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Thread: Death of small towns?

  1. #1
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    Death of small towns?

    The Newsweek story "Death of a Small Town," on depopulation of the Great Plains, raises some interesting questions. Should we be trying to save these places? They have not worked economically, in large part due to environmental constraints. Remember the "Buffalo Commons" idea that circulated a few years ago? What is wrong with the idea of letting the land revert to a semi-natural condition?

    Or if we are to save these isolated, rural communities, how? The article makes the point that or farm policies favor farmers only, not addressing other economic interests of rural areas or some (most, really) of the problems rural areas face. Education is a major factor, but how do you support quality education when homes sell for $2,000 and you only have about 100 students in the entire district?

    Do you try to attract new residents? Railroad promoters were the ones who attracted the first set of settlers, who found that the acreage they purchased would not support a family farm (back when such a thing existed) and that the towns were more imagination than reality. Has that changed? Would anything be accomplished by bringing new residents to these places, or would they simply find no jobs, no opportunity, and move on to California?

    We often tackle the idea of "growth" as planners and economic developers. How do we deal with "un-growth?"

  2. #2
    Cyburbian mike gurnee's avatar
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    Some towns are too far gone to be saved. I have not crystallized my thoughts on this, but some observations.

    >It is economics rather than population that controls. When the last store closes there is nothing to keep the people.
    >Distance matters. A village within an hour of a larger area may survive. Can commute to school, shopping and work.
    >Transportation access is a corollary to distance.
    >There seems to be a tendency for the emmigrants to move within the region--to the next largest town for instance.
    >Is it possible for economic incentives to disperse commerce, and hence population, towards small cities (15-30K population) to reduce metro sprawl?

    My SW KS county has one major population center. It was declining prior to meat processing plants. All the population growth has been from minorities to the point that white anglos are now the minority. The smaller incorporated villages in the county have grown or remained stable, in some instances as a refuge for those seeking small town life, fewer minorities, and a cleaner environment. The unincorporated villages and farmstead communities will cease to exist soon. As for an adjacent county, the total population would not support a convenience store by metro standards, and the average age is similar to a Lions Club convention.

  3. #3
    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
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    Towns were abandoned around the turn of the last century when their reason for existence disappeared. I wonder why recent generations are so keen on preserving tiny towns that are now irrelevant, for the most part. What would be accomplished in saving these hamlets with triple or double digit populations?

    On a related note, I think a greater challenge is planning for decline in larger cities. Cities typically plan for growth, and the politics of community boosterism typically preclude the consideration of a shrinking population or commerce base in places such as Detroit, Rochester and Buffalo.

    In Buffalo, there are parts of the lower East Side where blocks of land sit vacant, save for one or two houses. Still, the City has to pay to maintain those streets -- plowing, water, sewer, public safety services, and so on. Why not just relocate the scattered residents, remove the streets and infrastructure (and the expense of maintenance), and land bank those vacant areas?

    What about areas populated before zoning and automobiles, where heavy industry existed side-by-side with single family residences? This land use pattern is very common in Buffalo, where immigrants settled down close to their places of employment, usually factories located near railroad lines. Many older industrial cities have few large contiguous areas of vacant land where modern manufacturing facilities can be established -- or vice versa, where large residential infill development projects could be built, projects that could have a significant impact on the surrounding area.
    Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell. -- Edward Abbey

  4. #4
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    Depopulation of inner cities is an issue similar to depopulation of rural areas, but I think rural decline has a very unique set of problems. Just for example, if an urban neighborhood declines and its neighborhood school closes, the next school is often not more than fifteen minutes away. In a rural area, it may be hours away. A solution may be residential schools -- a very different way of thinking about education for most people.

    Isolated rural area, with marginal agricultural land and few resources, may continue to lose population, but some will stay. How are these people to adapt to the loss of towns -- service centers offering shopping, civic and social functions, health care, etc. -- at a time when convenience and instant access are more the norm? Will small town decline result in another class of citizens -- rural, disconnected, impoverished, etc -- in many ways not dissimilar from the urban underclass?

    What kinds of changes can we expect, and how do we, as planners, deal with them?

  5. #5

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    Small Towns Dying?

    Rural lifestyles have been seen as threatened for a long time. Today's rural planners would be amused to read the proceedings of the turn of the century Country Life Association conferences. Small towns that depend on agriculture will decline until we shift to a new paradigm for agriculture. Organic agriculture requires a lot more bodies out in the fields

    I spend most of my time dealing with small towns and rural counties that are growing, sometimes at a fast pace and it is clear to me that a fair number of people will live in small towns if they can.

    But they move to small towns that hold onto their character and amenities, and out on the Plains and in many places in the industrialized agricultural wastelands of the Midwest, the local capability to do that is pretty much gone. This is because it is clear -- though no one admits it -- that industrial agriculture leads to a depopulated landscape or, occasionally, to the growth seen in places like Dodge City: a number of relatively low paying jobs in meat packing and like enterprises, but within the context of a landscape so seriously damaged that is cannot hold onto the local talent (who will vanish upon graduating from high school) or attract any investment that might lead to safer and higher paying jobs.

    There are lots of successful small towns where the economy is diversified by tourism, the inmigration of lone eagle entrepeneurs, small-scale farming, etc. Reviving the small towns of the Plains and the Midwest will require a real paradigm shift, though, from industrial agriculture to production based on quality, not quantity. It will also require local folks to make some decisions that few of them will like, but explore, and where possible, embrace and revise concepts like the Buffalo Commons.



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