My dissertation uses the phrase “small town” deliberately: not small city, micropolitan, non-metro, or urban cluster. That “small town” matches with no quantifiable definition (U.S. Census, or otherwise) is purposeful. From the start, this dissertation has sought to wed the quantifiable attributes of settlements with the unquantifiable; to recognize the influence of perception on reality; to distinguish space from place. In addition to suggesting a small, dense settlement, “small town” also describes a place in the American imagination. The American small town is ascribed with nostalgia for the past, but also hopes for a more sustainable future.
As important as it was to document the individual voices of small town residents and experiences of unique towns, in the end answers to questions about change in small towns spoke to shifts in urban, cultural, and environmental geographies. More importantly, my conclusions address the connections between these three areas of study, areas that are too often kept distinct in academic research projects. These connections offer insight into how sense of place contributes to urban and environmental policy as well as individual decisions.
In my dissertation, I deconstructed the small town ideal, reconsidering how we understand the American small town. To accomplish this, my overall research goal was to describe how small towns are affected by contemporary urban change, and to examine the conflicts that results from this change. Research supported my argument that small towns should be seen as dynamic urban places. In addition, it revealed how the evolving landscapes of small towns can be instructive in better understanding more ‘universal’ urban processes.
I found that small towns are indeed undergoing an “urban revolution” in two ways. First, global and national processes are affecting small towns, but at the same time, the local is pushing back. Local forces are resisting and manipulating these changes into a form more congruent with desires to resist change that affects residents’ sense of place. Second, perceived space is pushing back against “real” space, the hard city, as ideals about small towns are both shifted and shifting the landscape. Despite nostalgic ideas about the rural idyll of small towns, they are facing urban challenges. Yet the small towns studied here offer important examples of how sense of place can create value and how nostalgia can provide an impetus for promoting sustainable urban policies.
While comprising a relatively small percent of U.S. population, the small town continues to be seen as an ideal type of settlement, portrayed as incorporating the best qualities of both the urban and rural experience. While the effects of change vary by geography and history, concerns about these effects, in the form of discussion about the changing character of small towns, appear to be increasingly universal. Small towns are neither static nor linear in their evolution. Idealized views of small towns fail to appreciate their dynamic nature; they are not stuck in time. Similarly, literature that considers small towns “rural” fails to recognize their susceptibility to these outside forces.
Small towns are urban places, with distinctly urban challenges. Forces of urban change — technological shifts, economic restructuring, sprawl, increased economic polarization — play a strong role in the everyday lived experience of American small towns. Many are growing in population and their socio-economic attributes are shifting, overall becoming more diverse, wealthy, and educated. However, these changes are not evenly dispersed. In chapters 4 and 5, I described forces of change, both cultural and demographic. In Chapter 6, I then used seven case study towns to illustrate the results of these changes on the urban form and processes of small towns. While history and geography play a strong role in distinguishing how these forces affect small towns, patterns also begin to emerge. As shown in Chapter 7, there are similarities between these towns: they are becoming more sprawling, more heterogeneous, and more connected to larger cities and global trends.
It is important not just to reconsider how we think about small towns, but how we use small towns to think about other places. Small towns continue to be portrayed as a utopian form of settlement; places that can be self-sufficient and harmonious. While it is important to learn from small towns, we will not comprehend these places by idealizing them. Instead, we should consider unique solutions these places offer to urban problems; they provide a microcosmic ground for experiments in democracy and reconsiderations of identity.
Conceptualizing small towns as urban places recognize that they are threatened by outside forces contributing to increasingly unsustainable characteristics: sprawl, economic inequalities, and dependence. Small towns are not the identical in how they approach these challenges, but there are patterns to their responses. In Chapter 8, I described how the resulting evolution of the small town is (re)negotiated through non-linear spatial processes that reflect grassroots recognition of the de facto political process. In Chapter 9, I examined local forces that react to changes in the landscape and call for preservation of community character, while simultaneously using this character to achieve economic success. Small towns are not just evolving through a process beyond their control; they are also working to recreate and restructure their own everyday lived experience. Small towns are not insular, but nor are they subject only to the whims of the global economy.
As urban places, small towns face challenges of achieving or maintaining economic vitality while remaining socially and environmentally sustainable. In recent years, these have challenges have increased. Yet many towns have risen to the challenge of renegotiating these changes. An increased recognition of the non-linear processes translating forces of change into landscape can and should result in a reexamination of how small towns understand their own agency in creating and maintaining a sense of place. An increased pace of change and challenges to local sustainability also results in resurgence of interest in local identity, both for financial and emotional purposes. Together these changes are shaping the landscape of the contemporary American small town.