By: John Wilbanks, AICP, CNU-A
This article first appeared on Planetizen at www.planetizen.com.
By most accounts, demographic trends indicate that a larger percentage of Americans live in urban areas than ever before. Further demographic predictions suggest a reduction in family size and the increasing desire for the urban lifestyle. As a result of this increasing urbanism, a city-centered growth model continues to gain momentum in the philosophical and lifestyle preferences of both the shapers and occupiers of our urban environments. As America urbanizes and planning and development tools based on increased density (such as new urbanism, transit-oriented development, mixed use, infill, regionalism and regional blueprints and “greenprints”) gain in their application, what does this mean for planning efforts focused on small towns? Is the era of small town living as a preferred choice over or near ending? Are we to cease devising strategies to improve small town living?
A starting point may be to alter our perception of what it means to be urban. When we think of urban areas we typically conjure up an image of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, New York and other large metropolitan areas. In contrast, small towns are more mentally and emotionally connected to rural environments. However, the Census Bureau defines “urban” as a population cluster of 1,000 people or more. The EPA, in federal assistance legislation, has defined a “small town” as a city or town with a population of 2,500 or less. Ask anyone on the street, or in the planning profession, and the answers will range widely. I’ve lived or worked in towns ranging from 5,000 to over 65,000 that were clearly considered “small towns.” So, I would suggest that even small towns can be considered urban in character, which supports my premise that city-centered growth can be a model for sustainability, even for small towns. From my own intuitive and practical life experiences, small towns will continue to attract a portion of the population as a lifestyle choice and as such we small town planners should double down on the effort to protect the very essence of what makes small town living desirable. But doing this takes diligence and patience.