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?