Shrinking Smart in Iowa

Across the US, many rural towns, especially those facing loss of a major employer or industry, face a tough decision: try to jumpstart growth again or try to manage a process of “smart shrinkage.”  Most places opt for seeking future growth, but a few places are embracing “smart shrinkage.”  This concept first emerged in Europe in the aftermath of the Berlin Wall’s collapse and decline of major industries such as coal and manufacturing.  In response, some towns in Germany and across Central and Eastern Europe sought to purposely and gradually downsize, recognizing that their futures would involve fewer local residents and fewer local economic assets.  By continuing to invest in quality of life and other local assets, these towns bargained that they could maintain a strong sense of place and community spirit, without having to attract new residents or new employers.  Over time, European researchers and community leaders have developed a host of useful ideas and lessons learned.  Some examples can be accessed here and here.

Back in 2016, Iowa State University researchers, with National Science Foundation support, sought to test the “smart shrinkage” approach to rural development in six small Iowa towns. This Rural Shrink Smart project, which is nearing its completion date, has found that it is possible for small towns to support a reduced population, while maintaining an excellent quality of life and strong community spirit.  Each town has a unique story, but the basic message is simple:  successful places invested in key local assets like housing, arts and culture, and community amenities.   Along the way, these investments helped to build strong social capital and community spirit—people felt connected and embedded in their communities even if their economies were less vibrant than in the past. The research team is finishing up their work, and intend to produce a community field guide in the future.  Watch this space for more details.