Garrett-Petts, W.F. (ed.): The Small Cities Book: On the Cultural Future of Small Cities.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Rutland, Ted
Pub Date: 06/22/2006
Publication: Name: Canadian Journal of Urban Research Publisher: Institute of Urban Studies Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2006 Institute of Urban Studies ISSN: 1188-3774
Issue: Date: Summer, 2006 Source Volume: 15 Source Issue: 1
Topic: NamedWork: The Small Cities Book: On the Cultural Future of Small Cities (Book)
Persons: Reviewee: Garrett-Petts, W.F.
Accession Number: 155783072
Full Text: Garrett-Petts, W.F. (ed.) The Small Cities Book: On the Cultural Future of Small Cities Vancouver: New Star Books ISBN 1-55420-009-1 374 pp.

A book about small cities is a rare breed--and a book on the culture of small cities is rarer still. As Lon Dubinsky notes in The Small Cities Book, "most research and writing on cities, and across the academic disciplines, is decidedly 'metrocentric.'" Plaudits to Dubinsky for coining a new term, and to the many contributors to this book, which is a new collection of essays and works of art exploring the challenges and possibilities for cultural development in small cities. Though not without flaws, The Small Cities Book fills a gaping hole in the urban studies literature by examining the smaller nodes in the urban system. The analysis, which focuses on the city of Kamloops, is varied and methodologically creative, furnishing the reader as much with insight into small cities as it does inspiration for further research.

The book is divided into three parts. In Part 1, "Cultural Formations and Possible Futures," the authors attempt to position the contemporary small city within a broader economic and cultural landscape. MacKinnon and Nelson, in a noteworthy chapter, chart the effects of global economic restructuring and a province-wide recession in the early 1980s on the Kamloops economy. The city, like many other small cities, has suffered from disinvestment and downsizing in its traditional economic base and so has become increasingly reliant on "postindustrial" sectors like business services, tourism, and retail. Despite this transformation, economic power has remained the same: now, as before, it resides primarily in distant corporate headquarters, ensuring that "Kamloops will long be subject to the twists and turns of the global economy."

But power is not always distant. In the following chapter, Dubinsky, Nelson, and Schooling examine the contested (re)development of a downtrodden Kamloops neighbourhood. A proposed social housing complex was effectively blocked by a group of local residents and business owners, citing concerns for the neighbourhood's image and future economic prospects. The authors note that the proposal could only be evaluated on the basis of technical zoning requirements, such as adequate onsite parking, which the proposal apparently met. How, then, was the proposal defeated? It is not clear from the analysis, and I found myself disappointed that the authors did not probe the matter further, as it might have revealed something about the local operation of power in small cities. Here, perhaps, is an issue ripe for further research (by these or other authors).

Part 2, "Cultural Narratives and Representations," examines the representation of the small city in literature and the visual arts. The section includes images of professional and amateur works of art depicting Kamloops, which offer a unique and sometimes penetrating perspective on the meaning of place. What is interesting here, I think, is the emphasis on, and importance of, the surrounding landscape to the constitution of the small city. Unlike, say, Manhattan, which New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg once positioned at the centre of a landscape that fades to irrelevance west of the Hudson River, Kamloops is not a world unto itself. Garrett-Petts writes: "Difficult to define as either rural or urban, cities like Kamloops occupy an uncertain position ... the small city inevitably sees itself, at least in part, as a city on the margin, on the edge." This "uncertain position" is reiterated in Ratsoy's review of literary renderings of Kamloops. She argues that, due to its distance (and therefore distinction) from large centres and its dependence (for its existence and identity) on the rural landscape that surrounds it, "Kamloops has had an exceptionally fluid identity in writing."

Part 3, "Cultural Symbols and Identities," explores several "performances" of the small city, from graffiti art, to political theatre. The section, though it has much to offer, includes what I regard as the weakest material in the book. Rather than single out individual authors, I would rather pursue a broader critique--one that I think applies to research on small cities in general. Perhaps because small cities, as a whole, are threatened by global processes of economic restructuring (as well as growing "metrocentrism" in government policy), there is a tendency to collapse the various--and often conflicting interests--of small city residents into one unified voice. Authors will, for example, make (or recite) claims about what "the city" wants or needs, when I doubt that the interests of residents are so aligned that such statements can be made with validity.

Research needs to ask questions, I think, about who is served and who is silenced by representations of the interests of "the city." This is, perhaps, a minor criticism, and it detracts only slightly from what is, overall, an excellent and, indeed, necessary book. The Small Cities Book is the best and most ambitious work on small cities that I have encountered and a "must-read" for anyone concerned with the future of Canada's smaller communities.

Ted Rutland

Department of Geography

University of British Columbia
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2006 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.