and small towns are a window onto the state of the nation


Three things you might not know

  1. By 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will be urban.
  2. Urbanites are hyper-susceptible to stress and living in cities they can experience anxiety and mood disorders at much higher rates than non-city dwellers.
  3. Walmart destroyed 269 small towns when they announced in January 2016 the closing of stores that they had opened only ten years earlier, trumpeting a vision and strategy of fostering the economic growth of small towns.

(6 minute read)

“If we all love small towns – and surveys say that seven out of ten of us would live there if we could – why then are they ever more difficult to find? … why isn’t there such a town behind every tree? I mean, no one I know dreams of fast food chains and strip malls and yet the world is covered with them; hardly anyone dreams of endless suburbs and freeways, yet we’re chocking on the stuff. How did it happen that the things no one wants are burying us all, while the simple town we dream of we can seldom find?” – Ferenc Máté, The Wisdom of Tuscany.


Henry David Thoreau once said, “Instead of noblemen, let us have noble villages of men.” [I add, and many more women]. After writing that in 1845, he went to live on Walden Pond. Today, Thoreau and his writings capture the human desire for the simple life, for embracing rural and small town living. And Carl Jung found that from a psychological and anthropological standpoint, the hamlet or village is the ideal human habitation.[2]

But! We’re running the other way. Migration from rural communities to urban areas has been the story of the last century, and it continues unabated. In the US, in 2010, 80.7% of the population was living in urban areas and Canada is similar, at 81% (2011 census). Worldwide, the urban population is 54% but climbing to 66% by 2050. In 2014, John Wilmoth, Director of UN DESA’s Population Division stated, “Managing urban areas has become one of the most important development challenges of the 21st century. Our success or failure in building sustainable cities will be a major factor in the success of the post-2015 UN development agenda.”[3] Wilmoth should have read Jane Jacob’s 1961 book, The Death And Life Of Great American Cities, where she said basically the same thing, fifty years ago.

Obviously, the urban contagion remains the scorched-earth, growth policy of governments that build expressway jungles and mind-numbing chaos, which divides and conquers the human need for social interaction. And as big box stores eat up the remnants of everything small and independent, the hollowed-out main streets become testament to the utility of plywood as a substitute for vibrant shop windows.

Typical short-sighted, economic leadership that is fueling the long-term decay of nations was evident in Walmart’s January 2016 announcement that they would be abandoning 269 small towns, worldwide (154 in the US). Just ten years after deciding to support small towns (and make a profit at it), they reversed their decision and left town, disemboweling the livelihoods of all the communities. Bruce Fritch, a leading advisor and advocate for principled-leadership and higher corporate purpose, wrote an insightful blog, Vision – What’s It Good For? on the folly of Walmart’s non-visioning leadership. This reckless disregard for the well being of small towns might contribute to the short-term stock price but, far more importantly, it contributes to the long-term decline of the nation.

In 1990, there were 10 “megacities” in the world, meaning cities with inhabitants of 10 million or more. By 2014, that number had nearly tripled. Within the next 15 years, the United Nations projects, there will be more than 40 megacities. By 2050, about 70 percent of the world’s population will be urban.[3]

It’s a small town exodus of Biblical proportions, moving away from Jung’s “ideal human habitation.” In 1961, Jane Jacobs, in The Death And Life Of Great American Cities, argued that “dull, inert cities … contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else. But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration….” She went on to write seven books about how cities could be great places to live, and how the right planning could create a sense of “community.”[4] Unfortunately, as she said, “City planning, in its field, has stagnated.” Forty years later, she wrote Dark Age Ahead (2004), addressing the stagnation and decline, and she set out “five jeopardized pillars of our culture that are becoming irrelevant.” The first pillar is “community and family.”[5]

A study published in the journal Nature by the University of Heidelberg concluded that the psychological effects of living in urban environments showed that people living in cities risked experiencing anxiety and mood disorders at a much higher rate than non-city dwellers, from 29% to 39% more … Urbanites are hypersusceptible to stress, presumably because they experience so much of it. Confronting stress regularly doesn’t seem to immunize you against the effects of more of it.[6] We can all see this, which is why “seven out of ten of us” would live in a smaller community if we could. Some of us are leaving the cities in search of community, but too often we find the same endogenous decay in small towns due to stagnated planning, poor management and incompetent leadership.

Are the building blocks crumbling?

hellenicfoundation-com-ruins6-lgSince the nation-states of Ancient Greece, communities have been the building blocks of nations, democracies and empires; however, the same grand human collectives have also gradually morphed into tales of decline – from the Greeks, Romans and Ottomans to the Chinese, Mayans and British. History tells us the rise and fall is inevitable and that it is always visible at the grassroots.

As Aristotle said, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” and it’s clear that a nation is the sum of its parts. In order for the whole to be whole the parts must be well. And the proximate cause of that wellness (economic, social, cultural), is “community,” a physical place replete with the spirit of community.

“The community is viewed as a stage on which major issues and problems typical of the society are played out.” – Arthur Vidich and Joseph Bensman, Small Town in Mass Society (1958)

In his book The Price of Prosperity: Why Rich Nations Fail and How to Renew Them, Todd Buchholz  states, “It is a common and dangerous mistake to think that societies are less vulnerable when they are relatively prosperous.”[7]  Buchholz cites five factors in the decline of nations: 1) Eroding nationalism; 2) Work ethic; 3) Loss of community; 4) Fear of immigration; and 5) Declining birthrates.[8] In varying degrees, all are visible in the nations of the western world, particularly number three.

Loss of community

Niall Ferguson in his book The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die asks, “How far is it possible for a truly free society to flourish in the absence of the kind of vibrant society we used to take for granted?”[9]

“Civilization … is a highly complex set of interlocking institutions. Like the circuit boards inside your computer … And if it stops working, it is probably because of a defect in the institution wiring.” – Niall Ferguson[10]

We need only look at small towns to see how the “institutional wiring” is in urgent need of repair and replacement. As in a dilapidated house, the circuitry of our community institutions is increasingly disconnected from the citizens and the democratic principle of the power of the people is badly frayed, often cut off by those elected to the institutions that they are supposed to serve and protect.

Where to begin?

To borrow from a combination of axioms – clichés: “All politics is local;’ “Home is where the heart is;” and “Charity begins at home;” we can deduce that there is the requisite human spirit in small towns that could be tapped as a starting point for fixing our deteriorating institutions.

“I realized if you can change a classroom, you can change a community, and if you change enough communities you can change the world.” – Erin Gruwell

The decay is obvious, the potential solution is local, but the root cause is ignored.

There is no representative government. There is no voice of the people, by the people, for the people, despite Abraham Lincoln’s wishful thinking at Gettysburg a 153 years ago. “We the people,” even in small towns, are not empowered and we have little choice, which is why only about half of us bother to vote. Our choice is limited because our elected officials lack the competency, character and quality of principle-driven leadership. Most incumbent leaders are incapable of arresting the degeneration of our communities, let alone renew them.

The political system does not attract the leaders we require nor does it have the means for holding accountable, in real-time, those who attain office. And behind them is a shadow government of civil servants and advisors who have too much power and too little accountability.

There is hope

Hope rests in two arenas:

  1. First, citizens at the local level must dramatically strengthen their voice in the public arena. It is being done in a handful of communities and we will be covering how it’s being done in future blogs (see sidebar under CommunityWatch).
  2. Secondly, communities must develop ways to make public service at the local level “a calling” for the best and brightest, not just for the only-available and mediocre.
Port Hope, Ontario Canada

Port Hope, Ontario Canada

There are thousands of small towns in Canada and tens-of-thousands in the United States so imagine the possibilities if we were able to create a grassroots, small town groundswell and establish governments of, by and for the people.

In small towns we have a chance to reconstitute what we mean by democracy and instill a different kind of “neighborhood watch” – start watching what we are, and are not, doing to stop the rotting at the grassroots. And if we do, perhaps, for our grandchildren and great grandchildren, we will help save the nation.

Think about it.


  1. Ferenc Máté, The Wisdom of Tuscany, p. 11, W.W. Norton, New York, 2009
  2. Ibid, p.216
  3. World’s population increasingly urban with more than half living in urban areas, United Nations, July 10, 2014
  4. The Death And Life Of Great American Cities (1961), Jane Jacobs, p. 447
  5. Dark Age Ahead, Jane Jacobs, p.24, Random House Canada, 2004
  6. Yes, the World Is Going Berserk, but Inner Peace Is Still Possible, by Gina Bellafante, New York Times, July 20, 2016
  7. The Price of Prosperity: Why Rich Nations Fail and How to Renew Them, Todd Buchholz, p. 2, Harper Collins, 2016
  8. Ibid, p. 2
  9. The Great Degeneration, Niall Ferguson, p. 16, Penguin Press, New York
  10. Ibid, p. 11