The presentation discussed what makes small towns attractive places to live and work? The underlying arguments drew on ideas that many in IC are familiar with. With economic restructuring the key jobs are those that are part of the knowledge economy. The big challenge for small towns is how to attract and hold on to people working in those sectors. Haines and Stoll show how a small town can check-out what it needs to do to become a more attractive place. Basically they argue that the natural environment can be a big pull factor, but it is not the whole story: different groups want different things from their town.

The researchers looked at the preferences of three distinct and important groups. These are Young Professionals and Senior Professionals; Professionals with children; and what the Americans call “Seniors” – by which I guess they mean people who are still (and will always remain!) a bit older than I am. So, for example, what kind of services do these different groups want in the place where they choose to live? Well the professionals all give top priority to high-speed internet access, whereas, rather bizarrely, what the older folk most covet is somewhere that will repair shoes! Maybe there are a lot of over 70s with foot fetishes in small town Wisconsin!

There are also differences in attitudes to the natural resources of a place. Professionals without kids are keen on the great outdoors – places with lots of water and trees. Those with children want good parks. The oldies want green spaces that above all are cheap to maintain. On transport, the professionals want to be able to walk or bike but the seniors want lots of convenient parking and a good taxi cab service (this being the USA they saw reliance on public buses as demeaning, a sign of failure and poverty).

What about shopping? The youngsters and senior professionals were uncomfortable in places where they could not buy brand name goods or in towns that lacked unique little boutiques. Those whose incomes were largely taken up by feeding, clothing and entertaining their children (I remember it well!) want towns to have shops that offer quality but are budget-friendly, along with a few stores catering to adults at the high end of the market. Similarly, this group looked for family-friendly chain restaurants (yes, such as McDonalds), whereas those without kids put more emphasis on variety with “authentic” local restaurants and some places offering fine dining. Social meeting places were very important to this group. It can be hard to make new friends if you are new to a small town.

None of this is really surprising but it does remind us that attracting key workers involves some match between their consumption preferences and what the town can offer. A good way to find out about the strengths and weaknesses of your town is to talk to people there who are trying to hire labour from outside – the human resource professionals of existing companies or your own council, for example. Similarly, if you hope to promote the growth of home-based businesses, then locally accessible copying and mailing facilities are likely to be important.     

Much of the message from the presentation was that small towns need to be made people-friendly if they are to attract and hold key workers. For example, in this part of the USA there is a strong growth of interest in being able to access locally-grown food through farmers’ markets or local shops. But how can a small town know if it is people-friendly, and what it needs to do to become more attractive to Richard Florida’s “creative class”? Haines and Stoll have produced a rough and ready, easy-to-do method of assessment, especially for towns that have few professional staff and little time to do research.

Their proposition is that the ability to get between places easily and safely by walking or biking is the best single measure of what makes professionals – with or without kids – feel that a town is people-friendly. It is possible to set up basic criteria of what makes a street safe to walk along. For example, does it have a sidewalk and is it easy to cross safely at an intersection, or do you have to sprint across 4 lanes of highway on which vehicles travel at 60km per hour? Similarly, ease of bicycling can be assessed by establishing a few basic criteria, based on safety for a 12 year old boy biker (the age and gender statistically most likely to be involved in cycle accidents).

If you then combine this type of mapping, electronically or manually, with maps of the locations of homes, work and school places, and the places where people meet up and socialise (the church, the coffee shop, the sports club etc.) you can begin to see which parts of the town work well and which require improvement. In general the picture from three small towns in Wisconsin was that too often the places for work and schools were poorly located in respect of pedestrian or bike access, being typically along edge-of-town wide highways. Similarly, in some cases the downtown was just somewhere to drive through, with no pavement cafes, sidewalk trees or identity.

The findings of Haines and Stoll’s work should not be transferred uncritically across the Atlantic. However, this type of technique, along with use of photo preference surveys (getting local residents to photo and display what they like / dislike about their town), can give a quick diagnosis of what needs to be done and where. It is exactly the sort of thing that IC partners could work together to try out, customise to their own needs and circumstances and use as a basis for action to improve their towns. However, it is important to remember that unless you have the jobs you are not likely to attract the professionals – moves are tied to jobs, including job opportunities for husbands/wives/partners.

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Cliff Hague