A handful of Iowa communities and a group of Iowa State University researchers are trying to demonstrate that less can, in fact, be more, and small can, in fact, be vibrant.
If you’re smart about it.
In an outgrowth of community surveys begun a quarter century ago, ISU researchers have identified what they call “Shrink Smart” communities. Like so many others, particularly smaller free-standing rural communities, they have steadily lost population since the 1980s recession and farm crisis.
Yet, the Shrink Smart communities, according to survey data, are viewed by their residents as having a high quality of life. They’re safe. They’re nice places to live and raise families, and to have fun. They also have good internet access, making it possible to work as well as live there. Many feature historic older houses and preserved, reused commercial buildings and schools, and small business startups.
The Iowa State researchers identified a half-dozen and visited them. They are studying them in the hopes of sharing insights into what’s working to keep quality of life high while population goes down.
“To me the cities that are maintaining quality of life are those that have been able to pivot and find ways to exist outside of being an agrarian community,” said Bruce Perry, a City Council member and fourth-generation resident of Sac City, a Shrink Smart town of just more than 2,000 people in west-central Iowa. He’s also a member of the executive board of the Iowa League of Cities, which has its eye on Shrink Smart as a window to the future.
Perry and representatives from other Shrink Smart communities made a presentation at a League of Cities annual conference in September.
Perry said he and friends in town recall a time, when he was in kindergarten in the early ’60s, when a school bus could drive one square mile and fill up with kids from large farm families.
With a shift to more mechanized agriculture, and a decline in family size, those days are gone. Sac City’s population has declined by 157 people, about 7 percent, in the last 10 years, according to 2020 Census data. The middle school is closing after this school year.
The trend there mirrors other communities in Iowa and the upper Midwest. IowaWatch analyzed 2020 census data that showed 636 of the state’s 923 towns with fewer than 5,000 people lost population or made no gains since 2010. Another 41 of the 923 towns with fewer than 5,000 people gained only 1% in population while 246 gained population since the 2010 census.
“We still have to have our agrarian base,” Perry said. “But we need to find other things to augment that agrarian economy.”
The people who live in Sac City and the other Shrink Smart communities (with some help from former residents) band together and work together on projects to make and keep their towns nice. Individuals work in concert with local government.
In Sac City, it’s a streetscape project and a study for reuse of the middle school. In Elma, in northeast Iowa, it’s a $1.4 million fund drive for conversion of an elementary school building into a community center for a new public library and child care center. In Bancroft in north-central Iowa, it’s pooling resources for a building to house a grocery store, and new “value-added” ag businesses like a precision-farming seed operation and a distillery, plus a big Fourth of July celebration.
Representatives of each of those three communities, including Sac City council member Perry, participated at the League of Cities panel discussion in September. It was hosted by ISU professors involved in the Shrink Smart program, including Kimberly Zarecor, a professor of architecture.
“With each community, people in the audience were just amazed to hear all the creative ways they get people involved, get businesses involved,” Zarecor said. “All the communities have a lot of volunteers for activities. People were so pleased. … These communities have all lost people in the last census; the communities are not growing – and yet, we see all this very active work.
Communities may not control larger economic or social forces, Zarecor said, and shrinking is likely to continue.
“But within a community, the people who want to be there, the people who have chosen to stay, and some of them are returning, what we’re finding is that they can still do all of this even as the population loss continues,” she said.
Home is where their heart is.
The Shrink Smart project has received backing from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in its Smart & Connected Communities grant program. The project received $1.5 million in support for the research in 2020 and the work is expected to extend into 2024.
The “Shrink Smart Small Towns” were initially identified in a 2017 Iowa State publication, based on ISU-compiled Iowa “Small Towns Project” polling data from the early 1990s.
“It’s a different approach, and it looks like it’s working in a number of places,” said Biswa Das, an ISU professor of community and regional planning involved in the Shrink Smart project. It’s an approach not necessarily predicated on the standard economic development measures of new and expanding business and job and population growth, but on maintaining quality of life.
The researchers emphasize these towns may not rebound to the population levels of decades ago, but they’re going to remain alive and vibrant.
The towns share some common traits that can be models for other communities, they said.
The ISU researchers are working with the Iowa League of Cities and the identified Shrink Smart communities to pass on what has worked in those towns to other communities in the state and the Midwest.
“This gives us a new opportunity to learn about why certain smaller rural communities are successful. And honestly, that’s what our members want to hear about,” said Alan Kemp, executive director of the Iowa League of Cities. “This was really a chance to hone in on just this issue and really highlight those cities who are doing well, and then take the information and take it out to our other communities that would like to find out, ‘Well, maybe we can do that.’
Kemp has been working with Iowa’s cities – now numbering 923 – for more than 20 years. He was skeptical the state could maintain that number.
“We do lose a couple a year. But I’m mostly amazed at the fact that they do stick around. They view themselves as remaining vital, regardless of their size,” he said. “They really do want to find ways to achieve success. That may be just maintaining themselves. I think that’s the real value of this program.”
ISU architecture professor Zarecor, who is involved in the project with colleagues Das and ISU sociology professor David Peters, started on the project about five years ago.
The idea came out of Zarecor’s previous research on the history of architecture of Eastern Europe. “I studied Czechoslovakia, and one of the cities where I lived and did research is a shrinking city. There was a body of research in a European-urban context about shrinking cities.”
Zarecor reached out to Peters, with the Iowa Small Towns Project and his background in rural sociology, to see what might be possible.
“Because there seemed to be an urgency to address what was, and still is, a kind of spiraling situation – that small towns are losing people quickly, and they don’t seem to have any strategies for handling that,” Zarecor said.
“Smart shrinkage, as a concept, is interesting in relation to that, because it accepts shrinkage as the start of the project,” she said. “It’s not an effort to grow communities. It’s not an effort to have strategies for them, in the long term, to add people or jobs. It’s about looking at places where shrinkage is a fact of life, or it’s the new normal, and what does a community do?
The ISU researchers failed to find any research or media about shrinking rural communities that are staying vital.
“We built up a methodology that uses the data from the Iowa Small Town Poll as a way to understand more about what’s going on in communities where the population is going down, but the perceptions of the people in the community are improving over time. So we’re not necessarily looking at the highest quality of life; we’re looking at the trend line of improving quality of life,” Zarecor said.
“We were really interested in this ‘purposive’ behavior,” said Peters.
“The (conventional) narratives are either, ‘All small towns are declining and withering away economically, demographically, socially,’ or you have people who are filling communities with false hopes that ‘If you build a business park,’ or ‘you do programs X,Y and Z,’ you’re going to grow your town,’” Peters said.
What stood out was the concept from the European Union. “It’s kind of accepting the directions of your town. But it doesn’t mean the quality of life in the town has to be terrible.
“You may be losing population. You may be losing jobs and that’s a long-term systemic trend. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the quality of life in the community can’t be decent,” Peters said. “It’s not going to be the same as an Ames or an Ankeny. But you can have a great quality of life.
The researchers used the poll data and visited communities to ensure the facts were correct. They were.
“All towns have leaders, and strong leaders,” Peters said. “The style of leadership matters much more than having a leader.
Inclusive or shared leadership will triumph over closed or top-down leadership. “Shared leadership – this openness, transparency, and having this leadership be fluid – is a characteristic in most of these towns,” Peters said.
That leadership is embedded in city staff, even if there are one or two people or even a part-time clerk. “But in each of the communities that we have been in, that person is somebody who’s a leader and very focused on the work and doing a great job,” said Zarecor.
ISU professor Das brings expertise in local government finance, working with communities around the state for several years.
“A lot of them go through this prolonged phase of fiscal stress,” Das said.” It’s getting more and more challenging to maintain the levels of revenue; there’s more and more state-mandated legislation.” But, he said, “To Kimberly’s point, some of the communities we’re working with have been smart in how they have been borrowing,” paying off debt before issuing more for additional projects.
Das agreed leadership and private capital are key. Projects in Shrink Smart communities do not rely solely on public resources.
“People ask often, when we talk about this project, where do they get this private money?” Zarecor said. “It’s wealth from within the community – from people who have been long-term residents, whose businesses have thrived in these places. Especially as they retire, they are willing to share the money they have built up over a lifetime of connection and relationship-building in the community.
There are some towns where residents are contributing thousands of of dollars from families who feel the town has been their home base, Zarecor said.
“It’s not that you can’t do things without these people,” she added. “But I think it’s important for people to understand there is a spirit of generosity, and this is part of what we see in the communities that are doing better. Because I think there’s maybe a sense (of) the public good.
Besides generosity, there’s trust that the projects will benefit the people.
Zarecor related a story of a city clerk who received a large donation of cash in the mail from a former resident of one of the Shrink Smart communities, and donations based on trust built up from work and follow through on previous projects.
“We’ve been impressed to see that people don’t necessarily want to get credit and are willing to give money that’s for efforts they know will benefit a broad swath of the community,” Zarecor said. “It doesn’t seem to be ego driven. It’s more about the quality of life. I think in these towns the wealthy people who do give a lot are very much appreciated.
Peters went on: “It can happen in these small, out-of-the-way declining towns. You can build it, or it can atrophy. It really had to be built and maintained by people in the community, through constant interaction.
That’s where the personal, social capital comes in. “The more you engage, the more people trust, the more you strengthen those bonds, the more you’re able to do. There’s a lot of things they don’t control, but it is mostly within their power to create this spirit of cooperation.”
Das found on their visits that there were one or two people who had been devoted for the long term.
“The danger comes when those people have to step aside” for age or family reasons, Peters said. “It takes a dedicated individual; and can you institutionalize that? Is that possible?”
However, Zarecor said, some towns are mentoring a new generation of leaders.
“All the towns recognize they should be doing this, that they should be bringing younger people into the civic work and into leadership roles. But it’s also idiosyncratic those people happen to be there. It’s kind of the perfect confluence.”
READ ALL STORIES IN THE SHRINK SMART SERIES:
How 3 Iowa towns are getting smaller but smarter through Iowa State program
Generations of local leaders propel Bancroft, population 699
Elma, population 505, meets town needs through bridge building, $1.4 million project
Sac City, population 2,000, builds on its good bones
Iowa’s shrinking towns could be state, regional mentors
Pat Kinney is a longtime Iowa journalist who previously was a reporter and editor at the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.
IowaWatch – the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news outlet focused on investigative journalism and educating young journalists. IowaWatch reporting in this project was made possible by support from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.