My hometown's centennial is this summer, and there's a big reunion planned. I was a farm kid living half a mile from town during the 75th reunion. Hundreds of people attended. I remember a floor-shaking country dance, driving a John Deere 3020 in the parade down main street, and christening the pioneer memorial (mostly, I remember ringing the giant bell).
Today, the town has twelve residents. Those of you from rural areas probably know what happened.
Last weekend, I saw a presentation by geographer Christiane von Reichert at a conference in Missoula, Montana. She studied rural depopulation. Every area sees out-migration, she said, but rural areas don't see any in-migration in return. The people who are most likely to move to and stay in rural areas are returnees who grew up in that area.
Von Reichert and her team attended high school reunions in 21 counties and conducted 400 interviews with people who stayed, left, and came back to their town to find out what attracted people back to rural areas and what made them stay. She then made recommendations for rural areas attempting to maintain or increase their population.
The number one reason people returned was for their children. They wanted their kids to be close to nature, be safe, be close to their family and roots, and have personalized educational experiences in smaller schools. So the biggest attraction in small towns was child-friendly infrastructure - quality child care, education, activities, parks, libraries, etc. A related point was to have senior-friendly infrastructure: often, families moved back so children could get to know their grandparents.
The biggest barrier, of course, was economic. There tends to be few job opportunities in small towns. To that end, the geographer recommended that towns stay connected with former residents, point out employment opportunities, and most importantly, rather than "chasing smokestacks" - enticing big footloose factories to locate only to have them pull up roots for more attractive places later - help returnees with local business start-ups.
I don't think I'll ever be able to go home again, but I hope that some small towns will be able to entice people back. Agroecologist John Vandermeer believes that re-ruralization is necessary for a sustainable food system. For my part, I just think a child-friendly, community-minded, vibrant small town sounds like a really nice place to live.