An Opportunity And A Challenge

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We read two stories this past week that seem at odds with each other.

Minneapolis, the state’s biggest city, is growing at its fastest pace since 1950.  Renting an apartment, or buying a house, is getting increasingly difficult because supply isn’t meeting the demand of newcomers, Greta Kaul of MinnPost writes.

“Between 1940 and 1950, Minneapolis added more than 29,000 people, an increase of 6 percent, according to U.S. Census data. By 2020, the Metropolitan Council projects that Minneapolis will have added about 40,000 residents since 2010, an increase of more than 10 percent,” she reports.

Minneapolis’ population is nearing 420,000 while St. Paul’s is over 305,000. The Twin Cities area is over 3 million people and contains over half the state’s population of around 5.52 million.

But when it comes to metropolitan growth, Minneapolis isn’t the leader by any means when you look at the nation as a whole. “Don’t get too excited, though: Minneapolis’ 8 percent growth between 2010 and 2016 is dwarfed by growth in Austin, Texas (20 percent); Seattle (16 percent); and Denver (15 percent), and is behind Portland’s (10 percent),” Kaul writes.

With all that growth you would think the Twin Cities and in large cities around the country, these densely populated metropolises must be the most attractive places to live with their residents happy to be encased in the hustle and bustle.

However, we also read a story about a recent Canadian study that found that people living out in the sticks are really the happiest. “A team of happiness researchers at the Vancouver School of Economics and McGill University recently published a working paper on the geography of well-being in Canada,” Christopher Ingraham writes in an article for The Washington Post.

These “happiness researchers” put together an immense amount of data based on 400,000 responses to two studies covering people living in 1,215 communities around Canada. The size of the communities ranged from the very small to the largest. They looked at how happiness and well-being were tied to wealth, education, religion, and other aspects of life that can be factors in someone’s satisfaction with life. They took all that data and overlaid the responses with where people lived.

What did all this data spit out for an answer to the researchers?

“Their chief finding is a striking association between population density — the concentration of people in a given area — and happiness,” Ingraham writes. “When the researchers ranked all 1,215 communities by average happiness, they found that average population density in the 20 percent most miserable communities was more than eight times greater than in the happiest 20 percent of communities.”

“Life is significantly less happy in urban areas,” the paper concluded.

The study shows that people living in densely populated areas like Toronto, Hamilton and Kitchener (three large cities in the province of Ontario) were less happy, overall, than people living in much less densely populated areas.

Ingraham writes that the study found people in less densely populated areas liked that they didn’t have long commutes, found housing that was cheaper, and there were more people like themselves (fewer foreign-born residents.) The residents felt a greater connection to their community and more of a feeling of belonging. They were less transient. They also had a stronger social network to support them, one of the real keys to a sense of well-being.

The study also found that people who move to the big cities for better paying jobs were often not happier simply because of the better take-home pay.

This Canadian study wasn’t discovering something new about how happy people feel and their sense of well-being based on place. A U.S. study “revealed a ‘rural-urban happiness gradient:’ The farther away from cities people live, the happier they tend to be,” Ingraham writes.

In that data we find what should be an opportunity, but also a challenge. The opportunity comes with the growing amount of evidence that points to people living happier, more meaningful lives living in small towns – just like ours. That provides us with a marketing base on which to build the promotion of our small communities.

That we are also poised to make a significant investment in our schools, with help from District 777 voters, shows people who are moving to the rural Benson area they don’t have to settle for second class education facilities.
The challenge is that we will have to evolve our thinking, and open our arms wider, if we want our community to grow.

Small towns are also seeing an increase in diversity as slowly, very slowly, immigrants move to rural Minnesota. We are desperately in need of employees to fill job openings in our manufacturing plants, and in our businesses. Those new employees aren’t coming from places that will have our new residents looking like the majority of us.

If a sense of well-being is tied to some degree to living in a community with few immigrants, we have a problem. Immigrants are our future, so we had better find a way to welcome them that is win for them and win for us. It means we can’t be as narrow-minded as we have tended to be in the past. It means reaching out, not rejecting. And, it means shedding some prejudices based on the thinking, “If they don’t do things the way I do things, I don’t like them.”

Those communities that do a smart and good job of welcoming immigrants will be those that grow. Those that struggle with accepting immigrants will continue to shrivel up.

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