Saving our small towns….

July 8, 2012

The challenge of dealing with retarded development, dwindling commercial activity, crumbling infrastructure in small towns is not something that is unique to Ireland but it is a relatively common feature for many towns with populations of less than 15,000 right across the globe. The continued expansion of metropolitan areas and the critical role they play in the world economy is something which their smaller counterparts are having to address and it is clear from international studies that some seem to manage to compete more successfully than others. Why is this and are there lessons to be learned which might have application to the many towns in Ireland that are trying to keep their commercial and ultimately their social future positive?

In a very readable study (Small Towns, Big Ideas) published by the School of Government at the University of North Carolina, the experiences of successful small towns in the United States have been examined. These provide a useful overview of some of the more critical characteristics to successful small town development which have relevance to such towns across the globe and not just in the United States.

The study, published in 2008, itself looked at the economic strategies in some 45 towns of less than 15,000 population across the United States but with a clear emphasis on North Carolina, a state which itself is confronting many similar economic challenges to those in Ireland. The towns were divided into four categories:

< Small towns that are recreation or retirement destinations or adjacent to an abundance of natural assets < Small towns with historic downtowns or prominent cultural or heritage assets < Small towns with or adjacent to a college campus < Small towns adjacent to a metropolitan area or an interstate highway Unsurprisingly a common feature for each, and something also highlighted in more recent studies in Ireland, was the development of community led socio-economic strategies which looked to the future of the towns with a view to building upon local capacities to deliver sustainable economic activity. The study highlights seven key lessons, none of which will come as a surprise other than the fact that so few small towns actually apply the thinking which underpins the seven lessons!

These lessons are:
1. In small towns, community development is economic development.
2. Small towns with the most dramatic outcomes tend to be proactive and
future-oriented; they embrace change and assume risk.
3. Successful community economic development strategies are guided by a
broadly held local vision.
4. Defining assets and opportunities broadly can yield innovative strategies
that capitalize on a community’s competitive advantage.
5. Innovative local governance, partnerships and organizations significantly
enhance the capacity for community economic development.
6. Effective communities identify, measure and celebrate short-term successes
to sustain support for long-term community economic development.
7. Viable community economic development involves the use of a comprehensive
package of strategies and tools, rather than a piecemeal approach.

The similarity between these findings and those in a study undertaken last year on innovative local development in Ireland are striking (Innovative approaches to participative community based socio-economic planning: Developing a model to underpin the sustainability of Ireland’s local communities). The basic message from both and indeed other similar type studies indicate that real community engagement across those communities can be a tremendous resource for the long term development of the communities concerned. Self-starting towns are not unique to the United States, there are plenty of examples in Ireland as well. What is common to both countries, and others, is that there is local leadership and well established community processes which are used to develop the towns in line with a shared set of objectives and a common long-term vision for the town. These characteristics are then supported by active local government and a facilitating State or National Government though their agencies.

The question that perhaps should be asked is centred around why, given this positive experience and range of examples such as in the North Carolina Study, that so many towns and their contiguous rural communities still struggle? As an observation it could be suggested that the leadership role of local democracy must have a role to play and perhaps, as might be argued given the outcome of the Mahon Tribunal in Ireland, this leadership was missing at a critical time for so many of our local communities. Perhaps the case for further study but nonetheless there remains many examples, national and international, many highlighted in the studies above, which remain a useful resource for people in Ireland who are interested in rescuing their towns from long-term decline.

A useful start could be made by reading the North Carolina Study…