Shrinking smart … and thriving

John Lawrence’s message from Dec. 11, 2017

Some small Iowa communities are losing population, but that doesn’t mean they are withering away. Some of them are thriving. You might say they are shrinking smart. That’s the terminology used by an NSF-funded multidisciplinary team (from architecture, computer science, planning and sociology) in their new publication, “Shrink-Smart Small Towns.” (You can download the complete report from the Extension Store.) Authored by David Peters, associate professor and extension rural sociologist, and Kimberly Zarecor, associate professor of architecture, the report discusses the reasons some communities are still thriving as they lose population. Did you know?

  • This study looked at one randomly selected Iowa community per county with a population of at least 500 but under 10,000, not adjacent to a major city.
  • Towns were classified as growing or shrinking and as smart or poor by comparing change in population with change in quality of life. The study identified 12 shrink-smart towns.
  • Peters found that shrink-smart towns are tied to agriculture and have grown their industrial employment base. However, shrink-smart towns also have diverse and inclusive social linkages. Residents participate more in local projects and belong to more organizations. Overall, these communities foster a culture of openness to new ideas and support of others.

The first thing shrinking towns can do to improve their quality of life is focus on their social infrastructure, Peters says. Bridge the divides across economic class, race and ethnicity, gender, and even between newcomers and long-time residents. Encourage folks to join organizations and get involved in local projects. These actions involve leadership and human capital rather than brick, mortar and smokestacks. They don’t cost much to implement, but the pay back is significant. And, leadership and capacity building is something that ISU Extension and Outreach does very well. The research team, lead by Zarecor, is in the process of interviewing residents and leaders in select shrink-smart towns to identify best practices that can be used by other communities across Iowa. Visit the project website for details.

A few more notes

  • Make sure to review the December program update from the leadership team.
  • The county fair partnership agreement materials are available online. The template will assist counties in having discussions between Extension, Fair Boards and FFA as they develop their own agreement tailored to their county fair needs.
  • The Faces of Iowa State exhibit has begun touring the state, and the first stop is the Maquoketa Art Experience. If you haven’t seen the exhibit yet (or even if you have), check it out while it’s on the road during the next year.

— John D. Lawrence
Iowa State University Interim Vice President for Extension and Outreach

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