Rural Ohio enduring conflicting trends


COLUMBUS – Ohio’s population has not increased significantly over the past few decades, but it has redistributed itself dramatically within the state, said Jeff Sharp, Ohio State University rural sociologist.

Living in townships. Today, 34 percent of Ohio’s 11.4 million residents live in townships, outside the boundaries of a city or village. That’s 3.86 million people, up from 2.7 million in 1960, or 12 percent of the state’s population at that time.

“There are a large number of people living in townships. I’m not sure that we’re paying enough attention to that fact,” said Sharp, assistant professor in the Department of Human and Community Resource Development.

He and colleagues Elena Irwin and Jason Reece have compiled Ohio data from the last 40 years on Ohio township population and its distribution.

Long-term study. It’s the first step of a long-term project that will focus more attention on the issues and challenges faced by residents living at what the researchers call the “rural-urban interface.”

The researchers extracted township population figures from U.S. Census Bureau data.

“The level of population growth in townships can create many challenges for local officials,” Sharp said. “From a policy standpoint, we need to better understand what townships are all about – what are their capacities, and what challenges they face.

Dynamics of townships. “This data clearly show that the townships are attracting a growing number of residents, and we can expect them to assert themselves politically,” Sharp said.

In the past, sociologists have focused mainly on strictly urban or strictly rural areas, he said.

“In Ohio, we have a lot of in-between areas that don’t quite fit either definition. These areas are near urban jobs, but have rural characteristics that people find appealing. The question is how do we preserve that character as the population increases?”

Mostly urban. Not surprisingly, the researchers found most of the growth in Ohio townships has taken place in areas that surround metropolitan areas.

The Cincinnati area has the largest number of residents who reside in townships, with over 690,000 township residents, or 44 percent of the total metropolitan population.

The Cleveland/Akron region has more than 476,000 township residents (16.2 percent of that region’s population), and the Columbus area has 327,000 township residents (21.2 percent of the Columbus metropolitan area population).

County-level data can give a good overview to what’s happening population-wise around the state, but can often mask issues in specific areas, Sharp said.

Perfect example. Just north of Columbus, for example, Delaware County’s growth is almost all at its southern edge, where three townships of 9,000 to 12,000 residents have experienced increases of more than 140 percent since 1990.

In contrast, townships in the northern part of the county remain very rural, with little to no growth and less than 1,000 residents.

Plan for growth. “Those low-growth or no-growth areas just beyond the current rural-urban interface may not be experiencing growth yet, but they need to start thinking at some point how they will handle the outward expansion once it reaches them,” Sharp said.

“It may happen soon, or it may happen in 20 or 30 years, but if you see it coming you can start planning for it. We’re not accustomed to doing that kind of planning.”

Many of the state’s 1,309 townships lost population over the past 40 years, especially those in the northwest and southeast/Appalachian areas of the state, Sharp said.

In the 1960s, 516 townships saw a decrease in population. In the 1980s, 557 suffered a loss. That, too, has implications, Sharp said.

Conflicting trend. “It shows two conflicting trends in rural America that require different types of policies,” Sharp said.

“Rural economic development is a very important issue in areas that are slow-growth or that are actually losing population. They’re trying very hard to attract new businesses and retain what they have.

“In fact, a lot of the work in rural community development is focused on communities in decline – we don’t focus nearly as much on rural areas undergoing rapid growth. We need to do both.”

The research group has published a report on statewide data, “Township Growth and Change: Population Characteristics of Ohio’s Townships 1960 to 2000.”

Free information. That, as well as more in-depth data on each of Ohio’s 849 townships can be found on the group’s Web site,

Soon, the group will complete three more reports, on land use characteristics and policy, labor force characteristics, and housing characteristics in Ohio’s townships.

That will generate additional research and analysis, especially in regards to zoning laws, farmland preservation issues, and water use and environmental protection regulations, Sharp said.


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