Thursday, July 25, 2024

Would I Recommend Small Town Living?

A friend of mine who lives in one of Ontario’s larger cities asked me over the weekend about small town living: what I like, what I don’t like, and what I would change if I could. He also asked if I ever miss living in a larger city.

My friend has been toying with the idea of escaping big city life, and moving to a much smaller community, with the small town advantages that we all love: a slower pace, friendly neighbours, less crime, and far fewer traffic jams.

I advised my friend that while the romantic vision of small town living is often shattered by the realities of life that exist everywhere, even in small towns, on the whole I would certainly recommend leaving a city of hundreds of thousands, and moving to a community with a much smaller population. But there are sacrifices to be made, and not everyone is willing to make those sacrifices.

I often hear complaints from folks, often folks who have moved here from larger communities, that we ‘need’ this, or we ‘need’ that in this community in order to make life just a little better.

Programs and activities for example, particularly in the world of athletics, can be limited in a small town when compared to larger centres.

Some facilities are simply too expensive for small town budgets to accommodate. For as long as I have lived in Meaford, now 19 years, I have heard some folks insist that this community needs an indoor public swimming pool, or a full-fledged recreation centre with a gym, a workout room, an indoor pool, and all of the other features that can often be found in recreation centres in larger communities. But it is all about numbers, and you need a much larger population than 11,000 in order to financially support those kinds of public facilities.

Nobody likes to hear that we have a regional recreation centre in Owen Sound, namely the YMCA, but that is a reality of living in a small community; the frills we might have become accustomed to in larger communities are too costly in a small town. But if you are willing to spend a half an hour driving, you can find them elsewhere.

Though we might want to have some of the facilities and services that can readily be found in larger communities, there are many things I enjoy in Meaford that might not be so readily accessible in larger centres. We have numerous trails to explore, for example, and our proximity and access to a range of natural areas is a huge benefit that city dwellers might not have.

Public transportation (and not-so-public transportation – there are no Ubers to be found here) is another area where a move to a small community can require some adjustment, as, if there is any to be found, it will be limited, and likely expensive compared to big city public transportation.

Public transportation is costly, and small municipalities simply don’t have the resources for truly useful and effective public transportation. Not that they don’t try. The Municipality of Meaford does what it can with the Meaford Moves+ program, but times and destinations are indeed limited.

Regionally, while there have been attempts to better link neighbouring communities with transportation services, funding is always the major issue, and it is another area that we could use the help of upper levels of government.

Upper levels of government in my opinion have failed in recent decades to help support the needs of smaller communities like the Municipality of Meaford. I have long suggested that we need to see more funding from both the province and the federal government for basic infrastructure needs as well as for recreation and cultural opportunities.

Revenue sources for small rural communities are limited, and the cost of addressing infrastructure needs like replacing a bridge, or repaving a stretch of road, has increasingly become burdensome for smaller municipalities. I can only see the situation worsening as decades-old infrastructure continues to crumble. Replacing a $2 million bridge is a much bigger deal in a small municipality than in a large city, where the pot to draw funding from is much larger.

My friend asked me about schools, as he and his wife have three school-aged children.

Though I would like to say that I would wish for small towns like Meaford to have public schools without the need for portables, when I look back, I attended eight elementary schools and one high school in the 1970s and ’80s, virtually all in Metropolitan Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area, and every school I ever attended featured the much loathed portables. The schools my sons attended in the 2000s, though in a city of roughly 150,000 residents, also always included some portables, so such a wish on my part would be just that, wishful, but not common, nor perhaps practical.

So while many of us, including me, have griped about our newly built school already sporting a handful of portables, it seems to be a phenomenon that has been with us a long time, and one which we are unlikely to escape any time soon whether it be small town or big city.

Small sacrifices aside, small town living has many benefits when compared to larger centres.

We don’t have the volume of traffic that often clogs up the streets in larger cities, though admittedly on a summer weekend we can feel some of that traffic frustration, but it disappears once the weekend is over.

In a small town you won’t have the same convenient access to some basic things like shopping or at least a variety of shopping opportunities, but small town shop owners however are some of the kindest, most helpful folk you can meet, and what we might lack in variety and options is more than made up for with stellar small town service and hospitality.

Small communities like the Municipality of Meaford are also safer communities by and large, and particularly for children that is a good thing. My sons loved coming to Meaford when they were young, as they could experience a freedom to roam that I enjoyed as a child in the 1970s, but is pretty rare for kids living in larger cities today.

Ultimately it is the people that really make the difference between city living and rural small town living. I’m biased, I confess, but small town folks are often friendlier and more sociable than folks who live in the often impersonal concrete jungles.

Having moved to Meaford nearly 20 years ago from a municipality that today has a population in excess of 160,000, would I consider moving back to such a large community? Most days I would say no, but I confess, there are moments when I long for adequate public transportation, or for a broader range of culture and entertainment offerings. But on the whole, after all of this time, I’m not so sure I would feel comfortable in a large, impersonal city any more.

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