Growth of Research Idea (1893-2005)
In 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner used a density standard of “less than 6 persons per square mile” to declare the American Frontier had closed. In 1920 twenty-nine of Nebraska’s 93 counties reached their historical population peak. In 1940 or earlier, seventy-one of Nebraska’s 93 counties reached their historical population peak.
In 1987 Drs. Frank and Deborah Popper used this same density standard to propose the idea of the Buffalo Commons. This area includes: Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Texas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas and Nebraska. The Poppers saw the rapid decline in rural populations throughout the Great Plains as an “inevitable disaster” where deaths exceeded births; farms, businesses and communities were forced to close down and residents were forced to move on. The proposal to reverse this disaster was to return about 140,000 square miles of the Great Plains to their “pre-white condition”, or the way the Great Plains was found by the settlers in the 19th Century. (Popper and Popper, 1987).
The 2005 Census Bureau estimated that from 2000-2004, 82% of Nebraska’s counties experienced net out-migration and 49% experienced more deaths than births, or natural population decline.
Today the rural population decline in Nebraska can be seen as you travel westward across the state. The eastern third of Nebraska is home to three metropolitan areas and approximately 200 growing communities; this population density steadily declines as you travel west. By the time you reach the eleven-county western area of Nebraska, Panhandle Region, the Popper's vision of a Buffalo Commons is easily understood. In fact, the Nebraska Panhandle lies essentially at the epicenter of that mythical region. However, the Popper's belief that the area would be cleared of people by this time (2011) was untrue. We believe that people will always remain in the Great Plains areas.
Second Phase (2005-Present)
In 2005 investigators at the University of Nebraska began their examination of new residents in rural communities at the request of a Western Nebraska development organization. Members of the organization had collected anecdotal evidence that communities in their region were attracting new residents from the Denver area. It appeared to them these new residents were motivated by distaste for what they saw as problems associated with life in a major Metropolitan area. The organization felt that if this were true, they might be able to attract more similarly-thinking residents through a regional marketing effort.
Data from the 2000 Census of Population indicated new residents comprised about 20% of the population of even very rural areas in Western Nebraska. However, Census data revealed no information regarding the origins of those new residents, their family status, their employment or their motivations for moving.
In 2006 and 2007 a successful U.S.D.A. grant application allowed our investigators to conduct survey research and focus groups with new Western Nebraska residents. Focus group results were particularly interesting because they provided insight into how individuals associated their observations of a community with the quality of life to be found there. For example, focus group participants on several occasions indicated that they associated “safety” in their new community with their observation of unattended and unsecured bicycles. New residents moving from urban centers believed that unsecured bicycles would be quickly stolen in their previous community. This led them to conclude crime must be less common in their new location.
Survey data from Western Nebraska demonstrated a majority of new residents sought information about communities from the Internet when making the decision to move. This, along with what the investigators had learned from focus groups raised new questions.
- Can strategies common to the marketing of consumer products be successfully applied to marketing a place?
- Can visual imagery be presented through a community Web page convey information about the quality of life in a community that will be interpreted positively by individuals considering relocation?
- Can communities intentionally and strategically represent themselves through visual imagery?
Those questions led to our second phase of investigation, again funded through a U.S.D.A. research grant.