For Shrinking Illinois Towns, A ‘Smarter’ Approach

By Mary Hansen
PHOTO BY TOM ZITTERGRUEN ON UNSPLASH

Farm towns in Illinois have been shrinking for decades, and the trend doesn’t show signs of reversing.

By 2025, rural counties with populations of less than 10,000 people will see 7.4 percent of their residents leave, while counties with populations between 10,000 and 25,000 will lose 5.4 percent. That’s according to projections from the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Christopher Merrett, director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs in Macomb, says there are a lot of reasons residents continue to leave rural Illinois.

“There’s pull factors, sort of bright lights, big city opportunities, drawing people out. But there’s also push factors,” Merret said. Push factors are often economic. Fewer workers are needed for farming or manufacturing, so there are fewer jobs available.

Across the border in Iowa, the trend is similar, says Kimberly Zarecor, an architecture professor at Iowa State University.

She and a team of colleagues are attempting to address the challenge of shrinking towns, but not with ideas on how to attract new residents or big employers that are typical of development efforts.

Instead, she says they’re frank about demographic changes and the likelihood they will continue. The goal is to understand how small towns maintain quality of life, the social connections, amenities and services that residents appreciate, while their populations decline.

“We don’t come and say that we were going to help you open all the businesses on Main Street,” she said. “Instead, we ask them in a sense, how does it affect your everyday life that you have to drive 20 miles to get groceries? Would you like to have more amenities in town and what are the things that you think should happen to make that work better in the community?”

The approach is called shrinking smart, and those working with small towns in Illinois say the strategies could work here too.

Shrinking Smart

Zarecor and her colleagues have conducted a few dozen interviews of people living in Iowa small towns. She said they’ve heard from interviewees that relationships with their neighbors, a feeling of living in a safe place and having their kids go to schools with small class sizes are worth the trade-offs, such as having to drive longer distances to access medical and other services.

They’re combining these insights with data from a questionnaire the U.S. Department of Agriculture has conducted in small towns in Iowa since 1994, asking about access to services and amenities, and social interactions. The poll recently transitioned from being taken every 10 years to every two.

“There might be some clear recommendations that we make, not necessarily policy recommendations, but to say that these types of investments in communities have resulted in… upward trends in perceptions of quality of life,” Zarecor said.

From what they’ve heard so far, that could be building a community center or creating a youth sports league.

The shrinking smart project is a pilot study funded by the National Science Foundation, and Zarecor hopes they will be able to expand to other Midwestern states in the future.

Back in Illinois, Merrett, who works with towns around the state, says there hasn’t been explicit discussion of how to “shrink smart.” And he says there are still challenges with this approach – for example, how to prioritize and pay for community investments, such as road improvements.

But he says the focus on quality of life instead of population growth or higher economic factors could work here.

“If we can redefine what we mean by development to be not just a crass measure of growth,” he said. “It’s still a growth mentality, but it might mean aging healthier, better educational opportunities, it might mean better access to healthcare.”