smart shrinkage

An Iowa State research team is researching how some towns in Iowa that are "shrinking smart" and others are just declining.

Ongoing research by Iowa State professors has found that multiple small towns in Iowa are shrinking smart, so what exactly does that mean?

“The idea of smart shrinkage is that cities and rural communities are losing population, and the question is does this have a really negative effect on the place or not,” said Kimberly Zarecor, associate professor of architecture. “Smart shrinkage is an idea that you can manage the shrinkage, that you can make good decisions in your community to protect services and quality of life even while you lose population.”

The research is being conducted by Zarecor; Sara Hamideh, assistant professor of community and regional planning; David Peters, associate professor of sociology; Eric Davis, assistant professor of computer science; and Marwan Ghandour, professor of architecture at Louisiana State.

According to the team’s research, there are smart shrinking towns and there are declining towns.

“The difference between community shrinkage and community decline is shrinkage is quantitative, and it’s neither bad or good,” Hamideh said. “Decline is qualitative, it means the quality of life, the quality of infrastructure, quality of services in these communities is going down. Smart shrinkage becomes this response to address shrinkage in order to prevent decline.”

A reason for these small town shrinking is that some places are losing more people than others, and there is now more of a suburban and urban population focus.

“The economics of small rural communities have changed,” Zarecor said. “The scale of communities, the location of communities has related to 19th century farms, and as that economy has changed, farms are larger, there’s fewer people who work in agriculture, the need for so many small towns is going away, but they’re still there.”

They also found a framework, called entrepreneurial social infrastructure, to describe the smart shrinkage.

"What this social framework gives us is that there are a number of characteristics, such as being open to new ideas … and these characteristics tells us that these might be the reasons why these communities are managing their shrinkage in a smart way,” Hamideh said. 

Although declining population may sound like a bad thing, the team says that if they are shrinking in a smart way, there’s really no reason to fix it.

Smart shrinkage does not affect the quality of life of the residents of these small towns, but rather defines it. If the quality of life is still acceptable, then there is no reason to interfere.

The team says shrinking smartly is a positive thing, and it is best to learn from these communities that are shrinking in a smart way to see how other communities can follow suit.

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