smaller cities are doomed. Yet I think there’s a flip side to scale, and places like Providence need to be able to exploit it as a source of opportunity. Providence and Rhode Island are big enough to have pretty much everything you need in a big city, and what they don’t have is nearby in Boston.

But they are small enough to have some structural advantages from that as well. First, as a small state and city, it’s easier to turn the ship. As I’ve observed about Detroit and Michigan, part of the challenge for them is that they are big. It’s always harder to turn a large ship than a small one. That’s Rhode Island’s advantage. You could almost literally turn the entire state into a civic laboratory in a way that can’t be done elsewhere.

In a related vein, things that wouldn’t make much of a difference in New York can make a huge difference in Providence. The presence of Brown University and RISD make a palpable difference in a smaller city that they wouldn’t in a much bigger one. Successful civic initiatives can have a bigger impact here.

5803710355_c15370c3a9_b.jpgAlso, I’ve already found in Providence the other piece of magic I’ve often noticed in smaller cities, inter-disciplinary cross-pollination. A Rhode Islander tweeted me about something, and I responded by saying I’d be there in a week if he was interested in grabbing a beer and talking cities. This led to cocktails with a guy running a tech incubator, a former senior economic development official in the state, a transit planner, and a couple of art types.

I don’t have many conversations like that in Chicago. In Chicago, because the various scenes are large, it’s easy to spend your time hanging out with only other people in your circle. And elites tend to like talking to each other. That’s not to say that disciplines never cross in Chicago, because they do. But my observations from not just Providence, but also Indianapolis and various other small Midwestern cities leads me to believe that this is more the default mode of operation in those cities. A shallower pool means that of necessity, you come into contact with more different types of people than you sometimes would in say Silicon Valley.

Lastly, like various Rust Belt burgs, Providence is a fairly cheap place to live and gives you plenty of space to do your own thing without all the baggage that comes from being in a bigger city. As someone there told me, if you’re looking for a corporate job, Providence is a tough town. If you’re looking to make something happen yourself or do your own thing, Providence is a great town.

Whatever its current struggles, a small state and city like Rhode Island and Providence – it’s even tough for me to distinguish them – have the virtue of small scale to provide some weapons with which to compete. How to position them to exploit that, and their other unique geographic advantages, is their key challenge going forward.

Photos coutesy of Providence Art, Culture + Tourism

Aaron M. Renn is a urban policy analyst and consultant based in New York City.  His writings appear at his blog, The Urbanophile, and in other publications

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