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Small towns and rural communities throughout the United States are looking for ways to strengthen their economies, provide better quality of life, and build on local assets. Many rural communities and small towns are facing challenges, including rapid growth at metropolitan edges, declining rural populations, and loss of farms and working lands.
Slow-growing and shrinking rural areas might find that their policies are not bringing the prosperity they seek, while fast-growing rural areas at the edge of metropolitan regions face metropolitan-style development pressures.
Smart growth strategies can help rural communities achieve their goals for growth and development while maintaining their distinctive rural character.
- Planning where development should or should not go can help a rural community encourage growth in town, where businesses can thrive on a walkable main street and families can live close to their daily destinations.
- Policies that protect the rural landscape help preserve open space, protect air and water quality, provide places for recreation, and create tourist attractions that bring investments into the local economy.
- Policies that support walking, biking, and public transit help reduce air pollution from vehicles while saving people money.
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- (2016): Step-by-step guide to building a place-based economic development strategy. It is intended for small and mid-sized cities, particularly those that have limited population growth, areas of disinvestment, and/or a struggling economy.
- Smart Growth Self-Assessment for Rural Communities (2015): Can help a community assess its policies, programs, and codes to determine whether they support the type of development the community wants.
- How Small Towns and Cities Can Use Local Assets to Rebuild Their Economies: Lessons From Successful Places (2015): Includes case studies of small towns and cities that emphasized their existing assets and distinctive resources to build their economies.
- Putting Smart Growth to Work in Rural Communities, EPA and the International City/County Management Association (2010): Focuses on smart growth strategies to meet three main goals: support the rural landscape by keeping working lands viable and conserving natural lands; help existing places thrive by taking care of investments and assets; and create great new places by building lively and enduring neighborhoods where people want to live.
- Essential Smart Growth Fixes for Rural Planning, Zoning, and Development Codes (2009): Provides policy options that can help rural communities strengthen their economies while preserving rural character. Topics include fiscal impact analysis, commercial development, wastewater infrastructure, rural roads, and efficient development patterns.
- Partnership for Sustainable Communities: Through the Partnership, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), and EPA worked together to align investments and coordinate policies to help communities improve access to affordable housing, increase transportation options, and lower transportation costs while protecting the environment.
- Federal Resources for Sustainable Rural Communities (2012): Provides information on funding and technical assistance opportunities available from HUD, DOT, EPA, and USDA, as well as examples of how rural communities across the country have put these programs into action.
- Supporting Sustainable Rural Communities (2011): Explores how the Partnership for Sustainable Communities can contribute to more resilient economies, healthy environments, and quality of life in rural America. It also proposes a framework for the Partnership's future work with rural communities.
- The American Indian Environmental Office leads EPA’s efforts to protect human health and the environment in federally recognized tribes.
- Green Building Tools for Tribes offers resources to help tribes develop, implement, and enforce culturally relevant green building codes, policies, and programs.
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Technical Assistance Programs
- Cool & Connected: Under this pilot program, USDA and EPA will fund teams of experts to help members of selected communities develop strategies and an action plan for using planned or existing broadband service to promote smart, sustainable community development.
- Healthy Places for Healthy People: This program helps communities create walkable, healthy, economically vibrant places by engaging with their health care facility partners such as community health centers (including Federally Qualified Health Centers), nonprofit hospitals, and other health care facilities.
- Local Foods, Local Places: This partnership among EPA, USDA, DOT, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Appalachian Regional Commission, and Delta Regional Authority helps create more livable places by promoting local food enterprises such as farmers’ markets, food hubs, community gardens, and community kitchens on main streets in downtowns and existing neighborhoods. Local Foods, Local Places builds on the Livable Communities in Appalachia Program, described below.
- Livable Communities in Appalachia: Across the Appalachia region, small towns and rural communities want to revitalize their traditional downtowns to boost the local economy and improve quality of life. Through the Livable Communities in Appalachia Program, EPA partnered with USDA and the Appalachian Regional Commission to help these towns explore ways to integrate smart growth approaches to restore their downtowns and neighborhoods, making them healthy, walkable, and economically vibrant.
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Technical Assistance Reports
EPA has worked with several small towns and rural places to help them achieve their development. These reports might be helpful to other communities facing similar issues.
- Local Foods, Local Places partner communities develop Community Action Plans that could be useful models for other communities.
- Madison County, New York (2015): Tested the Smart Growth Self-Assessment for Rural Communities tool that can help communities evaluate their policies, programs, and codes.
- Waverly, Iowa (2011): Created policy options for green infrastructure strategies and housing and infill policies that could be incorporated into the city's comprehensive plan and development regulations. Waverly's efforts are also described in a case study in Supporting Sustainable Rural Communities.
- Cedar Rapids, Iowa (2010): Assessed how land use policies could be changed to create incentives for infill development and sustainable growth.
- California Strategic Growth Council (2010): Developed a guidebook that provides strategies, progress indicators, and resources to help local governments find the right combination of smart growth strategies for their communities.
- Sussex County, Delaware (2009): Presented green street design options to manage stormwater runoff and improve safety and aesthetics.
- Marquette, Michigan (2008): Developed a form-based code to help guide the city in its decisions about development in the Downtown Waterfront District.
- Pamlico County, North Carolina (2008): Examined smart growth approaches to improve a rural highway corridor.
- Driggs and Victor, Idaho (2007): Identified barriers to infill development.
- Laconia, New Hampshire (2007): Engaged the public in adopting a new master plan designed to protect water resources, create walkable neighborhoods, and strengthen neighborhood centers.
- Porter County, Indiana (2007): Developed traditional neighborhood development design guidelines to supplement the county's Unified Development Ordinance for land development.
- Wells, Maine (2007): Explored different stormwater management, transportation, and parking strategies, along with building and land use designs for the Route 109 corridor and Wells Corner central area.
- Aquidneck Island, Rhode Island (2006): Developed approaches for mixed-use zoning standards, design guidelines, and review processes in three communities.
- Taos, New Mexico (2006): Explored options to help make development along State Highway 68, the Paseo del Pueblo Sur commercial corridor, more attractive and economically stronger.
- McCall, Idaho (2005): Created a vision for development at two sites along the East-West Loop Road.
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National Award for Smart Growth Achievement Winners
- Charles City Riverfront Park – Charles City, Iowa (2013): After decades of fighting against the often-flooded Cedar River, Charles City transformed the land next to the river into a park that has become the recreational heart of the city. VideoExit
- The Cooperative Building – Brattleboro, Vermont (2012): A new, energy-efficient, multi-story building with a food co-op, affordable apartments, and innovative, money-saving environmental features has contributed to the vibrancy of Brattleboro’s Main Street while promoting healthy living. VideoExit
- Maroney Commons – Howard, South Dakota (2011): With just over 850 residents, Howard is reimagining what it means to be rural with Maroney Commons, a mixed-use, green complex with a hotel, a conference center, a restaurant, and offices that will help rural residents learn about green jobs and technology. VideoExit
- Gateway 1 Corridor Action Plan – Maine (2010): The Gateway 1 Corridor Action Plan covers a 100-mile stretch along U.S. Route 1 in Maine. Twenty towns worked together to preserve the economy, environment, and quality of life along this regionally significant corridor. VideoExit
- Lancaster County Planning Commission – Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (2009): The Lancaster County Planning Commission established a regional, comprehensive growth management plan that protects farmland and historic landscapes by directing development to established towns and cities in the county. VideoExit
- Vermont Housing and Conservation Board – State of Vermont (2007): The Vermont Housing and Conservation Board used more than $150 million in private equity raised through low-income housing and historic rehabilitation tax credits to create mixed-use, mixed-income developments located near existing transit systems.
- Balanced Growth Through Downtown Revitalization – Town of Barnstable, Massachusetts (2007): Public space and streetscape improvements have helped revitalize Hyannis, a village within the town of Barnstable. The redevelopment plan has reconnected residents to the waterfront and downtown by creating pedestrian-friendly walkways. Bicycle and public transit routes are reconnected to main streets and residential neighborhoods while new residential developments are linked to natural areas and wetlands.
- Winooski Downtown Redevelopment Project – Winooski, Vermont (2006): The Winooski Downtown Redevelopment Project revitalized this small town by preserving or restoring nearly 100 acres of natural habitat, returning vacant properties to productive use, creating several neighborhood parks, and building the pedestrian-friendly RiverWalk.
- Gilbert & Bennett Wire Mill Redevelopment – Redding, Connecticut (2005): Over 1,000 people participated in workshops that helped define the cleanup plan, historic preservation guidelines, and master plan for the town’s redevelopment.
- Town of Davidson Planning Department – Davidson, North Carolina (2004): The small community of Davidson created healthy and vibrant neighborhoods in a historic setting. The town revitalized its existing buildings, and its new neighborhoods incorporated a variety of lot sizes and housing types and neighborhood parks within a five-minute walk.
- Town of Breckenridge Planning Department - Breckenridge, Colorado (2002): The Wellington Neighborhood in Breckenridge provides affordable and market-rate housing on a site that was once dredge-mined. The project recycled land, created housing for working families, provided a free transit shuttle to the nearby downtown, and helped the region avoid "mountain sprawl."
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Webinars and Videos
Visit our webinars, videos, and podcasts page for information about smart growth-related webinars and videos on small towns and rural communities.
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- USDA – Rural Development offers technical assistance and information to help agricultural producers and cooperatives get started and operate more effectively.
- National Association of Development OrganizationsExit and its members promote regional strategies, partnerships, and solutions to strengthen economic competitiveness and quality of life in America’s communities.
- Appalachian Regional Commission is a regional economic development agency that is a partnership of federal, state, and local government. It is composed of the governors of the 13 Appalachian states and a federal co-chair appointed by the president.
- Rural Policy Research InstituteExit provides information on the challenges and opportunities facing rural America.
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I read “Why Millennials Are Avoiding Small-Town America” a few weeks ago about how we gravitate more toward metropolitan areas after college. My story is the opposite even though I started out as one of those starry-eyed students destined for big adventures in the city.
My hometown has less than 17,000 people. We have one Starbucks, no shopping mall and Kmart instead of Wal-Mart or Target. Despite its small size, I didn’t feel trapped or limited in opportunities growing up. I participated in school plays, choir, track, tennis and competitive dance. I attended cooking classes and movie nights hosted by the recreation and park district.
When I graduated from high school, I admit I was ready to leave. I wanted to move on to bigger things, whatever those might be. I spent four years attending college in Los Angeles County and one semester in Washington, D.C. I got my taste of big-city life, but I can’t say the quality of life was any better.
Here are 20 benefits of living in a small town as a 20-something.
1. Shorter commutes and less time stuck in traffic. It takes only seven minutes to drive from one end of my town to the other, which is how long my commute is to work. That means I can go home on my lunch hour and see my husband if he’s home.
2. Smaller churches = more intimacy. There might not be as many ministry opportunities or small groups, but there’s a greater chance of knowing the majority of people who join you in worship every week.
3. Cross-church community. Churches in my town get together every so often for “Fifth Sunday Sings.” It’s a worship night hosted by a different church every time, and all church goers are invited to participate
4. Slower pace of life means a more Sabbath-like lifestyle and higher quality of life.
5. Low crime levels create a safe environment for raising a family.
6. Chances are better you know your neighbors — and maybe the entire block. We had the same neighbors while I was growing up, and for the most part, the neighborhood still has all the same families it did 20 years ago.
7. Small-town hospitality. We live in a small apartment complex, and when we took our new neighbors cookies the night they moved in, they talked to us like they already knew us.
8. More support, less competition. Local businesses might not always thrive, but they don’t suffer from as much name brand competition. Around here, the saying is “Shop Local, Support Local.”
9. Quirky traditions. My town hosts an annual Horned Toad Derby parade and carnival. They don’t race horses or cars, but horned toads. While it’s a unique event, it brings the whole town together.
10. Movies don’t always sell out opening night. It’s nice to have your choice of seats at a showing of a popular movie and not have to worry about purchasing your tickets in advance.
11. Lower cost of living. When I was in college, I was amazed that the average rent of a studio or one-bedroom apartment was at least $1000 per month. In my town, you can rent a two-bedroom for $600.
12. Less temptation to spend money. While there’s always online shopping, small towns tend not to have name-brand stores, so there’s not as much temptation to overspend.
13. “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.” Small towns are great for community where most people know each other.
14. It’s easy to get involved. Fewer people in a town means fewer volunteers, which also means more opportunities to lend a hand and volunteer. You won’t likely be turned away if you offer to help.
15. Fewer things to do means freedom to do more. While there aren’t as many places to hang out or events to attend, you have more time to pick up a hobby or learn a new skill and really work at it.
16. Art appreciation. Small towns are known for artisans and musicians, and local talent doesn’t go unnoticed. Mine even hosts a few craft fairs and boutiques throughout the year.
17. More opportunities. While people might think there are fewer opportunities in small towns, there is less competition to do what you love. I was on the newspaper staff in high school and was picked up as a freelancer by the local newspaper my senior year. I wrote for them until I got my first full-time job a year ago. It was work experience I could add to my resume that others didn’t have.
18. Traditional values. Small towns tend to have a certain way of doing things, and values are more ingrained. People expect you to be more polite and respectful. My town has a lot of churches for its size, and there is a heavy emphasis placed on family and traditional values.
19. You can exercise outside the gym. Runners benefit in small towns that have less traffic, few stoplights and hardly any interruptions.
20. It’s easy to stay informed. While my town only has a weekly newspaper as its news source, everyone is a reporter. If something big happens, you know about it. My town has a Facebook group page where people constantly post events, lost pets and items for sale. If some crime or accident happens, you only have to wait a matter of seconds for someone to fill in the gaps.
I think I took small towns for granted while I was growing up, but now, I appreciate them for what they are. I go out of town once a month or so for major shopping trips, but otherwise, I have what I need right here: family, a close-knit community and small town charm.
The appeal of any city depends on the benefits it offers. When considering a move after graduation or a move in general, spiritual growth and quality of life should be at the top of your list. For me, small towns offer the best of both.
by Amy KesslerPosted in: Culture
Tagged With: entertainment, faith