For the past several decades, there has been a tendency toward bigger: bigger businesses, bigger technology, and bigger cities. We have seen a nationwide push from all sectors of industry toward this ambiguous “bigger” that is supposedly synonymous with “better.” But is bigger really better? Costs and benefits aside, this question affects our day-to-day lives in very tangible ways, beginning with the places we call home.
The fact that cities are growing is undeniable. According to the United Nations (UN) Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the urban global population has soared from 751 million in 1950 to 4.2 billion today. This accounts for 55 percent of the world’s population, which the UN projects will rise to 68 percent by 2050. In other words, more and more people are moving from small towns—which are often the places that their family has called home for generations—to large, urban cities.
This phenomenon is not anything new; we saw a similar pattern of movement during the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century and the DotCom boom of the twentieth century. The continued shift to bigger cities is easy enough to understand: many are pursuing opportunities—professional and social—that they believe are uniquely available in urban areas. For some, moving to a city is an exciting chance to live in someplace new, a place different from their hometown. For others, it’s a begrudging change they feel obligated or even forced to make because of professional or personal obligation. This latter group would most likely prefer to stay in the small community they call home if it were only feasible, which begs the question, what if it was?
Small towns may not be the home of multinational corporations or the seemingly endless amenities that big cities offer. However, they do offer something that we all desire and ultimately need: community. “With fewer people often comes a closeness that simply isn’t possible in the anonymity of a larger city. When neighbors know one another and recognize each other on the street, a spirit of cooperation takes hold, and residents work together,” according to Neighborhoods.com. Rather than being lost and atomized in the chaos of a metropolitan area, those living in small towns can truly get to know one another on a personal level. Big-city residents tend to feel extremely lonely despite being surrounded by hundreds or thousands (if not millions) of people.
Loneliness in big cities was a feeling so ubiquitous during the pandemic that it inspired an exodus from large cities like San Francisco, Chicago, and New York City. I remember walking through the streets of New York City, my hometown, during the pandemic and it was a ghost town. The scene, like many others from around the world, was eerie: shuttered businesses, empty apartment buildings, and Times Square deserted. Many left cities at the start of the pandemic for areas with more space that still allowed them to continue working remotely; remote work gave city residents a choice they might not have had pre-pandemic. Home buyers and renters sought affordable houses and more yard space for their families, small communities where they can know their neighbors and build relationships.
Familiarity inspires trust, which not only ties families together, but it also ties them to the community as a whole. This closeness produces a special attachment to place, which is inseparable from the people who create and sustain it. People in small communities rely on one another in part because they have to, but more importantly because they want to. This reality is so integral to small towns that Alexis de Tocqueville observed it two centuries ago when he wrote that neighbors work together “first by necessity and then by choice” to ensure the success of their shared community.
Small Town Advantages
While many big city proponents acknowledge the closeness that small towns offer, they suggest that the benefits effectively end there. However, there are various other advantages that smaller communities often have over their urban counterparts. For example, simple things like shopping take on new meaning in these communities. When shopping at a name brand store in the city, one is reduced to being a customer in search of a product sold by the store whose leadership is likely many miles away. On the other hand, in a tight knit community, the “customer” is also the friend and neighbor of the seller, who happens to own the local shop. Going a little further, the exchange in a shop feels less like a transaction and more akin to neighbors helping neighbors. Beyond the friendly conversation that comes with a trip to the store, the customer knows that his money is staying in the community and helping to keep his neighbor’s business open. Both sides are more invested because they are both parts of the same community.
Beyond commerce, small towns tend to be much safer than big cities. This safety is especially important for families looking to raise their children in a safe, friendly environment. In fact, in many cases the safety element is what brings city residents to the suburbs and smaller communities. Coupled with lifestyle benefits such as more open space and better air quality, small towns provide a safe haven from the urban jungle.
And small towns are innovative, too! Much has been made of the “smart city” revolution that rapidly advancing technology has opened the door for. Most assume that smart cities are exclusively metropolitan areas that are able and willing to invest in technological change. However, surprisingly, more than 30 percent of smart city projects are taking place in cities with less than 150,000 residents, according to a survey conducted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. One reason why is that it is easier to engage with residents in smaller towns to gather feedback and inform the public of changes, thereby expediting the implementation of smart city technology.
“In the past, fewer residents meant fewer resources, but that dynamic is changing. As long as there is robust internet access, anyone anywhere can connect to anything at any time, meaning you don’t have to live in a big city to have access to a large community.” This reality is increasingly understood by community developers and smart city engineers alike. “Why should smart city technologies be available only for large cities? They should be available to smaller cities as well,” explains Smart Cities Council Chairman Jesse Berst. The new “smart city” is a “smart community” and there is no requirement that it needs to be an urban space.
The new small town is not the boring, stagnant place illustrated in novels and movies. Instead, these small towns and cities are some of the most innovative places in the world. Simultaneously, these places have a unique ability to maintain the social fabric that keeps communities together. The tight bonds that flourish in communities where residents frequently interact and truly get to know one another are impossible to replicate—no matter how much data, technology, and information we have at our disposal. In an era in which we are constantly focused on thinking big, we should not neglect how much we can learn from the local, the peculiar, and the familiar that distinguish communities that may be small in size, but remarkable in their intimacy. Some believe that small towns should follow the path of big cities or risk fading into obsolescence, but perhaps it is small towns whose example should be followed instead.
POOJA BACHANI DI GIOVANNA is the assistant director at the Davenport Institute and works on program development and delivery, communications, and strategic relations.