Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

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 the 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.

Also, 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.

Topics: Demographic Analysis, Economic Development, Strategic Planning, Urban Culture
Cities: Providence

11 Responses to “Providence and the Virtues of Scale”

  1. Sid Burgess says:


    This was interesting to read as I have been discussing this very vein of thought about Oklahoma City. Minus the neighboring 1st tier city, OKC has a lot of the same struggles and advantages and the vibe you experienced is what I fell in love with while I lived there.

    I hope you do get to write more about your experience in Providence as I believe your insight into that metro will have useful application elsewhere.

    Thank you for all that you do and taking the time to write this post.

  2. James says:

    Well, as someone who has lived in the Providence metro and spent most his life in the Boston metro, I’d say you lived up to your reputation of representing a place fairly.

    I would add an element of history to your survey of Providence, however. The comparison between the decrepit, nearly failed Providence of previous decades to the fairly attractive, globally connected small city of today forms an important part of the Providence narrative. Urban planners should look to Providence to learn lessons about the possibilities of revitalization strategies. Suburban-imitation investments like Providence Place mall form one lesson. Daylighting a culverted river and embracing downtown vitality form another. I believe Providence is a successful small city largely because it remembered that it is in fact a city and acted accordingly.

  3. John Morris says:

    Shame people took so long to see that, the failed old Providence, Pawtucket, region was loaded with the textile mill buildings people would kill for.

  4. Anon says:

    I have lived in Los Angeles, Indianapolis, and Providence (just northwest of Brown) in 2005-2006.

    My experience is that Providence (and RI in general) is a very attractive place in terms of architecture and natural beauty but the people are not friendly if you are an outsider (ie not born in RI) and drive like maniacs.

    The traffic is generally very light and not very fast but you really are taking your life in your hands to drive there because no one follows traffic laws (running red lights and stop signs was very common). This compares to LA where everyone drives fast and traffic is heavy but people in general know how to drive appropriately – RI is just a chaotic free for all.

    I also had a very difficult time finding quality software talent (to hire) that was interested in staying in the area – the regional office of an LA firm I was trying to establish there failed for primarily this reason.

  5. Providencian says:

    Thanks for the piece, Aaron. I am a young professional, lifelong New Englander (MA, NH, now RI) and have enjoyed living in Providence for 3 years.

    Your analysis is mostly accurate in my experience. To add to it: I think the city is a great place to live for renters – young professionals, students, and artists. It’s got everything Boston has to offer for the younger set – maybe just one or two of it, instead of five. Plus the food and ‘local-made’ scene is amazing.

    As far as neighborhoods: The East Side is perfect for the upper middle class or the wealthy, since it’s beautiful but small fixer-upper homes START at $300K. Much of the west and south sides of the city are essentially working poor South and Latin American immigrant neighborhoods who moved into the three-decker blocks as the Irish and Italians moved out over the past three decades. As far as the middle-class (i.e. moderate income homeowners or aspiring homeowners)…I don’t see it as great right now. There are plenty of affordable homes – but only in the more run-down neighborhoods. And the reputation of the public schools is that of most urban districts: not good. For a small city, Providence’s good neighborhood/bad neighborhood and class/race divide is HUGE. Basically, in my view, the downtown core, the East Side, and the college areas are wonderful, whereas the entire reach of city west of I-95 ranges from a little worn to downright dirty and crime-ridden.

    The nagging recession has dulled the “Providence Renaissance” that redeveloped the city in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, but I feel strongly that the city has a lot of potential if the entrenched status-quo politicians with their parochial attitudes could get out of their own way!

    Also, let me know if I can help you “grok” New England culture. I’m a big proponent of it.

  6. Alon Levy says:

    What Providencian said. Providence has this weird juxtaposition of decline and revitalization – run-down areas but also College Hill, high unemployment but also high income growth. I’ll have more on this sometime this week, I can’t promise when.

  7. Providence and Rhode Island remind me of Singapore, the world’s most successful city-state. To have a state government aparatus at beck and call, as Providence has, ought to be a tremendous advantage.

  8. George Mattei says:

    Culturally, the big thing to get about New Englanders (I was raised as one but now live in Columbus, OH) is that thier sense of self-worth is predicated on their past, not their future. When Connecticut lost the UPS headquarters, everyone kind of shrugged, because to them, corporations don’t make status.

    In Columbus, a loss like that would be mourned for years, because it subtracts from the future, and from the self-wroth of the area. But in New England (except to some extent Boston) folks take more pride in their colonial past and their historical built environment than in current day matters. Sure jobs matter, but really the region is more concerned about protecting its cultural history first.

    Rhode Island is a bit different, because just about everyone I ever met from there proclaims to hate it. I think it was due to the rampant corruption that seemed to constantly rear its head, which is a definite negative. I personally thought it was a charming place with a lot of the advantages you mentioned.

  9. Mark Motte says:

    For those interested in reading a little deeper into the perceptive and bang-on observations made by Urbanophile, may I humbly (!) suggest my and my co-author, Francis Leazes, Jr,’s book, “Providence: The Renaissance City” (Northeastern University Press, 2004)?

    We adopted many of the themes that Urbanophile identifies and conducted research, including dozens of interviews with key decision-makers involved in the redevelopment of the city during the period 1975-2000, which was the critical period of resurgence for Providence.

    For those from other medium-sized U.S. cities, there are many lessons which might productively be adopted (or adapted) in quite disparate geographical settings.

    And, yes, the driving here in the Providence metro area is something to behold. I came from London, UK, where the driving is pretty outlandish, but RI drivers take the biscuit for irrational and down-right dangerous behavior on the road. If you break their “rules” you are likely to suffer. By driving cautiously/defensively, I have been rear-ended three times in the last five years!

  10. John Morris says:

    Are we talking about the same city here? I just read that the city’s pension fund is 32% funded. The small neighboring city of Central Falls is one of the first significant municipal bankruptcies.

    I know that lots of cities are having these problems, but given that Providence is home to the state capital and 3 major colleges, including an Ivy League school, and a leading art design school, the performance is pretty bad.
    Add to this, how close it is to Boston and it really looks lousy.

    This is a small city but it’s sad how far the grading curve has been bent.

  11. Chris says:

    Aaron, interesting read!

    My wife and I have been in Providence now for almost three years. We realized when talking about why we like it here that it combines some of the same civic personalities that our hometowns (Madison and Pittsburgh, respectively) have.

    I absolutely think Providence needs more national attention–it is quite unique, for all the good and bad reasons that you and the other commenters mention.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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