There’s a common belief out there that small towns are in decline. I was contacted by someone from the media a couple months ago who was looking for data that would prove just this point. What I shared surprised her quite a bit! Maybe it will surprise you too.

Nugget2Learning Nuggets:

  1. The vast majority of small towns in Oregon have increased in population over the last couple decades.
  2. Small towns that have declined are not spread evenly across the state, but small towns that increased population are present across the whole state.
  3. The demographic reason small towns haven’t declined is because as Oregon’s population increases we also see more and more people living in towns, large and small, as opposed to the outlying country-side.
  4. There are differences in the settlement patterns across counties; in some counties the vast majority of folks live in towns and in others, the majority of the population lives out in the county.

Evidence to Support the Nuggets:

  1. In 2010, out of the 245 small towns (places with fewer than 2,500 people) in Oregon, only 31 (13%) had declined in population since 1990.

    • There were about 144,000 people living in small towns in 1990 and about 186,000 people living in small towns in 2010
  2. The small towns that declined in population since 1990 were located in 18 counties (only half of all counties) in Oregon, and all counties but one had small towns that  grew.Small Town Pop Change in OR Counties - 1990 to 2010

    • All counties in Oregon, except for Crook, have small towns that increased in population between 1990 and 2010. Crook is the exception because it only has one town that’s recognized by the Census Bureau and it’s larger than 2,500 people (Prineville is the town and its 2010 population was 9,200).
  3. The population of Oregon increased by about 1 million people between 1990 and 2010. At the same time, the percentage of population living in towns went from 70% in 1990 to 79% in 2010.

    • In other words, in 1990 30% of Oregonians lived in the “country-side” (villages and areas outside of town limits) and now in 2010 only about 20% of Oregonians do.
    • The concept of a populated country-side is “dying,” not small-town life. About 52,000 fewer people lived outside of towns in 2010 than did in 1990, while the population living in small towns grew by about 42,000 people.
    • Why do you think fewer Oregonians are living in the country-side?
  4. BUT, the population living in the rural country-side isn’t gone and it isn’t dying everywhere in Oregon!

    • In Lake County, Crook County, and Polk County fewer than 50% of the population lived in towns in 2010. So this means that the majority of people in these counties live out in the county, outside of town limits.
    • Four counties in Oregon actually saw increases in the percentage of people living outside of towns recognized by the Census Bureau. Can you guess which four? I’ll give you a hint; they’re all non-metropolitan counties…

 A Few Take-aways:

  • Take-awayWe should be planning our programs anticipating modest growth in small-towns. People don’t just move to our big cities in Oregon.
  • We should recognize that our rural populations, though still rural, are increasingly living in closer proximity to one another and our programs should reflect the needs that come along with small town life as opposed to life in the country-side.
  • There are counties where the bulk of the population doesn’t live in towns. In those cases we should plan to invest significant resources in reaching those across the county, outside of the town centers. Also, we need to bear the lifestyle (longer travel times to work and services, more place-bound activities) and the values (perhaps related to a desire not to be tied to city ordinances, taxes, and rules) of this population in mind when we design our programs.
  • What else do these data suggest to you about how we should be thinking about Extension or other programs?
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7 thoughts on “Small Towns around Here are Dying, Right?

  1. Another piece of information that would clarify what is happening is to look the number of small towns and whether that changes over time. Are new small towns forming (or villages growing into towns)? Are there small towns that are “lost” because they have become medium-sized towns?

    • Those are great questions Wendy! Yes, that information would further clarify what’s happening. Here it is:

      In 1990 there were 166 small towns (pop under 2,500).
      In 2010 there were 245 small towns.
      So yes, there are lots of new small towns that formed between 1990 and 2010. Because only 2 “large” towns in 1990 became small in 2010 we know that the growth in number of small towns was primarily due to villages becoming new small towns.

      And yes, there were 21 towns that were small in 1990 that became “large” by 2010. So yes, some small towns are being “lost” over time, as you put it.

  2. Nice try, Dan! Those four counties are for folks to guess!

    Maybe another hint would be useful? OK, the four counties are counties that share some sociopolitical characteristics. Though I’m sure someone out there might argue with me on this, these counties tend to lean a bit on the libertarian or conservative side of the political spectrum. And these are counties where we might expect people to not really want to live in cities or towns because of these political leanings…

  3. I think that much of the perception that small towns are dying is tied to lower enrollment in schools. Example: in my home town of Vale, there are about 239 students in the HS. This is down from about 300 over the past 10 years. I do not believe that the actual population of Vale has fallen but is not in proportion to the change in student population. The town population appears stagnant, but older. I don’t know if that makes sense but a stable population does not indicate overall community health.

    • Great observation, Bill! Yes, there are lots of population dynamics at play when we think about overall community viability or community health (as you call it). Thanks for the comment.

  4. I think as people continue to move towards larger metro areas, the populations of those small towns on the outskirts will start to rapidly inflate. I know here in Southern California, the cost of living in places like San Diego and L.A. can be so high that looking outside can be a huge boon for families. For example, Rainbow ( I know, the name is awesome) is a tiny little town, but it is only 45 minutes from San Diego and less than ten from Temecula. I do think that those small towns that are very isolated may continue to experience population decline though.


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