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Why some towns thrive, when others fade away.

There was something about that speck on the map known as Nundle that kept luring Megan Trousdale back.

It was beautiful, yes: The road in that snakes through the Peel Valley around the base of the Great Dividing Range with vistas at every turn; the timber fence around the oval; the double storey gold rush pub on the main street. But there are lots of pretty towns. There was something else about Nundle. The small town 400kms north west of Sydney had an energy that made Megan feel like this was where she could belong.

The Sydney-based journalist had seen a lot of country towns. Almost all of Megan’s childhood holidays were spent in the regions (her dad was a teacher during term-time and a mad fisherman in the holidays), she went to an agricultural high school in Sydney and then worked as a rural journalist for a number of publications, which took her all over the countryside.

“I’d always come back from those trips wanting what those people had. I wanted their sense of community. I wanted to be the person who was helping organise festivals and markets. I wanted that life.”

For a work assignment, she was sent to Nundle to write a story about regional renewal. Several of the town’s buildings in the main street had been bought and restored. A seed was planted in Megan’s heart. Later she returned to do some more research with a photographer, and also with her partner Duncan. The seed sprouted.

They started talking about making a permanent shift. What if they could turn their backs on their big city rents and commutes and instead make a life in Nundle?

Now 21 years later, Megan is part of a thriving community that is defying the slow population decline of Australia’s rural areas.

Nundle is a handful of streets 45 minutes from Tamworth. By rights it should be following the trajectory set by Australia’s other rural and remote towns of a steady drip-feed of people to the bigger regional centres and capital cities.

But Nundle’s sense of self, its community spirit and its strategic vision has seen it add 50 more people than it has lost over the last 15 years - not bad for a town now numbered at 307 townsfolk.

A Regional Australia Institute report this year titled Big Movers found more young people moved between country centres than to the cities. And more than 65,000 more people moved out of the cities than those who moved to the big smoke.

Conversely, the number of people living in remote and very remote centres has declined, and has done so for decades.

While seven in 10 Australians live in cities, one in 10 live in small towns of fewer than 10,000 people, forming the backbone of regional Australia. Why do some of these towns buck the trend and thrive, while others fade away?

Why those towns?

As the world has globalised and urbanised, demographers and social researchers have searched for the answer.

What they have found is that it comes down to the people. The people in the town who either welcome the newcomers or shun them; the people who engage with new ideas or shut them down; the community that gives it a go or gives in.

Organisational psychologist Ian Plowman investigated this as one of the authors of a key report into innovation in Queensland towns called Why Some Towns Thrive While Others Languish back in 2003.

“It’s about the fundamental behaviour of collectives,” he says. “The findings are universal. I’ve had people from the wheatbelt in Canada contact me and say, ‘Were you over here?’ And I’ve also had people in Tanzania in Africa [contact me].”

He found towns thrived when they were open to different people, they had more doers than leaders, they were committed but not conservative, and they embraced outside ideas and resources.

Important factors stood out across the most innovative towns. They were willing to embrace creativity, decentralised decision-making systems and had sufficient resources, education and knowledge across the community to make things happen...

This is an extract from Issue 1 of Galah. For the full article, we'd love you to shop Issue 1! 

Words by Rosanne Barrett. 

Photos by Sally Batt.

Why some towns thrive - Galah Issue 1Why some towns thrive - Galah Issue 1Why some towns thrive - Galah Issue 1Why some towns thrive - Galah Issue 1Why some towns thrive - Galah Issue 1Why some towns thrive - Galah Issue 1