In second semester 1999, as a Visiting Faculty in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Community Planning at Kansas State University, I had the privilege of studying small-town decline and
revitalisation in America’s Midwest. As a regional historian with a long-term interest in Australia’s regional communities, I was seeking to discover just what Australian country towns experiencing decline could learn of practical value from
their Midwestern counterparts.
My time at KSU and fieldwork undertaken in the United States provided useful insights into the complex factors underlying the ongoing decline of both American and Australian small towns and how certain rural towns have successfully reinvented
themselves. Yet the main, unanticipated consequence of my recent journey along the Yellow Brick Road that commenced in Manhattan, Kansas was to reach certain conclusions regarding the inevitable long-term decline and eventual demise of certain
small towns in non-coastal Australia. Some of the views presented in this paper may verge on the heretical. I will argue that the decline and ultimate demise of many smaller country towns is part of an inevitable historical process and should be
accepted as such.
The decline of Australian country towns and the regional communities of which they are part needs to be considered in the context of Australia’s recent economic history. It is in an understanding of this historical process, rather than
singling out recent government policies or pointing the collective finger at multinational companies or the globalised economy that we gain critical insights into the underlying causes of small-town decline. I would suggest that even if
government policies that have impacted negatively on regional Australia were reversed and agricultural commodity prices return to the higher levels of the long boom (1950-74), this would do little to prevent the ongoing decline of many Australian
My understanding of what constitutes regional decline was broadened as a result of visiting a number of smaller incorporated towns within commuting distance of Manhattan, a prosperous university town of 38,000 in north-central Kansas. One such
township was St George, once a thriving agricultural-transport centre that now provides "affordable housing" for low-income families employed mainly in nearby Manhattan. In the case of St George statistical evidence confirms the obvious
visible indicators of small-town decline, yet due to the availability of affordable housing, including the development of a basic mobile home park on the outskirts of the town, the town’s population is actually growing. The point that needs to
be emphasised, is that while population loss remains the key indicator of rural decline in rural Australia, in the United States this is not necessarily the case.
Though less apparent than in north-central Kansas, the lower cost of rental accommodation in Australia’s country towns is providing an attraction to welfare-dependent families rather than the working poor due to the general lack of
employment opportunities in these towns. If the gap between urban rich and rural poor continues to widen, a possible, albeit unattractive, future for country towns would be to provide alternative affordable accommodation but minimal services for
a new inter-generational underclass.
Before describing the historical events that resulted in the establishment, development and inevitable decline of hundreds of rural towns in the American Midwest and Australia, let me define country towns. The Australian country towns with
which this paper is primarily concerned are those with populations between 200 and 4000, which are experiencing ongoing decline.
At this point, those concerned with the future of Australia’s small towns in decline might well ask why one should look to the American Midwest for new insights or possible solutions. In both Australia and the United States the great
majority of small towns experiencing ongoing decline are located in rural regions and remain dependent on resource industries – agriculture, forestry and mining and related manufacturing – for wealth and employment generation. In terms of
understanding the underlying causes and developing policies to assist Australia's country towns in decline, the history and recent experience of the American Midwest is highly relevant.
While there are important differences in the political, cultural and physical environment of the two regions, the basic, yet often overlooked, reason why small towns in both these wider regions have, are and will almost certainly continue to
decline has to do with the nature of European settlement in the Midwest and non-coastal Australia. In both regions European exploration and subsequent occupation involved several decades of rough pioneering during which time enterprising settlers
sought a better life through agriculture, speculative livestock farming and mining. In both places the arrival of Europeans with their diseases, firearms and land-hunger heralded the dispossession of the indigenous population and wholesale
destruction of native wildlife.
Recently arrived European migrants and families from the previously settled areas sought to establish themselves as small-scale agriculturalists, often on land that was basically unsuitable for the purpose. Restricted by the obvious
limitations of horse transport and encouraged by the construction of private and public rail transport systems, these settlers were responsible for the establishment of hundreds of small towns in Australia and the United States that provided
basic services to local farming communities. Though increasingly mechanised, agriculture in the late nineteenth century was still labour-intensive and provided regular or seasonal employment for farm labourers as well as family members.
In post-goldrush Victoria and New South Wales, newly constituted democratic governments promoted closer settlement schemes that involved the forced-resumption selection and sale before survey of vast areas of Crown land. The so-called
"Free Selection Acts" of the 1860s largely failed to achieve their stated purpose of establishing a class of self-sufficient Yeoman farmers in place of large-scale pastoral leaseholders. However, in south-west Victoria, Free Selection
together with an increased demand for labour in the pastoral industry resulted in the rapid growth of small towns such as Merino, Casterton and Branxholm.
Following both World Wars, the Australian government developed Soldier Settlement schemes to provide thousands of veterans with an opportunity to become farmers. As with the Free Selection Acts, the productive capacity of land allotted to many
soldier settlers was insufficient for viable farming enterprise. The subsequent restructuring of Australian agriculture has involved the ongoing consolidation of many of these farms into larger holdings.
The initial optimism of farming communities in the American Midwest and rural Australia west of the Great Dividing Range was soon tempered by the discovery that these regions were subject to prolonged periods of drought, destructive floods,
bush-prairie fires and insect and mice plagues. In both regions, overstocking of grazing land and wholesale clearing of native vegetation reduced the productive capacity of what was in many cases marginal farming land. In Australia, environmental
degradation of marginal farming land has impacted on the viability of many small towns that basically depend on local agriculture for their survival.
This is an edited extract from a speech given at the First National Conference Future of Australia’s Country Towns Bendigo, June, 2000.