Small towns exercise a particular hold over the American imagination. Many people imagine life would be idlyllic in a place where you run into people who knew your parents or even your grandparents whenever you stop in at the hardware store or take your family for a picnic or go to a polling place on voting day. In this nostalgic place, kids play outdoors until twilight, dogs run free and everyone greets everyone else with a smile that’s sincere most of the time.
Of course, that’s not the reality. Anyone who has taken a road trip has seen plenty of small towns that are clearly struggling to maintain an economic and civic structure. Some were bypassed by a highway; others were hollowed out by industries that failed or malls and box stores built on their fringes. As the environment changed, these towns faltered. Before long, talented young people moved on, leaving behind a blighted patchwork of empty storefronts and marginal businesses.
Fortunately, there are exceptions—small towns that have remained vibrant or recreated themselves in response to new circumstances. In the years since I have retired, I’ve had the opportunity to work on community projects in several small towns including Glens Falls, New York, Frankfurt, Michigan and my hometown, Bowling Green. Because of these projects, I’ve spent some time examining the research into what makes small towns sustainable. Most of these investigations try to identify the qualities that characterize resilient small towns in the hope of replicating them elsewhere. Here are three studies worth noting:
What the Research Shows about Why Small Towns Thrive
Small Towns, Big Ideas was the University of North Carolina’s distillation of an intensive effort to locate and document small towns that were surviving – and, in some cases, thriving – as hubs of civic and economic activity. The publication analyzed development strategies in 45 small towns with populations under 10,000 and identified seven principles that thriving towns have in common (we’ve taken the liberty of condensing them into this format):
- Recognize that community development is economic development.
- Embrace change and assume risk. Be proactive and future-oriented;
- Develop a broadly held local vision to buttress development strategies.
- Capitalize on competitive advantages by defining assets and opportunities. .
- Encourage innovative partnerships.
- Identify, measure and celebrate short-term successes to sustain support for long-term development.
- Deploy a comprehensive package of strategies and tools, rather than a piecemeal approach.
The Pomegranate Center takes a different approach to revitalizing small towns. They emphasize art as a way of expressing shared values that become the basis for effective community planning. By transforming desolate spaces into vibrant gathering places, they encourage hands-on learning that promotes public participation, and leadership development and hands-on learning. They’ve distilled their experience in over 60 communities to three guiding principles:
- create ownership at every stage of the process.
- move swiftly while balancing inclusiveness with decisiveness and deliberation with action.
- create partnerships to show how much is possible when different sectors collaborate.
The Environmental Protection Agency has also turned its attention to what qualities help small towns thrive despite changes in the industries, technologies, and land use patterns that are their foundation. In a study of six communities, they concluded that economically resilient towns, cities, and regions adapt to changing conditions and even reinvent their economic bases if necessary. They summarize what they learned in the following guidelines:
- Identify and build on existing assets.
- Engage all members of the community to plan for the future.
- Take advantage of outside funding.
- Create incentives for redevelopment and encourage investment in the community.
- Encourage cooperation within the community and across the region.
- Support a clean and healthy environment.
What The Reports have in Common
These reports were developed by an academic institution, a non-profit devoted to the arts and a government agency. Naturally, they look at small towns through different lenses, and yet the conclusions they reach are remarkably similar. And, to my immense satisfaction, they confirm the premises about sustainability that underlie Cooperative Wisdom. Like other social structures, small towns are more likely to thrive when their citizens routinely practice five social virtues:
- They look out for each other and alert each other to problems before they become serious. (Proactive Compassion)
- They care about what matters to other members of the community even when they don’t entirely understand it. (Deep Discernment)
- They are creative about making use of local assets and resources. (Intentional Imagination)
- They develop flexible collaborations that create benefits for a wide variety of residents. (Inclusive Integration)
- And they persist in their vision, even as they adapt in the face of change and risk. (Creative Courage)
In short, the future of America’s small towns is neither desperate nor idlyllic. These communities can flourish if their citizens commit themselves to social virtues that are within everyone’s reach. A community’s renaissance may start with something small like the discussion group convened by a woman in Frankfurt, Michigan, so people could come together to talk about their hopes and fears for their community. Or it might be reinforced by a shared determination to preserve what is unique and special about a place such as the love for the Adirondacks unites the citizens of Glens Falls, New York. Or it might capitalize on the unique expertise embodied in local institutions such as the many projects in Bowling Green, Ohio, that have been strengthened by collaboration with the university and an engaged citizenry.
What is Your Experience?
In many ways, the health of small towns is at the heart of the debate that grips America. Are small towns part of what made America great? Are they the epitome of democracy, places where people have to get along and take care of each other because they are going to run into each other constantly for the rest of their lives? Or is small synonymous with stunted? Do small towns fail to thrive because they are stuck in the past, unwilling to consider much less welcome new people with new ideas?
My own experience makes me hopeful. I can bear witness to the way in which small towns can renew their vitality by being resilient, flexible, inclusive, responsive and persistent. Now I’d like to hear from you about your experience. Have you lived in a small town? Do you live in one now? What worked or didn’t work? What made you stay or leave? Did you see Cooperative Wisdom in action? If so, how? Does your experience confirm or contradict my own hypothesis that small towns, like other social systems, are more likely to be sustainable when their citizens consistently practice the social virtues on behalf of each other?