The 'rural revolution' is on!
Small towns may ebb and grow, but we're not going away. Sure, there's plenty of trash talk — it really ticks us off to read articles that suggest rural people should just pack up their U-Hauls and flee small towns because they are "dysfunctional, downscale communities ... that deserve to die," as a National Review article suggested.
Some articles are obviously urban dwellers' rants, but others list numbers — declining and/or aging population, lack of local services, out-migration of young people. But, as rural folks well know, research and statistics are only part of the equation. In the real world, there are all sorts of other factors that influence how things work, and it's important to keep them in context. Just because we don't have a Starbucks on Main Street doesn't mean we "lack local services," and ours aren't the only young people who "out-migrate" to go to college.
The rural picture is skewed by the many ways there are to define "rural." Here's a good example from a few years back, when a national public transit group was trying to come up with a definition of "rural" that worked for all of the small transit projects.
A representative from Maryland stood up and explained how one small project in his state had only a population of 80,000 and a budget of one-point-something billion dollars. The North Dakota representative followed him: "With all due respect, and I understand your situation is difficult in relation to your state's population and resources, but North Dakota has a county with a population of fewer than 800, and the entire state transit budget is less than $2 million."
Both were considered "rural" for their areas, even though their statistics were as different as night and day.
People who have never lived the Great Plains version of rural don't understand that the "nothingness" of great stretches of Midwestern prairie are what keeps them fed and then some. The raw materials for so much of what we consume as a nation come from the wide-open spaces of the "fly-over" states: food, electricity — wind, hydroelectric, and coal-powered generation — and the thousands — yes, thousands — of products made with petroleum. Think medications, cosmetics, synthetic fibers, sports equipment, plastic bottles and containers, and paving materials, to name just a few.
These industries and plenty more rely on the people and services in small towns. Rural towns provide housing, schools, churches, gas stations, repair shops, cafes, community centers, youth programs, sports and recreation, all within reasonable driving distance of farms, power plants and manufacturing centers. They may not offer the variety of choices found in "the city," but they provide what's needed for everyday life.
Sure, there are ghost towns in every state. Towns with only a handful of folks and no services. But there are many more thriving small towns that function as hubs for those who live and work in the surrounding area.
What small and rural towns lack in funds, they more than make up for in social capital. And that, friends, often gets more done than money alone can buy.
People in small communities are finding ways to "make it happen." They're re-imagining themselves. Repurposing old buildings and attracting new residents — remote workers, retirees, millennials, new families, outdoorsy types, people seeking the quality of rural living. They are working together to make their communities better and more attractive for all.
One size doesn't fit all. Find out what people want in your town. Figure out how your community can make it happen. Then roll up your sleeves, work together and get it done, one step at a time.