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The Small-Town Planning Imperative: What we could learn from small-town planning

We are often taught planning through an urban lens–focusing on large cities and urban centers. We learn best practices from these contexts and carry them with us as ideals and examples to draw from in whatever planning context we find ourselves in. We are stuck in this one-way relationship where small towns are continually compared to urban centers as a way of measuring how close or distant they are from urban best practices.But what if we reversed this relationship? What if we took the ideas and solutions that worked in small towns as potential starting points for tackling issues in larger cities? We could find new ways to address challenges unique to small towns outside of an “urban” pedagogy. Then, we could even apply lessons learned and best practices from small-town planning to larger cities. The following examples illustrate how small-town solutions can and should provide valuable insights for urban issues.



Centerville Indiana - Population 2,541


Affordable housing challenges in low-value markets

In urban areas the topic of housing affordability is often a conversation around gentrification and preserving low cost housing in the face of rising rents. In small towns, housing affordability is still an issue, but it is in the context of an already low-value housing market. Addressing housing affordability in small towns often lies in increasing wages, job creation, and local business development. Addressing affordability in low-value markets must look beyond housing cost and towards quality jobs and stable business development. Coordinating economic development and housing affordability strategies is essential to addressing the housing affordability crisis. This same strategy should be attempted in higher-value urban markets where rents rise faster than wages and the number of quality low-skill jobs is not enough to serve the population dependent on affordable housing options.


Good economic development is plural and diversified

A diversified economy in both business number, size, and industry will survive financial shocks better than undiversified economies. Small-town are more susceptible to becoming modern company towns, where the local economy relies on just a few if not a single industry or employer. Such small towns’ dependence empowers large employers to take advantage of host communities by manipulating local policies, suppressing wages, and directing government investment to serve their businesses’ goals and priorities. Conversely, companies in small towns can also make significant positive investments depending on their priorities and the kind of relationship they want with their surrounding community. In both situations, finding a way to balance these power dynamics between company and community is imperative.


How to confront these power dynamics varies on a case by case basis but understanding their potential impact and how to leverage it to your advantage is valuable in both small town and major city contexts. Like modern company towns, lower income urban neighborhoods often have investment and planning happen to them, rather than with them. Building local capacity and organizing under a common vision is key when ensuring any changes reflect community priorities and needs rather than reinforce an unequal power dynamic.


A new norm for entrepreneurship

Any healthy entrepreneurship ecosystem relies on the benefits of agglomeration economies which occur “where cities and clusters of activity boost the productivity of firms located within them.” Cities’ provide this close access to resources and markets, continual innovation, and exchange of ideas through professional and social networks. Supporting small-town entrepreneurship then requires simulating these benefits.


Co-working spaces and built-in networking opportunities are economic drivers, stimulating innovation and creating mutually beneficial relationships among entrepreneurs.


Bridging the distance divide is becoming easier and cheaper under a new normal where virtual communication and remote working is the status quo. We may see more small-town start-ups as the cost of city living and owning a business in high-rent markets starts to outweigh the benefits of agglomeration economies. Both urban and rural economies will need to rethink their traditional roles and relationship to each other, potentially creating more dynamic, flexible, and successful.


Aging Assets

We are all anticipating the impact of the baby-boomer generation aging into retirement and rural small towns are expected to see their aging populations grow. A Census report from 2016 notes that seniors make up 17.5% of the rural compared to 13.8% in urban areas. While young professionals and families leave small towns for better job opportunities or school systems, the elderly tend to stay.


Having a larger proportion of seniors, small towns can capitalize on this group as economic assets. Retirees have decades of experience and have been shown to be successful entrepreneurs post-retirement, particularly in rural and small town communities. Local economic development agencies and groups are starting to see real value in providing targeted support for older entrepreneurs and attracting more of them to their small towns and rural communities.


They are also seeing the value in leveraging retirees as business mentors and trouble shooters for new start-ups. While small towns may see a more immediate need to develop target senior entrepreneurship, large cities should also be thinking about retirees as valuable economic assets. In all towns, villages, and cities, we should be tapping into retiree’s wealth of knowledge and desire to help their communities.

The unique challenges and constraints of small towns requires creative thinking and problem solving which in turn produces new ideas and strategies for tackling tough problems. We should be re-thinking the one-way relationship between large cities and small towns and instead realize that both contexts can provide valuable insights for the other.


About the Author: Colleen Durfee

Based in St. Louis, Colleen Durfee is a planner and innovator with experience working across disciplines in both public and private sectors to implement sustainable, equitable, and inclusive development.


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