Spending a few days in Hood River, Oregon, made me reflect on what makes a vibrant small city. Hood River bears similarities to my former home town of Nelson, British Columbia. Both have an outdoor sports orientation; the demographics of both towns are weighted towards young people, and neither town is dominated by a single industry. The downtown cores are alive with mixed use, funky stores and seriously hardcore coffee shops. You can get an excellent espresso and a muffin in either town at 7am on a Sunday morning, and likewise you can get ethnic food at 10 o’clock on a Tuesday night. The second stories of the downtown buildings, empty and underutilized in most towns, are here occupied by apartments, studios, startup companies and offices.

What special chemistry makes towns like Hood River and Nelson successful? Good urban planning? Visionary City Councils? Progressive mayors? I would say no. In my estimation, the biggest single attribute that makes these towns successful is geography, or rather the lack of it. Both towns are tucked into steep, mountainous terrain. They are hemmed in by water on one side, and unbuildable 35 degree slopes on the other. There is simply no room for sprawling suburban strip malls, gargantuan parking lots and bland pastel suburbs. Commerce, by and large, is forced to rely on that quaint, old-fashioned concept: Main Street. Fortunately, neither town had reason to eviscerate their downtown thoroughfare (Oak Street in Hood River, Baker Street in Nelson), so a serviceable, low-rise and architecturally varied building stock remains. High urban density and pedestrian orientation means that downtown merchants have a good chance of survival. Adaptive re-use is the name of the game: old gas stations become sporting goods stores, defunct canneries become breweries, and so on. Carpenters are kept busy renovating old heritage homes. There are lots of attic and basement rental suites, and they are full.

Certainly you can find a Wal-Mart-and a suburb–in either town, but mountains and rivers keep them in check. As a result, each town has been able to develop a distinctive (and slightly funky) identity.

There is a lesson to be learned in these two successful towns, but their success has nothing to do with politicians or planners, and everything to do with a constrained urban footprint. Hood River and Nelson are fortunate to have difficult geography. All the other flat-ground American and Canadian small towns will have to come up with a political substitute for steep mountains and big rivers. And good luck to them on that.