Research from the Iowa State University examining rural towns in the state that have shrunk in population has shown that many preserved their community connections and quality of life.
The Rural Shrink Smart initiative builds upon the Iowa Small Towns Project, which has looked at residents in nearly 100 Iowa towns since 1994 and measured levels of local services and amenities, social conditions, participation in local organizations, and perceptions of local quality of life.
Funded by the National Science Foundation, the Rural Shrink Smart project focuses on six towns in Iowa: Elma, Sac City, Bancroft, Corning, Mount Ayr and Everly.
“Over time, most rural communities are losing population,” said Kimberly Zarecor, professor of Architecture who heads the initiative, in an interview with the Daily Yonder.
“The whole premise of our project is to say, let’s put the population conversation to the side. Instead, we really want to focus on investing in your community, the people in your community, the amenities and services that you offer, the social networks, the relationships, making people feel happy living in the community, and we think that this is the best path forward.”
During the next few years, the researchers involved in the project will develop resources, including a field guide, that will allow other communities to draw upon the lessons learned from the six communities, Zarecor said.
“If a community is interested to know what’s worked in other similar communities, this field guide would give them some examples, some strategies, some kind of data about these communities and really emphasize to them that the population question has is not connected directly to quality of life, you can be shrinking, and still have improving quality of life.”
Iowa, Zarecor noted, has a unique set of data from its Small Towns Project research data sets. A next step is figuring out how the initiative can be replicated in other areas, whether it’s another state or another country such as in Finland, which is also dealing with dwindling rural populations.
But data collection and how that data is compared to other data sets is an issue that needs to be worked out, she added.
David Peters, a professor of Sociology and Extension Rural Sociologist and a researcher on the initiative, said no one is going to come and save the rural communities.
“We’re advocating really to have these small towns take ownership for their own future,” he told the Daily Yonder. “Because that’s their best bet.”
And that’s what the six communities being researched are focusing on. Elma, for example, is a town of 500 people. Together with some community foundations, the residents raised more than $300,000 to open a 24/7-access fitness center, Peters said.
The “private sector isn’t going to build a gym in a town of 500 in the middle of nowhere,” he added. “The state doesn’t have the money to do that.”
Bruce Perry is a church musician, city councilor and involved in various ways in the community of Sac City, population 2,000.
“I think we’ve got a lot to offer for our community of its size,” he said. “And the people really do a pretty good job of working together.”
He noted that Sac City was an overnight stop last summer for RAGBRAI, or Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, an eight-day bike ride across the state.
“For a town of 2,000 to prepare for 12,000 people to spend the night – you have a lot of people working together, and they were doing a really good job of that. And so there’s quite a bit of community pride,” Perry said.
People think success is measured by population growth, but it should be quality of life, he said.
“We are so ingrained to think, ‘OK, bigger is better.’ But I would say that better is better,” Perry added.