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Thriving Rural Communities: Big Data Insights & Stories to Tell

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Erin Mullenix
November 13, 2021

Working directly with the 941 cities in Iowa, each with its own set of unique characteristics over many years, has given incredible insight into how different each city is and how many factors affect each city’s local quality of life. Further illuminating local trends, it has been an insightful experience to serve in an official role as the community partner working with a team from Iowa State University on a $1.5 million grant funded by the National Science Foundation’s Smart & Connected Communities (S&CC) program. Together, the grant team is challenged with identifying why some rural communities thrive compared to their peers, despite continuing to lose population. Appropriately titled, the Rural Smart Shrink Initiative is using data as evidence to support and share lessons learned.

First, it must be acknowledged that not every rural community is thriving and many will not be able to sustain their current quality of life. Thankfully, there are rural communities that have been able to successfully protect quality of life even as their populations shrink. Working with some of these communities is providing the grant team with a wealth of information about why these communities have been able to maintain higher-than-average quality of life measures compared to others. The S&CC grant project, described above, defines quality of life as a combination of the social, economic, civic and physical characteristics of the community, as perceived by its citizens. 

For the purposes of this article, I am focusing on rural, small to mid-sized communities. Because this definition can vary, I will define it as communities under 30,000; although many of the communities described below are far smaller.

Big Data Insights

What has been learned from data as it relates to small communities?

Amenities within a short distance

Often, small cities with at least basic amenities or those near slightly larger cities with amenities report higher quality of life perceptions than those communities that are far from amenities. Demographic data sheds additional light on what residents want. For example, those communities with a large working-age population or many families with children may seek more local access to affordable childcare and quality schools. Ease of commuting to work or other facilities are also common factors. Medical facilities, services (restaurant/retail) and local playgrounds or places to gather also attract and improve perceptions.

Affordable housing

Affordable housing is often related to attracting and maintaining residents. Many small to medium-sized communities in Iowa currently struggle to offer housing options to residents or those who might consider moving to town. On many occasions, city officials in communities with a diminishing population or tax base share that they struggle to meet the housing needs with their existing housing stock that may be either too expensive or run-down. The question for some of these communities is whether to invest in rehabilitation of homes, or to seek new development.

Economic Development and Revitalization Efforts

Successful economic development and revitalization efforts can boost small, rural communities. Sometimes, even one individual new business, attraction or community project can spark renewal and momentum that allows the community to thrive. However, this is not the only way communities find success. Data that is being analyzed in the S&CC project shows that a strong sense of belonging can also predict overall feelings about quality of life, potentially more than community median incomes alone.

Some rural places do not have a goal to expand or grow at all; they may simply want to maintain their current populations and boost their community morale. Local investment in revitalization and social and civic activities may improve perceptions that a community is “thriving” even as their populations decrease.

Strong leadership

Strong leadership is another key factor in many small towns that boast high quality of life measures despite losing population. Often leadership emerges from appointed or elected officials in the city, but can grow organically among other individuals or groups. Rural communities that thrive often have residents who go the extra mile to help bring about positive local change. From organizing and fundraising for a community event to applying for local grants, there are many ways that local leaders can get involved.

Philanthropy in Iowa

Philanthropy has strong roots in many rural communities in Iowa, and I suspect many rural places. In many discussions with small communities about why their budgets and community services continue to look strong, despite shrinking tax bases and lost population over the years, philanthropy has played a role.

Priorities & Communication

Nearly every community can benefit from local planning, visioning, goal setting and improved communication. These strategy sessions are best done while simultaneously seeking public engagement throughout the process. When local leaders and stakeholders, including the public, come together to set priorities and goals for the future, conversations about local priorities can lead to the better decisionmaking. A very important component is public finance, and a discussion about how a community should prioritize use of limited financial resources.

How can small places tell their stories?

  • Use data:
    • Use data as evidence to help illustrate why and how decisions are made, and how they connect with the cities’ planning strategies.
    • City staff and elected officials should work together to understand the financial conditions in their community. Aligning financial data with realistic planning and projections is important. Asking for help or for clarification in this process can illuminate local priorities or areas of concern.
  • Consider connectivity
    • What are the best local methods of communicating with residents (other than those required by law for certain publications)? In some, this may be posting on a city website or social media site; others may distribute a community newsletter; texts; emails; surveys; mailings; posting at city hall or the library etc.; or sharing at the local coffee shop or convenience store. There are many avenues, and what works for some rural towns may differ greatly from others. Cities should consider best strategies for communication under various circumstances, and should think about how to communicate and engage vulnerable and underserved groups.

Author: Erin Mullenix directs research at the Iowa League of Cities and provides community data analysis to the Community and Economic Development Program at Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. In her role, she provides local government finance research and support to local communities. Her areas of study were in public administration, industrial engineering and Spanish. Erin can be reached at [email protected].

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