We are living through a massive population boom and time period where cities and metro-areas are seeing a surge in people moving inward toward urban centers rather than rural. The reasons are many, including opportunity, education, jobs, healthcare, quality of life, amenities, and affordability as well as changes in economic shifts around the globe.
Whatever the reason, more people are moving into metro-areas and the towns and suburbs on the outskirts are finding themselves right in the middle of the growth explosion.
It is certainly a change and many cities are finding their longtime residents saying, “we want to stay small and keep our hometown feel” even though they probably haven’t been a small town in quite some time.
My hometown of Mansfield, TX is one of such cities. Settled around a new grist mill in the 1850’s, Mansfield has doubled in population every 10-15 years since the 1960’s. It’s located about a 20-30 minute drive from Downtown Dallas, Downtown Fort Worth, and DFW International Airport. It’s a 20 minute drive to a Dallas Cowboys or Texas Rangers game. The city sits in 3 counties at the intersection of a new major toll-road and the longest highway in the United States. Housing prices, even in the craziness of 2022 real estate, start around $200,000 and grow up over $2 million with a median price point around $450,000. Roughly 1,000 new houses are being built and sold each year with an average price of $650,000. In 2000 the population was 28,031, which isn’t a small town by any means. By 2010 the population had doubled to 56,368 and today in 2022 the population of the city is around 80,000. It’s the 3rd largest city in Tarrant County, which is one of the fastest growing counties in the Country, and surrounded by thousands of acres of developable land in other major cities like Grand Prairie, Arlington, and Midlothian, TX.
The reality is, Mansfield, TX is currently a big city that is going to be a really large city and economic powerhouse for the region in the not too distant future. But we also have a tremendous number of people that lived here in 1985-2005 when we were “small” that want to keep that feel.
So how do you keep that small town feel that everyone loves and craves while still being in the middle of a massive population boom toward being a large city?
The Small Town Life
Here’s what I’ve found to be true. We all remember our hometown most fondly from a perspective of our own past. We think about high school and how we knew everyone on campus, or at least those in our social circles. We think about the parties we attended or the community events at a park. We remember the places we hung out as a teenager with our friends after the Friday night football game. We remember helping Mr. Smith get his tractor out of the mud. We remember running up the street to the corner store where we were likely to bump into someone we knew and strike up a conversation. We knew we’d see all of our friends at church on Sunday morning and likely have a potluck for lunch after service. We played sandlot baseball from morning to dusk all Summer with our friends in the vacant field nearby. We met with our neighbors to help clean up litter from downtown. We joined together with others to paint a park bathroom or to build the volunteer fire station. We attended the elementary school play, held a PTA meeting, and fellowshipped with the other families in our kids schools afterward.
Small town life for most of us is remembered from a time period where we were active participants in that small town life. Our schedules were consistent. We did the same thing every day and every week. And we were actively around the same groups of people, often just by happenstance.
But as we’ve grown older – as our small towns have grown into cities – as a new generation has grown into adulthood – and as we’ve each added on other personal responsibilities in this more complex and hurried life we live now in 2022, WE have become less active participants of small town life and become more a consumer of our city. We’ve built entire neighborhoods and communities that allow us to isolate ourselves from each other, park in our garages, never go outside or bump into a neighbor, easily commute out of town for work, and avoid all interaction with anyone else that lives in our community if we don’t want to. The small town life has not left our cities as they have grown larger. We have personally removed ourselves from shaping our communities and as a result left it up to city professionals and a small group of public servants to try and meet our individual needs and desires.
I regularly hear that phrase, “we want to stay small and keep our hometown feel.” But my personal experience is that I live in a really great place with a really great hometown feel. This disconnect really jumped out to me a few months ago at our annual Volunteer Appreciation Celebration.
Several years ago, rather than constantly issue code violation citations to residents that couldn’t afford repairs to their property, let alone a citation, Mansfield started the Mansfield Volunteer Program to help address these code issues. We partnered with community organizations to solicit help from volunteers and businesses in our community to clean up landscaping, fix broken fences, repair houses, and more. The program was a huge success and has grown to have over 55,000 hours of donated sweat equity annually. We’ve won dozens of awards as a City for this innovative program. Each year we celebrate and honor the volunteers that help make our City great.
As I was shaking hands and passing out awards it became abundantly clear that I know each of these people. They’re the ones that serve on our Boards and Commissions at the City. They’re plugged into their church groups. They serve in other community organizations. I see them weekly in a coffee shop or restaurant. Our kids play sports together. They host their own community events and meetups. It’s the same group of people that are plugged in and actively engaged in our community and we all know each other. We’re all friends. And we all love serving the people of this city together. I get to experience that same small town hometown feel with these people because we’re all active participants in small town life, even though we’re living in a 36 square mile – 80,000 population – fastest growing region in the Country.
But the other thing that jumped out at this event is that those who are most vocal about their negative views of our city – those who are most vocal about wanting to keep our city small and to keep a hometown feel – the ones that push back against every new development for growth or any city initiative for improvement – they were nowhere to be found at the event. They are consumers rather than active participants in shaping a hometown.
Getting Involved in a Small Town Life
I believe any of us can experience a small town life regardless of the size of the city where we choose to live. But it does take being intentional. This doesn’t just happen. You are going to have to make some efforts here to get involved and engage in shaping your hometown. Fortunately, these areas are easy and the opportunity is great! Here are a few ideas to get started:
- Engage in your local church: Weekly church services, especially post-pandemic, have become a place where it is easy to be a consumer of church rather than actively involved in serving others. But your church needs help! Volunteer to be a greeter, help in the parking lot, serve in the children’s ministry, chaperone a youth group trip, join a small group or Sunday school class. Your church is also a built in community for you to know and be known. Your pastor can find a way for you to get plugged in to an area of weekly or bi-weekly service and help you connect with others that live in your city.
- Become a regular: Go to the same coffeeshop the same day each week. Visit the same local restaurant for lunch on the same day each week. Stop in the local candy store with regular frequency. Get to know the owners. Sit down long enough, frequently enough, and the other regulars will naturally interact with you. “You wanna go where everyone knows your name.” Then go to the same place regularly and interact with those around you and you’ll soon find that to be your reality.
- Reach out to your local leaders: You should know your local City Council Members, School Board Members, and if possible your City Manager and Superintendent. These public servants would love nothing more than to find ways for you to engage and serve the community. Their email addresses are typically posted on the school district or City website and they are usually very accessible. These are often the most dedicated people that love your city. They know just about everyone in town and can get you connected to programs, organizations, and resources anytime you may need them. Introduce yourself by email and let them know you’d love to meet them and see if they can help you get plugged into the community.
- Join a local community group: You probably have a rotary club or similar in your town. These groups are full of leaders that love to give back to their community. It’s a great opportunity to know others that serve and volunteer to help others.
- Serve at a food pantry, clothes closet, or mission center: There are people in your community that have food instability. There are kids in your community that don’t get new clothes at back-to-school time. Someone has to help provide for those needs. Fortunately, your community probably has organizations nearby to help. They just need volunteers to make the logistics work. You can fill that need!
- Work where you live: I know that this isn’t always simple as we often move to metro areas because the job opportunities are abundant in the entire region. But as someone who spends 90% of their time within 2 square miles of their home putting few miles on vehicles and wasting time on a commute each day, working in the city where you live is one of the fastest ways to feel connected to your entire community.
- Coach your kids sports team: Few people step up in this area, but it’s a great way to create small communities of families that will be together for an extended period of time each week, possibly for years. As the coach, you can help keep that team and group together for years.
- Walk Places: This isn’t always easy, because we’ve built neighborhoods in favor of vehicles instead of pedestrians. But when and where possible, you should get out for a walk. Get to know your neighbors. If you can, walk to the corner store a few days a week and engage with the clerk. Walk at the park at the same time each day and you’ll likely bump into other people who are doing the same thing.
Keeping Small Town Life in a Big City
The bottom line here is that YOU can keep small town life regardless of how big the city is where you live. You can make intentional choices to build relationships in your community, serve the people around you, and shrink your own circles so that you regularly are bumping into people you know and shaping the community where you live. If you do this well, it won’t matter how big your city grows or how many people move to town. You will still be able to call it your hometown.