Researchers' goal is to develop the first systematic understanding of the sociodemographic and economic characteristics and patterns of change in small rural places over time
With more Americans living in big cities, we’ve learned a great deal about the country’s urban places, thanks to a wealth of publicly available data. Much less is known about the country’s small places.
Contemporary rural America has been called a landscape of despair with what some call stunning divides between rural and urban places.
Two multi-university grants have been awarded from the National Institutes of Health to the CU Population Center (CUPC) in the Institute of Behavioral Science (IBS). A $450,000, two-year project will focus on learning about and understanding the small towns, villages and cities in the U.S. with populations of fewer than 2,500 residents. A $1.7 million five-year project will fund an interdisciplinary network of researchers focusing on rural health and aging.
These two exploratory projects break new ground with national focus on rural communities and their residents.
Understanding the dynamics of small rural places
The team of researchers on this project includes lead investigator Lori Hunter, professor and chair of the sociology department and CUPC director; Myron Gutmann, professor and IBS director; Dylan Connor, assistant professor in the School of Geographical Sciences & Urban Planning at Arizona State University; Catherine Talbot, graduate student in sociology; Stefan Leyk, associate professor in geography; and Johannes Uhl, postdoctoral researcher in CUPC.
“We call this team effort the Tiny Town Project,” Hunter said. “What is exciting about this project is the focus on the tiny towns themselves. A lot of rural demography or studies of rural communities examine counties at the national scale, so you lose this focus on the small place itself. These tiny communities are the least well represented in research.”
Over the next two years, the team will compare small rural places with other, slightly larger rural communities with populations from 2,500 to 19,999 residents during the 1980-2010 period to better understand the place-based distinctions that must inform policy.
The last nationwide examination that focused on small rural places was published more than 30 years ago. More precise information and analysis on small-town America is crucial for policymakers. Filling knowledge gaps is a central part of this work’s significance.
The team will pull together existing data, such as the different kinds of census data and information from sources like the National Parks Service, health services, etc.
Hunter uses a Boulder County analogy to explain that a study at the county level doesn’t give a clear enough picture of individual towns. Within Boulder County are cities that range in size from Boulder, with 107,000 residents, to Ward, home to 155 people.
“There’s not a lot of information on these little places. If you don’t know what’s been happening in Ward and small towns like Ward, for example, how are you going to develop policies that are appropriate for them?”
“There’s not a lot of information on these little places,” she said. “If you don’t know what’s been happening in Ward and small towns like Ward, for example, how are you going to develop policies that are appropriate for them?”
Among the burdens on rural America are significantly poorer public health, higher incidents of teen pregnancy, lower education levels and higher prescription rates for narcotics. The team’s goal is to develop the first systematic understanding of the sociodemographic and economic characteristics and patterns of change in small rural places from 1980 to 2010.
“There are tiny places in the country that have lost population, but they’ve stayed around,” Hunter said. “There are some places that have actually grown. And then there are others that have simply disappeared. What is it about these places that puts them on particular trajectories? What is it that predicts relative levels of success? These are the questions that motivated this work—what is going on in these little places? We really don’t know.”
Understanding trends in small places is essential for developing place-appropriate policies because continuing urbanization has yielded urban-centric policy that downplays processes that are critically important to small towns.
The team will focus on three goals, including development of a place-based dataset, identification of pathways of change for small towns from 1980-2010, and then linking this understanding to health outcomes.
This project will lay the foundation for a larger scale project that would include conducting qualitative research by talking to people in small towns.
“These little places have tended historically to be bundled in with places that are not like them,” Hunter said. ‘We’re trying to make them more visible.”
Investigating rural health and aging trends
Led by Penn State, the project will build on a USDA-supported multistate research project involving a group of demographers studying rural people and places to create and support a network devoted to better understanding the problems of health and aging in rural America. In addition to Penn State, key institutional partners are CU Boulder, Syracuse University and the University of Mississippi.
Hunter is co-principal investigator on this project.
The newly established Interdisciplinary Network on Rural Population Health and Aging will identify gaps, stimulate new research and develop and disseminate training materials, and data and analytic resources to better understand rural health, aging trends and the factors affecting these trends.