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UR Here: Small Towns, Big Loss


In my last column, I presented some statistics demonstrating that the majority of Iowans are “urban” by U.S. Census standards and have been since 1950. With fewer farmers, the raison d’être of most small communities in Iowa—servicing the region’s agricultural economy—has disappeared. If the economic foundation of a town disappears, what’s the big deal? Close up shop, roll up the streets, and people can move somewhere else. If this were a proper course, then most Iowa small towns and rural communities would simply have disappeared—and many of them obviously still are doing so. I suggest that the loss of the small town and a rural culture has real—and serious—consequences.

First, ideals. Any dissolution of an established community is a human tragedy. Over the years, for whatever reason that people reside together, social bonds, human relationships, personal livelihoods and public good result. When that falls apart, people are hurt and our society suffers for the loss of community. As well, diversity of experience is good for any society. Rural and small-town experience is of a particular sort, and if mass urbanization and suburbanization obliterates it, our society is the poorer for the loss of varied ways of living.

Second, scale. Underlying my arguments of recent months about how we construct and conduct our society is the fundamental belief in local economies. The future of human society—and the planet—truly lies, I believe, in the revival of local economies. Small towns, by virtue of their human scale, have historically been among the exemplars of how a local economy can best thrive. A number of urban and regional planners posit that once city regions exceed populations in the hundreds of thousands, sustainability suffers. While human density is much preferable to suburban sprawl, there can be a point of diminishing returns. Harking back to the diversity argument, our country needs a diversity of human environments; constantly growing megalopolises inhibit sustainability. Small towns and rural communities are important to that mix, including, as I said, as models of good scale for building social capital, a local economy and sustainable lifeways.

Third, stewardship. Perhaps the most compelling argument for the survival of rural and small-town communities is environmental. Presence means care. Distance means lack of awareness and forgetfulness. Simply put, we need people on the land to take care of it. One of the tragedies of an industrialized agriculture is not just that land becomes merely an extractive resource, but, relatedly, that its tending becomes more callous and less understanding, respectful, and even loving.

As Wendell Berry says in his essay “The Work of Local Culture,” “Ground must be protected by a cover of vegetation and . . . the growth of the years must be protected by a return—or be returned—to the ground to rot and build soil. A good local culture, in one of its most important functions, is a collection of the memories, ways and skills necessary for the observance . . . of this natural law.”

Now this simple ecological lesson, one might think, should be easily understood whether people are on the land or not. Two things:

First, “out of sight, out of mind” prevails. As our culture and economy centralize, we’ve proven by our actions that we fail to follow this “natural law” well.

Second, the uniqueness of particular places requires particular understandings of the local natural environment. A “one size fits all” approach to environmental stewardship, even if it were practical from a distance, would never work.

So, as Berry continues, “The loss of local culture is, in part, a practical loss and an economic one. For one thing, such a culture contains, and conveys to succeeding generations, the history of the use of the place and the knowledge of how the place may be lived in and used. For another, the pattern of reminding implies affection for the place and respect for it, and so, finally, the local culture will carry the knowledge of how the place may be well and lovingly used, and also the implicit command to use it only well and lovingly. The only true and effective ‘operator’s manual for spaceship earth’ is not a book that any human will ever write; it is hundreds of thousands of local cultures.”

These are not new ideas. A century ago, famed agronomist Liberty Hyde Bailey became President Theodore Roosevelt’s spokesman for the Country-Life Movement. In his 1911 book of that name, Bailey said, “Farming is the underlying business of mankind…In the accelerating mobility of our civilization it is increasingly important that we have many anchoring places; and these anchoring places are the farms…The future state of the farmer, or real countryman, will depend directly on the kind of balance or relationship that exists between urban and rural forces; and in the end, the state of the city will rest on the same basis. Whatever the city does for the country, it does also for itself…Until such an organic relationship exists, civilization cannot be perfected or sustained, however high it may rise in its various parts.”

Without a knowledgeable, caring local community, our rural and small places will collapse not only socially but also environmentally. A centralized economy built upon the assumption of populations continuing to flee to urban areas is not sustainable in so many ways. No matter how we do it, there must be cultural, social, commercial and political commitments to preserving and revitalizing our rural and small-town communities.


Thomas Dean teaches “The Good Society” and “Introduction to Place Studies” at The University of Iowa.


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