Iowa State study says what’s good about small towns can also be bad

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Researchers at Iowa State University have found some of the most valued traits of small town life can also work against the community.

The Rural Development Initiative Project team, led by sociology professor Terry Besser, has spent the past 20 years studying changes in the quality of life for 15,000 residents in 99 small towns in Iowa.

They’re studying “social capital,” or the relationships and trust among the residents of one small town in each county in the state.

“Small towns often don’t have much in the way of financial resources,” Besser said. “If they’re able to marshal their social capital, they have a network of people they can call on who trust each other to get things done.” High social capital can mean better economic prosperity, cultural amenities, and high-quality public services.

The researchers have already found certain traits, that seem like they should be positive attributes, can actually be a potential weakness for small towns.

Besser says the feeling of belonging to a tight-knit community could result in excluding newer residents, thus closing off some outside ideas and resources and potentially stunting community growth and development.

Narrow leadership channels, through one person or family or organization, might help in the short term but also can discourage other residents from getting involved. Leaders who can work separately – and as a team – provide more effective, sustainable leadership according to the early study results.

Now, the researchers are beginning the third wave of surveying residents of the 99 small towns in Iowa. They are working to determine whether the changes observed in 2004 have continued.

“As in the previous two studies, we will survey 150 residents in each of the 99 towns,” said graduate student and research assistant Erin Meek. “Each person who receives a survey represents 20 to 35 other town residents. Therefore, it is vitally important that those selected complete and return the survey.” The surveys will go out in May and June 2014.

The survey includes several towns in and around the WQAD viewing area, including Ainsworth, Clarence, Columbus Junction, Donnellson, Epworth, Fruitland, Glidden, Grand Mound, LeClaire, Mediapolis, Olin, Sabula, Williamsburg and Winfield.  For the complete list of towns included in the survey, click here.

To see more reports from the RDI Project study, click here.