Overcoming the Rural Data Deficit to Improve Quality of Life and Community Services in Smart & Connected Small Communities
Lead PI:
Kimberly Zarecor

Many small and rural communities in the United States are shrinking and evidence shows that this trend is unlikely to be reversed in many places. Previous research on rural decline has focused on observing these changes or promoting uncertain growth strategies to try to revive economic activity and reverse population loss. This project offers a different approach by encouraging communities to manage shrinkage rather than fight against it. The project team calls this approach rural smart shrinkage. The goal is to mitigate the negative effects of population loss on quality of life and community services. The team is developing and testing new educational resources and digital tools to support the implementation of strategies for rural smart shrinkage in a group of Iowa communities. The research team includes faculty and graduate students from the disciplines of architecture, art, community and regional planning, sociology, and statistics and professional staff at the Iowa League of Cities.

The research objectives are to develop and test a rural smart shrinkage curriculum and assess its implementation in a group of Iowa towns. The team is using a prototype of a community information ecosystem that will increase small-town capacity for data utilization. Shrinking towns showing signs of decline since 1994 will be paired with similar mentor communities that are also losing population, but which have reported improving perceptions of quality of life in longitudinal polling over the same period. Many small communities experience a rural data deficit, defined as the absence of systematic local data collection and utilization of existing data in their decision making. The project seeks to overcome this deficit by designing new user-friendly methods to collect, analyze, and visualize data. To prepare local leaders to effectively use these new resources, the team is developing curricula to enhance local knowledge and skills in community visioning, project planning, and data analysis. This combination of smart shrinkage strategies, better data utilization, and leadership skills will help small and shrinking rural communities manage population loss and become more resilient. The project builds on strong foundations in three areas: rural demography and quality of life, smart shrinkage in European and American cities, and translational data science.

Kimberly Zarecor
Trained as an architectural historian and architect, I began researching quality of life in small and shrinking rural communities in Iowa in 2017 with the support of a planning grant from the Smart & Connected Communities Program. I have since received a Track 2 IRG grant to continue this work in collaboration with residents of six small towns in Iowa as well as partners at the Iowa League of Cities and the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. We are developing data tools and other resources that will help communities to actively work on stabilizing their quality of life even as they continue to lose population. In another planning grant project through S&CC, I am working with colleagues from engineering, design, and education on a project about STEM aspirations among K-12 students in Storm Lake, a growing town in the rural northwest part of Iowa, where a large meatpacking plant has brought large numbers of migrants and refugees to the community. Before I began working on large-scale, team-based research about Iowa, I worked for more than two decades on historical research about architecture and urbanism in the former Czechoslovakia Czech, and in particular the emergence of prefabricated housing technologies in the early decades of Communist Party rule in the 1940s and 1950s.
Performance Period: 10/01/2020 - 09/30/2024
Institution: Iowa State University
Award Number: 1952007