While America’s major metropolitan cities often take center stage in national issues, the country’s smaller cities and towns have a culture, vibrancy and uniqueness all their own. This June, we’re highlighting small cities looking to the future as part of Small Cities Month 2018.
When he was 14 years old, Mayor Rick Mullen remembers reading the Sea Around Us, a book by the American marine biologist Rachel Carson. Though Mullen was only a high schooler, the book helped him picture the flow of life under the ocean — the cycle of life and death, the impact of humans on the marine environment, all of it.
Today, Mullen serves as the mayor of Malibu, California, a city currently implementing a ban on plastic straws and single-use plastic utensils in an effort to protect the surrounding ocean and wildlife. But beyond environmental impacts, the ban is a testament to the effect that small cities can have in their country, their state and their nation.
“[Malibu] has 15 million visitors and 21 miles of coastline,” says Mullen. “We have an immense amount of people on the beach, and an immense impact on the ocean.” Moreover, the mayor emphasizes how his small city (as of the 2016, Malibu had just under 13,000 residents) could influence not just the surrounding area, but the nation as a whole.
“Our small town has the broadest name recognition on the earth. We’re able to use the name recognition of our town to make an impact,” he says, noting that the ban had attracted media from across the United States and even as far away as Japan. “Malibu is raising awareness everywhere.”
According to the City of Malibu, an estimated 500 million plastic straws are used and discarded every day. That’s enough to wrap around the earth 2.5 times per day. In February 2018, the city of Malibu took action, adopting City Ordinance No. 432, banning the use, distribution and sale of single-use plastic straws, stirrers and cutlery in retail stores and restaurants within Malibu city limits.
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When asked about the origins of the ban, Mayor Mullen is quick to share credit. “We’re not the first town to do this,” he noted in an interview, “Environmental groups have been approaching us to get on board for years now. Skylar Peak [city of Malibu Councilmember] really grabbed the bull by the horns.”
Since then, Malibu has been working with local businesses to find alternatives to plastic as the ordinance came into effect earlier this month on June 1st, 2018.
“Conceptually, people are open to it,” he said, noting that there has been some resistance to change, even within his community. “If you’re a business, you have to adjust to a paradigm that doesn’t exist just yet. I completely understand that and get that they have to deal with the realities [of the straw ban].”
But the mayor is confident that any negative impacts in the short term will be worthwhile for the longtime benefit, citing bans on indoor smoking and regulations on emissions from vehicles as previous examples.
Malibu is just one of the thousands of small cities, towns and villages across the country making an impact on the future of their communities and the surrounding areas. With the majority of local governments in the United States serving populations of 10,000 or less, small cities have become incubators and test labs for ideas big and small.
“[The Founding Fathers] intended specifically that most of the laws and decisions that affect you would come from your town, less from your county, less from your state and little from the federal government,” Mullen explained. “People could try things on a small scale, see if it works, and if it catches on, try it themselves. That’s the great thing about a small town taking the lead.”
About the author: Meri St. Jean is a communications specialist at the National League of Cities.