Rural American town

Small and vibrant

Jan 24, 2019

Civic engagement is a common trait in vital small towns. 

Recent census reports have not been kind to small towns, with many experiencing steep population declines since the 1980s. But that hasn't stopped many rural communities from maintaining a good quality of life for their residents. Many of these tiny burgs are thriving amid economic challenges. 

What’s the key to their civic success? People are engaged. “We call it social capital,” says Iowa State University sociologist David Peters. “People volunteer for fundraisers or local projects and participate in service organizations. When more people in a community are involved in these things on a regular basis, they create a culture that is more diverse and open to new ideas. As a result, residents have a more positive attitude about the community and feel they have a higher quality of life there.”

David Peters

Peters is part of the Iowa Small Towns project funded by USDA, which has surveyed the same 99 small towns (one in each county in the state) every 10 years since 1994, asking residents how they view local services and amenities and gauging their perceptions of social conditions and quality of life. “It’s the longest same-town survey conducted in the U.S., and it shows how some things have changed fairly significantly since the 1990s,” says Peters.

Changes over those two decades include a shrinking sense of community, less involvement in local organizations and less regret over leaving a community.

“Lack of community involvement often means fewer new leaders, since there are fewer people to mentor others,” notes Peters.


Shrinking smarter

“We’ve seen a lot of media stories in recent years about the decline of rural America and declining quality of life,” says Peters. “As sociologists, we wanted to know if that was really true across the board.”

Peters and his research team received a National Science Foundation grant to compare changes in census data — population, income and education — with results from the Iowa Small Towns project that focuses on attitudes about jobs, local government, schools, medical services, housing, childcare and elder care. They narrowed their focus to towns with
populations between 500 and 10,000 and whose populations had declined in the past 20 years.

The researchers identified 12 rural communities where residents reported quality of life was improving even as populations decreased.

A few characteristics set the dozen Shrink-Smart towns apart, Peters notes: Their economies were largely based in agriculture, they had seen slower population declines than in other communities, many had retained small manufacturing businesses (fewer than 50 employees) and they had grown social capital and civic engagement.

“Within some of the Shrink- Smart communities, 60 percent of the residents had participated in a community project in the past year, compared to just 30 percent in ShrinkPoor communities, which is where population and quality-of-life ratings had declined over the past 20 years,” explains Peters.


Community Traits

"Interviews with residents in some of these Shrink-Smart towns reveal that they have confidence in their communities. That attitude becomes infectious, so more people are willing to invest their time," he says. 

Interviews have been conducted in about half the Shrink-Smart town, and several trait patterns are emerging: 

  • Philanthropy is part of the culture, and fundraisers are held regularly. One Shrink-Smart town of under 600 has four charitable foundations with a combined net worth of nearly $750,000.
  • New and young members of the community are welcomed and accepted in leadership roles. 
  • Innovative ideas are embraced, with less fear of failure. 
  • Activities often focus on community needs that are within local control, such as raising money to build a daycare or fitness center or recruiting businesses. 
  • Regular social activities encourage residents to spend time together. 

"Some of the Shrink-Smart communities may not make a big impression as you drive through them," notes Peters, "but when residents are proud of their communities they're eager to talk about what they're doing. Many are very entrepreneurial."

After they complete the interviews in the Shrink-Smart towns, Peters and his colleagues will share best practices with other communities."


Small town in America 


Just ask

In the 20-plus years that Jane Nolan Goeken has been helping people polish their leadership skills and develop strategies to improve their communities, there's one piece of advice she finds herself repeating: "If you want to get people involved, you need to ask them."

That simple idea is easy to overlook, says the Iowa State University Extension community development specialist. "When community leaders want to get more people involved in committee work and leadership roles, they need to reach out and ask for help and input."

A survey question in the 2014 Iowa Small Towns project underscores this point. When residents were asked to rate their reasons for not being involved in community projects, the number-one answer was because they hadn't been asked. 

34% of small-town residents say they aren't involved because they haven't been asked. 

Source: Sigma: A Profile of Iowa Small Towns 1994 to 2014


Where to start

Looking for resources to help your small-town community succeed? Start with these programs

Main Street America

Promotes community-led revitalization through resources, technical services and educational programs. 

Community Visioning

Focused on landscape planning and design to maximize an area's geographic resources and beauty.

Rural Development Initiatives

Provides leadership training and community planning aid for economic revitalization. 

Citizens' Institute on Rural Design

Helps rural communities build strong economies, grow jobs, protect historic and culturally significant resources, and improve appearance. 


Check out the full C magazine with this article and more.

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