Morton J. Marcus is an economist formerly with the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University.  His column appears in Indiana newspapers, and his views can be followed on a podcast: https://mortonjohn.libsyn.com.

Last week I spoke to their Honors at a meeting of the Northern Indiana Mayors in Logansport. The session began at the Dentzel Carousel alongside the Eel River. It was a comfortable site for officials who are forced by an anti-urban legislature to spend so much time going around in circles.

Beforehand, I examined what’s happened to the population of Indiana’s 547 incorporated cities and towns between 1970 and 2017. Of those 547 places, 454 (83 percent) were home to less than 5,000 each.

How big does a town have to be or what economic activity must it have to constitute a community? Does a population of 22 (River Forest, outside of Anderson in Madison County) qualify? What about Meridian Hills (pop. 1,694 in Marion Co.) or Mentone (pop. 973 in Kosciusko Co.)? At least Mentone offers a commercial area while Meridian Hills and River Forest may be just residential artifacts from the past.

Some tiny towns of 1970 grew dramatically by 2017. Fishers (Hamilton Co.) had 628 persons in ’70 and mushroomed to 91,800 in ’17. Proximity to Indianapolis on I-69, aggressive land development, and a determination not to be an appendage to Carmel or Noblesville made Fishers a recent hot spot.

Only 191 of those 454 small towns (42 percent) grew in population. These 191, however, accounted for 370,900 persons, which was one-quarter of the increase in Indiana’s population over those 47 years.

 On the other side, the 258 places under 5,000 lost only 41,300 persons. That averages out to three or four persons per year, per place. The biggest losers (population declines of 1,000 or more) were Long Beach (LaPorte Co.), Dunkirk (split between Jay and Blackford Cos.), and Attica (Fountain Co.).

Some would rid Indiana of small cities and towns, absorb them into their counties or annex them to other places. Yet, the data make clear that, as a group, the share of Indiana’s population in cities and towns under 25,000 rose from 26 percent to 32 percent. And the share of incorporated places 25,000 and over dropped from 41 to 33 percent. This means unincorporated areas, which were 33 percent of the state in 1970 edged up to 35 percent.

Our two biggest cities, Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, together grew by 203,600 (18 percent). But the next eight cities all lost population. The decline was least in Muncie at 460 persons and greatest in Gary at 99,400. Hammond, South Bend, Evansville, East Chicago, Anderson and Terre Haute together lost another 99,800.

How much of this is simply higher incomes driving urban sprawl, a desire by home owners to ride lawn mowers at a distance from unappealing neighbors? How much is state policy to deny cities and towns the right to annex property? What are the impediments to mergers or consolidations?

Do we have the imagination to discuss how this population distribution will play in the world of internet relations, self-driving vehicles, smaller households, and climate change?