Why do Small Towns Exist? (CNU Continued)

It was absolutely fascinating to me to find myself amongst members of the Congress of the New Urbanism listening to a discussion on small towns (hamlets as they quaintly call them) and agriculture production.

While Andres Duany indicated that "he knows nothing about agriculture" (incidentally, that puts him on par with about 98% of all small town residents), he made a statement that, while technically wrong, opens up a line of thinking we at Community Growth Institute have struggled with. That statement:

"Hamlets have been created for the sole purpose of agricultural production."

Before our readers blow a gasket, let's discuss this for a minute, because the larger point being made is very important.

If you go back into the history of nearly every small town, you will find that it was established for one of four reasons:

  1. To support surrounding agricultural production.
  2. To support surrounding forestry operations.
  3. To support surrounding mining operations.
  4. To facilitate trade with other regions.

If there is something I am missing here, let me know. I'm sure someone will throw tourism in here, and that may be a valid addition, but I'll leave it out for now because I sense tourism was probably not a significant factor in the founding of most small towns, even those that today rely on tourism.

Here is a follow-up question that gets us to the larger point: How many small towns today are still operating for those same reasons?

My guess would be: very few. Agriculture and logging have become so diversified, corporate and expansive that they no longer need the local town to survive. They don't run into town to get parts for the tractor, seed or supplies. They don't need to bring their goods to the local town for wider distribution. While there is some convenience there simply for day-to-day living, these operations do not require a local town to be viable.

Mining may, but more than likely the reciprocal is more true: the town is sustained due to the demands mining creates, not that mining is dependent on the town. Mine workers need food, shoes, haircuts, doctors, etc....their families need schools, shops, leisure activities, etc.... These small towns then become a support mechanism for the people, not necessarily the operation, the latter of which could survive without the town.

With UPS, global trade and the internet, the idea of a regional trade center is nearly an obsolete concept. Trade is so decentralized, a regional hub for trade (for example, a small town port or rail stop), is not really a factor anymore.

So here is the follow up question? If these small towns don't exist to support the endeavors they initially supported, why do they exist? If they don't serve their original purpose, what purpose do they serve?

There are times when I fear that the answer to the first question - why do they exist - is simply: because they do.

That would mean that the answer to the second question - what purpose do they serve - would be: their own continuation.

When something - anything - exists out of simple inertia, there is a degree of volatility and vulnerability built in. Since that initial shaping force, the momentum of small towns has been sustained largely by government subsidy of one sort or another (roads/infrastructure/housing/tax incentives). What happens if that sustaining force diminishes or a counter force intervenes?

For example, hoards of people (almost all middle age or retirees) have moved from our cities and suburbs to small town America seeking improvement in their lives. Hoards of others (mostly youth) have left small towns seeking opportunity and improvement in their lives. The survival of small towns today is dependent on attracting these youth back as they become middle or retirement aged. Is this realistic? Their failure to return - and there are many reasons why it is likely they won't return in large numbers - would be a tremendous counter force.

Incidentally, Duany was talking about the inability of "hamlets" to be economically viable (stating our argument a different way), but he argued (naively, but with genuine sincerity) for a social contract of a sort. His proposition: So long as small towns remain viable for agricultural production, then urban areas should subsidize them to the extent necessary since people in urban areas need food.

Duany may be shocked to actually discover that very little of what goes on today in small towns is geared around agricultural production, logging, mining or trade. Most of what is going on is a system that exists, and - like any living organism - because it exists, it wants to continue to exist.

If Duany, or other urban-focused people, understood that small towns are more about a lifestyle choice for its residents than a support system for agricultural production, would he be so willing to subsidize it financially? My guess would be not. If the subsidy ended or was curtailed, how many of our small towns could last a generation? My guess is very few.

You may want to review your Darwin now.