At Tallgrass we live and work in rural communities across the west-midwest and have been doing some research and thinking about what rural communities want and need to survive this era of urbanization and the institutionalization of urban policy. When an economic disruption occurs, what are the keys to small town survival?
In 1999 the Heartland Center for Leadership Development researched that exact question in 18 communities across NE, SD, ND, and CO, formerly dependent on agriculture, but shifting to new economies. They came up with “20 Clues to Rural Community Survival” and we think they are pretty interesting so we thought we’d share. We are seeing evidence of every one of these clues in several of the communities we work with. Here they are:
1. Evidence of community pride.
2. Emphasis on quality in business and community life.
3. Willingness to invest in the future.
4. Participatory approach to community decision-making.
5. Cooperative community spirit.
6. Realistic appraisal of future opportunities.
7. Awareness of competitive positioning.
8. Knowledge of the physical environment.
9. Active economic development program.
10. Deliberate transition of power to a younger generation of leaders.
11. Acceptance of women in leadership roles.
12. Strong belief in and support of education.
13. Problem-solving approach to providing health care.
14. Strong multi-generational family orientation.
15. Strong presence of traditional institutions that are integral to community life.
16. Attention to sound and well-maintained infrastructure.
17. Careful use of fiscal resources.
18. Sophisticated use of information resources.
19. Willingness to seek help from outside.
20. Conviction that, in the long run, you have to do it yourself.
We took a look at the population change of the same small towns the Heartland Center studied just to see what happened in the following years. Their populations have remained surprisingly steady, some gaining 40 or 50 people, some losing 40 or 50 people, two (in ND and CO) growing significantly.
One of the big takeaways of the list of 20 Clues is that you can’t sit back on your laurels in a rural community. It’s a constant effort that keeps our communities viable and vibrant. If you live in a rural area, you likely serve multiple boards, committees, and organizations, and we would guess you would put #20 at the top of the list. What do you do to help your community not just survive, but thrive?