Iowa Towns Embrace a ‘Shrink Smart’ Approach

Population loss doesn’t have to be a harbinger of doom. Some rural communities are taking small but impactful steps to improve quality of life for their remaining residents.

2 minute read

August 23, 2023, 8:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Red antique stoplight in the middle of wide intersection flanked by brick buildings in downtown rural Toledo, Iowa

Downtown Toledo, Iowa. | Eldon / Adobe Stock

An article by Tom Barton in The Gazette highlights the efforts rural Iowa communities are making to improve life for residents and businesses despite a shrinking population and economy.

Renovating old buildings like restaurants can be expensive, but can also serve as a catalyst for revitalizing a neighborhood. “State and regional experts say it’s a prime example of how shrinking small towns can manage and stabilize population loss, by focusing on growing community pride and identifying projects that add to residents’ quality of life.” While rural towns may continue to shrink, local leaders can plan for reduced populations while maintaining local services.

This is the aim of the ‘smart shrinkage project’ started at Iowa State University, which “received a three-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to build upon a 2017 pilot study examining whether there were towns in Iowa that have lost population but perception of quality of life has remained stable or improved.” The research team found that social infrastructure was a key factor in how well communities fared.

“Economic development projects often require significant financial investment and may or may not pan out long-term, whereas quality-of-life initiatives — such as trails, community events, fitness options and child care — are typically low-cost and in local control,” according to Kimberly Zarecor, leader of the research project.

The communities studied all embrace a “shrink small” approach, which moves away from stigmatizing population loss and toward strengthening community infrastructure through a focus on philanthropy, community-led projects, and small but impactful projects.

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