ISU researchers awarded National Science Foundation grant to study “shrink-smart” communities in Iowa

AMES, Iowa — Why do some small communities still thrive as they lose population, and what can other shrinking communities learn from them to protect residents’ quality of life?

Iowa State University researchers have received a one-year, $100,000 National Science Foundation planning grant to study “shrink-smart” communities in Iowa and develop tools to help all small and shrinking communities plan for population loss and mitigate its negative effects.

Funded as part of the NSF’s Smart and Connected Communities (S&CC) program, the Iowa State project — “A Data-Driven Framework for Smart Decision-Making in Small and Shrinking Communities” — will combine data science with design and social science methodologies and community engagement processes to create an innovative, interdisciplinary research framework that can be a model for future projects, said Kimberly Zarecor, who leads the research team.

An associate professor of architecture and director of the interdisciplinary design program in the ISU College of Design, Zarecor is joined by:

  •       Sara Hamideh, an assistant professor of community and regional planning and an affiliated faculty member in the sustainable environments graduate program who specializes in disaster resilience and community engagement;

  •      David Peters, an associate professor of sociology and extension sociologist who heads the Iowa Small Town Poll, an Iowa State survey that gauges quality of life in rural Iowa;

  •       Eric Rozier, an assistant professor of computer science who is a data science and data privacy specialist with an interest in how data-driven methods can contribute to social and community-based research; and

  •       Marwan Ghandour, formerly a professor of architecture and director of the sustainable environments and urban design graduate programs at Iowa State, now director of the School of Architecture at Louisiana State University, whose expertise is in spatial analysis and mapping techniques.

The team also includes undergraduate students from agriculture and society, architecture, community and regional planning and computer science, and a graduate student in sustainable environments.

An advisory board includes representatives from the Iowa League of Cities, the Iowa City/County Management Association, small-town government officials, ISU Extension and Outreach Community and Economic Development specialists and Erin Mullenix, the director of data-driven science for the ISU Office of the Vice President for Research who also serves as the ISU liaison to the Midwest Big Data Hub.

“Kimberly has brought together a really interdisciplinary group to engage in collaborative research intended to solve a challenging problem for the public good,” Mullenix said. “It’s an exciting project that will develop new partnerships with local governments that can benefit from data-driven science.”

Shrinking and thriving

The Iowa State project is one of 38 — involving researchers from 34 institutions across the nation — to receive funding in the first round of S&CC awards.

The project was inspired by Zarecor’s ongoing research on Ostrava, Czech Republic, as a shrinking post-industrial city.

“The ‘shrink smart’ idea came from a European-led research project involving Ostrava and other large shrinking cities,” she said. “I wondered whether the concept was applicable to small communities in Iowa. It’s an opportunity to take research I’ve been doing in Eastern Europe and consider it in a new context close to home.”

Research on small and rural communities has focused primarily on documenting and observing aspects of decline or promoting uncertain growth strategies, rather than understanding how towns can protect quality of life and community infrastructure while they shrink, Zarecor said.

“Our research breaks new ground by asking what smart shrinkage looks like in rural places and how towns can make good decisions about their future even as they lose population.”

Using data from the Iowa Small Town Poll, the team will identify eight potential subjects for the study: small communities with populations between 500 and 10,000 that are both shrinking and thriving, meaning quality of life is stable or improving. The team will then use machine-learning techniques to understand more about the factors that contribute to smart shrinkage and test methods to extend the research into additional small communities in Iowa and across the United States.

“Part of the research will look at what keeps people in these smaller communities, and what decisions have been made locally that contribute to residents’ perception that they’re still great places to live, raise a family and retire,” Zarecor said.

Rural vs. urban strategies

In addition to quantitative analysis, the team will conduct qualitative research to determine whether rural smart shrinkage is different from urban smart shrinkage, said Hamideh.

“The literature has focused on large but shrinking cities that are successful in maintaining their quality of life,” she said. “Often, those cities involve their citizens in decision-making about services, but we don’t know if the same strategies are being used in small, rural communities or if other factors, like place attachment, are more significant.”

The team will interview community leaders including mayors, city clerks, city council members and others, as well as residents from different demographic groups, to learn what they’re doing to thrive despite the same economic and social challenges facing many small communities.

The pilot study has three goals: 1) to demonstrate the feasibility of applying the shrink-smart concept to rural communities, 2) to assess the feasibility of measuring smart shrinkage through data-driven analysis and 3) to test visualization methods for data analysis and communication to stakeholders.

“Our approach to the research is different from most of the other teams that received S&CC funding,” Zarecor said. “Many projects are very technical, while ours asks a pressing social science question about people’s quality of life and uses data science to help us understand that in new ways.”

The Iowa State team’s integrated methodology will create a new framework to help understand how and why some small and rural communities are able to protect their quality of life even as they lose population, Zarecor said. This approach will provide new opportunities for communities across the United States to make smart decisions that are likely to mitigate the negative effects of shrinkage before signs of decline appear.