How Small Cities Across America Kept Community During Pandemic


  • Melissa Williams
June 29, 2021 - (8 min read)

The latest U.S. Census population estimates indicate that of the nation’s 328.2 million people, an estimated 206.9 million (about 63%) lived in an incorporated place as of July 1, 2019. About 76% of the approximately 19,500 incorporated places had fewer than 5,000 people. Of those, almost 42% had fewer than 500 people. 

We are a nation of small towns and cities. Similarly, more than 80 percent of the members of the National League of Cities are municipalities with populations of 50,000 and below. That’s why each year, NLC celebrates these places that so many call home with our Small Cities Month which is commemorated in June. This year, the recognition was particularly poignant as so many of these communities struggled to keep their communities together and feeling connected as we encouraged physical distancing and a national lockdown was adopted to fight out the spread of the coronavirus.  

In the face of a once in a generation pandemic, our communities came together – mostly virtually to support each other and keep the connections that defined their communities. Here are some of those stories.  

Keeping the Spark in Brighton, CO 

Like so many other municipalities, the City of Brighton, Colorado was faced with so many challenges to safely continue operations and to keep the community engaged during the pandemic. COVID restrictions put on hold our in-person activities and events that year after year, brought so much joy to our community. That’s when we began to think out of the box. How could we still bring the essence of these activities, while following COVID protocols to keep residents safe?  

Brighton is a vibrant, close-knit community that deeply values its history and agricultural roots, while embracing progress, innovation and sustainability. Just 20 miles north of downtown Denver, Brighton is ideally located at the crossroads of everything. This connection has helped drive robust population growth, with the community doubling from 21,000 to 41,000 residents in just two decades. Other draws include a strong, well-educated workforce and an enticing mix of recreation, culture, entertainment, parks, trails, a historic downtown, shopping and dining amenities. 

One by one, our dedicated staff put their own ingenious spin on our annual events to work around COVID guidelines. We turned Valentine’s Day into Valensigns Day by staking personalized signs of love and kindness into our park just outside City Hall for visitors to enjoy at their leisure. We created individually marked squares for families to enjoy our annual Flix and Kicks summer concert and movie series, safely at a distance from others. Live concerts at The Armory Performing Arts Center transitioned to virtual so music lovers could watch from the comforts of their home. We took our Art in the Park event online, turning the in-person event into an all-encompassing virtual walk-through gallery after gallery modeled after one of our parks. We hosted our Fourth of July Fireworks, working around social distancing by choosing the highest point in the city to set off the fireworks so almost everyone could see the display from any point in the city. Finally, we put a major spin on our end of year Festival of Lights Parade. We knew social distancing would be difficult for families and friends gathered along the parade route.  

That’s when we decided to bring the magic of Christmas directly to our residents – Our staff voiced hundreds of Santa calls to the children of Brighton, followed by a four-hour escort of Santa through Brighton that drove through almost every neighborhood in the city.

At the end of each of these events, knowing that we helped to bring some sense of normalcy and happiness to our community makes our efforts — tape measuring, chalk line drawing, creating countless new URLs and more — all worthwhile. 

Public Private Partnerships in Kinston, NC 

The City of Kinston, NC is one of the smaller cities located in Eastern North Carolina with a population of about 20,000.  

We continued to work together as able to tap resources for vaccination clinics, food drives and testing sites.

Local leaders and the mayor also collaborated through public private partnerships in order to monies for utilities and rental assistance. The city has a proud history as the home of several professional athletes including Jerry Stackhouse, Brandon Ingram, Reggie Bullock and musical artists like Maceo Parker and Dick Knight.  

As the city turns its attention to recovery, it is currently collaborating with schools to help get shots in arms for our most distressed Census track areas throughout our communities. 

Free Libraries and Food Trucks in the Village of Golf Manor, OH 

Over the course of this pandemic, our village has been actively engaging with the community to explore creative ways to bring neighbors together to stay connected amidst these challenging times. Last month, we saw one of those ideas come to fruition as we gathered to celebrate the installation of 10 Little Free Libraries across the Village of Golf Manor. These libraries now serve as hubs of shared learning and engagement for all members of the community, from young children to adults. Through this project, we were able to partner with the Literacy Network of Greater Cincinnati to both build community within our neighborhood and connect with others throughout the region.  
Additionally, this summer, we are partnering with local community groups and local businesses to host monthly First Friday food truck events at our neighborhood park. As the public health situation continues to improve, we are excited to begin more gatherings in person to allow neighbors to reconnect over a shared love of food, games and music. 

The Village of Golf Manor was established just outside of Cincinnati, Ohio, as a Greater Cincinnati suburb incorporated in 1947. We are a small, diverse community, of approximately 4 thousand residents, living in approximately 1000 households, half of which are families with kids in the home. 

Drive Thru Community Events in Alexandria, LA 

Like communities across the world, Alexandria was significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. As the largest city in the rural central Louisiana region, Alexandria is home to the area’s hospitals and many health care providers. We are also the retail and economic hub for the region. So, while the city’s population is slightly less than 50,000, more than 120,000 people typically pass through the city daily. 
We knew we had to take a leadership role and worked closely with local and state health officials to support all medical efforts. Early on, we held joint news conferences with all local officials. The city consistently complied with and supported all statewide health mandates, including wearing of face masks and taking various health and hygiene precautions.  

Utilizing our website, social media and our government access TV channel, the city ensured ongoing and consistent information was provided to residents about the pandemic, local health programs and other pandemic-related communications. 
While we had to shut down most city facilities during stay-at-home orders and to avoid gatherings of people, the city partnered with the Department of Health to offer those facilities as testing sites and heavily promoted regular testing. Once the vaccine was available, we shifted to making sites available as vaccination locations.  
While our primary focus was on health and safety and making sure residents had access to health care services, we wanted to support as many “normalcy” efforts as possible. While we were not able to offer any of our normal annual events and festivals, we were able to create several drive-thru events that allowed residents to come together safely to celebrate major holidays and events. 
For example, we held a drive-thru Halloween Candy Stop, drive-thru Christmas Wonder Lane, drive-thru Easter Egg-Stravaganza and a drive-thru Back to School Bash supply event. 

We also wanted to provide support for our business community. At the start of the pandemic, the city created a database of area businesses listing who was open and what restrictions were in place to make it easier for residents and businesses to connect. As forced closures eased, we shifted and created the Your Safety First program to highlight businesses that were following state health and CDC guidelines as they reopened. 
In addition to the pandemic, Alexandria was impacted by two major hurricanes – Laura and Delta, that brought winds of more than 100 mph and heavy rain to the city. While the normal congregate shelter plan was not an option, the city worked with local hotels to provide safe temporary shelter and then used city community facilities as resource centers for FEMA and other disaster workers to be able to respond and support our residents as they worked to recover. 

Thank you to Linda Ong of Brighton, CO; Stefan Densmore of Gulf Manor, OH; Susan Broussard of Alexandria, LA and Mayor Dontario Hardy for submitting stories on behalf of their communities.  

About the Author

Melissa Williams

About the Author

Melissa Williams is the Director of Marketing and Communications at the National League of Cities.