My son, the thoughtful curator of my must-reads non-fiction list, has done it again. For Christmas, he gave me the American bestseller Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America.
The book, published in 2018, was written by award-winning The Atlantic Monthly journalists James and Deborah Fallows.
The Fallows have made significant public service contributions in their careers – James as President Jimmy Carter’s speech writer, and Deborah as a research associate of the Pew Research Center and at Georgetown University.
Our Towns is the product of four years (2013 through 2016) of hopscotching across America in their small plane, seeking out and recording civic and economic innovation in what many observers have come to regard as a trivialized and tortured political landscape.
What the Fallows discovered, however, was much evidence of rethinking and progressive action to cope with economic disruption, environmental issues and the opioid crisis.
Notably, the positive impact of broad scale Hispanic immigration is often apparent. Basically, their small (for example, Ajo, Ariz.) and large town (for example Louisville, Ky.) ethnographies are full of hope.
Reading the book is a tonic for those whose past year has focused too much on broader problems, in the absence of fresh intelligence about the resurgence of some fine American values and capacities at the grassroots.
The individual town reports (they are skillfully drawn economic and social ethnographies), follow a basic methodology of arrival, accommodation, key informant interviews, first-hand observations and analysis.
Out of this process flow two chapters of learnings: What We Saw and What We Learned and 10 and a Half Signs of Civic Success. Underpinning the successes were a broad base of civic leaders and change agents working together, across party lines and clearly focused on local goals.
It’s noted that the degree to which Washington, D.C., deadlock and rancour were not discussed was a broad indicator of local success in dealing with locally chosen issues.
The 10 and a half signs of civic success that the authors sketch out in their brief final chapter are worthy of serious reflection:
- People work together on practical local possibilities, rather than allowing bitter disagreements about national politics to keep them apart.
- You can pick out the local patriots.
- The phrase “public-private partnership” refers to something real.
- People know the civic story.
- They have downtowns.
- They are near a research university.
- They have, and care about, a community college.
- They have distinctive, innovative schools.
- They make themselves open.
- They have big plans.
- (or 10 and a half) A city on the way back will have at least one craft brewery.
Core to the good news that the Fallows describe is quality public education, and the positive effects of locally designed and operated research projects.
In many of their 43 study communities, the registry of local heroes relies heavily on teachers, academic administrators and professors. They often act as idea originators, instructors in application, and conducting evaluative and replicable research. Once the research reveals community needs and skills, the local education capacity can be fine-tuned to produce them.
Many of the communities have cultural, environmental and public service projects that champion local values and build capacity for other applications. For example, the American Prairie Reserve project in Montana addresses expanding parkland, bison preservation and prairie species adaptation to climate change.
The observation that craft breweries are a good indicator of local resilience and action is also a metaphor for the book’s core conclusion: the towns that are best preparing for their futures have creative ambition, a youthful and entrepreneurial base, and are not bound by past economic models. They are in a true sense making their futures.
Our Towns can also be read from a Canadian perspective. While as a country we lack the scale of populist rancour so fanned by a few American ideologues in 2018, we face parallel needs in coping with economic disruption, climate change and the pressures of greater immigration. In these respects our towns play a similar role.
I certainly found myself ticking off the benefits of Sunshine Coast and Vancouver Island communities, especially when compared to living costs in Vancouver. And I have a new appreciation for Townsite Brewing in Powell River, our local craft brewery.