There is a false premise that shrinking towns equal withering towns. That's not always true according to a
published by David Peters, associate professor and extension rural sociologist at Iowa State University.
Peters, as part of an
interdisciplinary research team on campus
led by Kimberly Zarecor, associate professor of architecture,
found that the quality of life in some small Iowa towns has thrived despite shrinking populations. These towns are referred to as "shrink-smart."
The report came as a result of Iowa State's
Smart and Connected Communities Project
, an initiative of the
National Science Foundation,
Small Towns Project
, an integrated research and extension effort to better understand the conditions and issues facing small Midwestern communities. Since 1994, rural sociologists at Iowa State have been collecting survey data on small towns in Iowa with populations between 500 and 10,000. Surveys cover attitudes toward employment, local government, schools, medical services, housing, childcare services, and elderly care. Over the course of 20 years, the data identified 12 small towns that have experienced improved quality of life even as populations decreased.
In comparison with other small communities, shrink-smart towns in general:
- have much lower population densities, indicating smart towns are geographically larger.
- are more closely tied to agriculture and have grown their industrial employment base.
- have higher and growing home values.
- have more children that live in two-parent families and have more college graduates.
- have diverse and inclusive social linkages, and citizens participating more in community projects, and belonging to more organizations.
- are better-kept, more open to new ideas, more trusting, and viewed as safer places.
Peters provides recommendations for towns to maintain quality: bridge social capital, increase civic engagement, and create a culture of openness and support. These suggestions are prioritized because they are inexpensive to implement, can be acted upon in the near-term, and success does not depend on outside socioeconomic or political forces. In other words, it's within a community's power to be successful in implementing these recommendations.
Additional recommendations include stabilizing agricultural employment and growing jobs in goods-producing industries. Both agriculture and manufacturing contribute to higher quality of life by providing middle-skill and middle-wage job opportunities, many which are full-time and full-year positions with decent benefits. These middle-skill jobs better fit the rural labor force that exists in small towns. Peters advises communities to use local and state economic development programs to recruit and retain middle-skill jobs. These suggestions often require sizable financing and long-term planning. In some instances, small towns may be powerless to make these changes in the face of national policy and economic conditions.
Recommendations derived from the Small Towns Project are unique. No other project in the nation examines community life for such a large number of small towns as Iowa State has done for over two decades. The survey allows the university to provide valuable insights into the changes occurring in small towns across Iowa
and inform community development and policy discussions.
The research team plans to work with officials in the 12 shrink-smart towns identified in the report to determine what strategies the communities implemented regarding community involvement and quality of life. From there, they hope to formulate best practices that can be transferred to other rural towns across the state, furthering the extension component of Iowa State's land-grant mission.
Understanding what sets these successful towns apart will be beneficial for state policymakers and leaders in towns of all sizes as they develop strategies to improve their communities, ultimately enhancing economic and social vitality.
Did you know? Population in
Iowa's rural counties declined almost 25% from 1910 to 2010.
Even so, residents in these counties still make up a substantial portion of the state's population. Approximately 26% of Iowans lived in rural counties in 2010. When combined with residents of small cities (10,000 to 50,000 residents) in these counties, the number increases to 43% of the state.