How should rural communities entice the next generation to return to their hometowns? “Build more parks and bike trials” is the advice from John Cromartie, a research geographer with the USDA Economic Research Service.

Cromartie has spent a lifetime researching migration and population patterns. His recent study on urban to rural migration has identified family, schools and community as the three main reasons why people return to their rural hometowns. He also identified the crucial need for parks, bike trails and other amenities that can offer biking, fishing, hunting and hiking to the community as an enticement to live in a small rural town.

Cromartie presented his research during a recent webinar titled, “Coming Home: Why Some Return to Rural Communities and Others Do Not and What Difference It Makes.”

Watch the webinar here.

As part of his study, Cromartie interviewed more than 300 people at high school reunions in 27 rural areas. The chosen areas had all suffered population decline and had less than 5,000 residents. The remote areas had no access to airports, areas of natural scenic beauty or major highways.


Migration to cities

The outward migration trend from agricultural areas to cities began in the early 1900s and has steadily grown in relation to city growth. During the 2000s, 28 percent of young high school graduates left their rural communities for urban life. For many young high school students, the travel bug or desire for further education starts their journey of migrating to larger towns and cities across the nation.

While some rural towns have focused on retaining these young people, Cromartie suggests they should freely allow them to leave, and instead, focus on attracting them to return in their early 30s as they begin to have children. The skills, leadership, professional degrees and life experiences young people gain in urban areas can be of huge social and economic benefit to the hometowns they return to, Cromartie said.

Why return?

Cromartie identified people in their late 20s and early 30s as most likely to return to their rural upbringing. Having parents and other relatives in the hometown is the most important influencing factor for returnees. As most returnees were married and starting families, the importance of raising children around family was strong. Indeed for some, they were willing to sacrifice their careers and promotion opportunities in the city for life near their relatives.

Small school sizes also helped entice young families back to their rural roots. Cromartie discovered that returnees appreciate the smaller class sizes and greater range of activities that rural schools offer, with one person commenting, “You want your kids to be able to do anything they want. If they want to do sports and do band, they can do both in a small town.”

The rural town’s slower pace of life, the “old familiar faces,” the sense of safety and the short travel times to work or to stores all contribute to a greater sense of community that the returnees appreciated, Cromartie claimed.

Benefits to the rural area

Rural communities should promote return migration through investment in schools and amenities to enjoy fishing, hunting, etc., Cromartie advised.

He believes the benefit of enhancing the social fabric of the community outweighs the investment needed to entice people back to their hometowns.

The economic well-being of a town and community spirit are often enhanced by returnees. Many returnees take on management positions on the family farm or other family business, while others use their undergraduate degrees and masters education to work as doctors, bankers and teachers. From these positions in society, returnees often give of their free time to charitable work, such as school councils, chambers of commerce and sports volunteering.

Although the interstates lead hundreds of young people from agricultural areas to the cities everyday, Cromartie believes it is important to nurture the small but growing number of migrants who “park up their bike” and settle down in their old hometown.  PD

Michael Cox was a 2015 Progressive Dairyman editorial intern.

PHOTO: Illustration by staff.