The New American Small Town

Research on small towns in the 21st century.

Follow my Summer 2016 travels here.

Read more about my 2008 dissertation research here.

As we question the future of the city, the small town urban form is often seen as a model for the compact, walkable, sustainable neighborhood (Duyany & Plater-Zyberk 1992 began a recent trend, with many others following). While some see the small town as dying, the ideal and the myth of these places remains an important part of how we think about community and what human settlements should look like. The American small town is portrayed — in popular media as well as in the new urbanist design movement — as possessing the best qualities of urban life: the urban village and the open countryside.

My research reconsiders this portrayal by describing national trends in small cities and investigating local experiences. It expands upon the relatively sparse literature on small towns by placing the small town in an urban context. I believe that small towns must be “rethought.” To plan for a more sustainable future, small towns need to be recategorized — not as rural, isolated, and static, but as connected and dynamic urban places. Research on small towns must look beyond their bucolic rural settings in order to recognize the distinctly urban changes occurring there.

Most urban theorists care little for small towns. Manuel Castells and Saskia Sassen, for example, see the future of small towns as dim. They will soon be “pushed away to counterculture marginality” (Castells 2000, 440). Sassen, too, writes that globalization is localized in large cities, and that important changes are happening in these places, not in small cities and towns (1994, 73). Academic research reflects these assumptions. When authors write about urban change (or global/national change in urban places), it is most often situated in cities with large populations ― important cities. Small towns are not seen as worthy of research on topics like (im)migration, gentrification, and economic polarization. Yet just as global processes have magnified local change in large cities, small towns have undergone a similar material and cognitive shift.

By recognizing small towns as “urban,” these places are subject to the same contemporary trends ascribed to world cities. Small towns can offer more general insight into urban processes as “ordinary cities” (Robinson 2006, Amin & Graham 1997) My research explores the implications of the new American small town through analyses of the sociocultural implications of urban change, the forces and processes of this change, and the emerging 21st century American landscape.


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