The Iowa Small Towns Project is an integrated research and extension effort to better understand the conditions and issues facing small Midwestern communities in the 21st century. Using data from small towns that has been continuously collected since 1994, the project: (i) produces academic papers to further our research mission, and (ii) develops and delivers community outreach materials to further our extension mission. To our knowledge, no other project examines aspects of community life for such a large number of small towns over two decades. This allows us to provide truly unique insights into the changes occurring in small towns across Iowa and the Midwest.
The project has been supported by grants from USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (Agriculture Economics and Rural Communities program). Continuing support is provided by Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, ISU Extension and Outreach, and ISU Department of Sociology.
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Why Small Towns?
Changes in the physical and social infrastructure of America, particularly in farming, since the early 1900s have led to a loss of population in Iowa’s rural counties of almost 25 percent from 1910 to 2010. During that same time, metropolitan counties in the state gained 141.7 percent. The common perception after viewing such statistics is that small towns are dying. They are seen as places with declining populations of mostly aging residents, empty store fronts, and a quaint way of life past its time. Given the century long downward trend in population the continued decline of small towns may seem inevitable, and perhaps to some, unimportant. We disagree.
The fate of small towns matters to their residents, obviously, but also to urbanites and the state as a whole. Despite the overall population loss in Iowa’s rural counties, some towns in those counties managed to avoid the dire circumstances of their neighbors. Understanding what sets these successful towns apart from the less successful can provide valuable insight into enhancing economic and social vitality in small towns and improving residents’ quality of life. State policy makers and leaders of cities and towns of all sizes will benefit from this knowledge as they develop strategies to improve their situation.
Although rural counties have lost population their residents still constitute a substantial portion of the state. Approximately 807,280 Iowans or 26.5 percent lived in rural counties in 2010. When combined with those in counties with a small city (cities with 10,000 to 50,000 residents), the number increases to 1,325,160, or 43.5 percent of the state. Even this number underestimates those with an interest in small towns. If given a choice and the economic opportunity, opinion polls show that a sizeable portion of residents who migrated to metropolitan areas would return to the small town where they grew up and individuals who grew up in more densely populated areas would move to smaller towns. Although these findings are somewhat dated, they demonstrate the appeal of small town living to at least some city residents. More recently, a Pew Foundation study (2009) found that 30% of the American public would prefer to live in a small town. Also, small towns are a significant part of the cultural and economic heritage of the state.