Help! We’re shrinking! (Aug 20 column)


USA Today recently listed Emmet County as the fastest-shrinking county in Iowa. This is alongside a modest net growth for the state of Iowa. Is this something to be concerned about? We’d rather be known as a growing area rather than a shrinking one, but the issue of population migration and low birth rate compared with death rate is hardly unique to Emmet County.

When you think about it, our nation’s status as the third-largest landmass of any country in the world means Americans have a great deal of choice when it comes to choosing where to live. There’s lots of room. Even where it’s overcrowded, there’s still lots of room. The ethics of expanding that room to roam into grasslands, forests, mountain ranges or other land that should be protected is a topic for another column. In some ways it may be a better idea to squeeze together a bit the way our European and urban friends do. That doesn’t factor in the vital role farmland plays in our rural economy. It’s just not possible to fit in the population density you can have in an urban area.

American life isn’t the same as it was when previous generations grew up. According to research released earlier this year from the University of New Hampshire, nearly 35 percent of rural counties in the U.S. are experiencing protracted and significant population loss. Since 1950, rural counties have lost 6.2 million residents, or one-third of its population. Researchers from the University’s Carsey School of Public Policy say 746 counties representing 24 percent of all US counties are depopulating and 91 percent of them are rural. Only nine percent of urban counties are depopulating.

"Population loss from outmigration is the most important factor in the initial stages of depopulation," the researchers said. "These depopulating rural counties had an average migration loss of 43 percent of their 20-to-24-year-olds in each decade from 1950 to 2010, and that chronic young adult outmigration means there were far fewer women of child-bearing age and, as a result, many fewer births. In addition, 60 percent of these counties had more deaths than births. This combination of young adult outmigration, fewer births and more deaths produced a downward spiral of population loss that will be difficult to break,” researchers wrote.

This isn’t an Emmet County thing. This is a nationwide thing.

It’s a human factor of migration, fertility and mortality. We could call it an anthropological shift not of our own design and certainly not rooted here.

Does happiness count for anything? Dutch researcher Ellis Delkin compared happiness scores in German cities and rural districts that had shrunk, grown or remained stable in population from 1990 through 2005, and found that residents of shrinking areas were on average happier than those in growing ones. Allowing for the limitation in the study: those who had left the shrinking communities did not take part in the survey.

Let’s look more locally: in the Iowa Small Town Poll, researchers right here in Iowa found that a strong social infrastructure, rather than economic or physical factors, determines whether residents report greater quality of life.

It’s the people.

Some here may say, “Yes, the people are great, but…”


It’s the people.

I’ve reported before on the work of David Peters, associate professor of sociology at Iowa State University.

Smart-shrinking towns lose population but gain quality of life for the people who remain.

If we don’t shrink smart, we could decline: lose both population and quality of life. Or we could experience adverse growth: towns that gain in population and lose in quality of life.

“Instead of seeing population loss as a problem, we need to start looking at it as a process that needs to be managed,” Peters said.

It’s a process.

How do we shrink smart? Dr. Peters and his colleagues found that residents of smart-shrinking towns are more civically engaged and have stronger social networks.

Residents tend to say their towns are more trusting, supportive and tolerant.

The towns have more private and public investment.

Residents say their leaders work on behalf of everyone and newcomers are welcomed as leaders, showing up strong in “bridging social capital,” a term that refers to how people connect across society.

Smart shrinking towns tend to have a group of community members who not only work to improve their towns but are influential in mobilizing others and mentoring the next generation of community leaders.

Do we have all this in Emmet County?

Maybe not.

But what we have, we have a lot of.

What would it look like if we welcomed newcomers more, if we were more supportive of one another, if we overcame our fears of investing here, if we had a succession plan for community leaders and movers and shakers?

What if we dared to dream big and waited to complain or say it wouldn’t work until we’d tried it. What if it was okay to try things here and see how it worked. What if we didn’t have to do everything perfectly the first time every time, but we pulled together to rapid prototype it – you will recall from previous columns that Tom Chi of Google taught me about rapid prototyping as the fastest path from idea to user experience. It’s applied a lot in tech, but it can be applied to a community, too.

What if we worked together and never ran out of what-ifs?


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