Iowa's Cities

Iowa's first European settlers were mostly rural and small town dwellers. Until 1880 the number of rural residents outnumbered city or urban residents in the state. But from 1880 on, the number of rural residents began to drop. 

Iowa started out as a state made up of small towns and farms. There were some cities with populations over 10,000 in 1870—but only six! By 1880 there were seven. A city of 10,000 in those days was considered a "large" city. A small city was considered a town of over 2,500. 

The largest cities in Iowa between 1870 and 1930 were Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Dubuque, Clinton, Davenport, Burlington, Sioux City and Council Bluffs. Cities located along the eastern border on the Mississippi River were populated first. Des Moines, located in the middle of the state, was chosen as the capital.

For a long time many people in Iowa believed life was better in rural areas. Cities were thought to be scary and dangerous places. Some people thought bad things happened in cities.

Sharing Common Ideas

People who lived in cities tended to share common beliefs. And people who lived in small towns or in rural areas tended to share common beliefs. For example, in the 1840s when it came time to decide if a county would allow businesses to serve alcohol, rural areas voted against it. Urban areas tended to favor those businesses. 

Another example was religious preference. Rural areas had more Protestants. Urban areas had more Catholics. Also, foreign-born people were more likely to settle in cities than in rural areas. Neighborhoods within cities were formed by people who shared a common ethnic background. 

Lots of Horse Manure

In the late 1800s Iowa's large cities did have problems. All those people had quite a bit of garbage. And they usually threw it in the streets or alleys. The main form of transportation was by horse. And where there are horses, there is manure! It was harder to get rid of horse droppings in the cities than on the farm. 

But not all was bad in the early cities of Iowa. By the late 1880s there were electric lights, phones and electric street cars. Fire and police departments provided security. There were settlement houses in some of Iowa's big cities. People who needed a place to live for a short time could stay there. New immigrants could learn English. Poor people could get clothing or medical help. 

In the early 1900s some Iowa cities offered special cultural opportunities. There were art galleries and museums in Des Moines, Dubuque, Cedar Rapids, Sioux City and Davenport. 

Equal Representation

In the 1950s for the first time the urban population in Iowa outnumbered the rural population. With the big shift in population from rural areas to cities, people living in cities began to want more representation in the state legislature. They wanted leaders who were interested in urban issues to look out for their needs. They wanted the state legislature "reapportioned" based on population. In others words, they wanted the number of representatives from urban areas to increase.

It took about 25 years before there was a method that made both rural and urban people happy. But in 1972 the state Supreme Court decided how to set the number of representatives in the state legislature so that both rural and urban interests were equally represented.

Urban Sprawl

Rural and urban conflicts continued into the 21st century. One problem that caused problems was "urban sprawl." Many people want to live near a city but want the peace, quiet and scenery from the country. For this reason people are moving out of city centers and into outlying areas. As these people move out, businesses follow. As these newer communities grow, housing and business developments consume landscapes and farmland while inner city areas become more and more deserted. 

Some people believe a new business should be built on a vacant lot in a city before sacrificing more land on the edge of town. They believe more open landscapes should be reserved where humans don't live. Some cities are fighting this to become law. 

It has become a challenge to find a balance between letting people live where they want and preserving Iowa's landscapes for the future. 

Another problem facing Iowans is the decline in populations in the rural areas. Farms are growing in size. But with new technologies the large farms require fewer farmers. With fewer people living on working farms the small towns that served the farmers are losing businesses. It's very hard for small towns in Iowa to survive. 

The Past and the Future

Iowa has usually been thought of as a rural state. Small towns and farms have always been a big part of Iowa's story. But cities have also been a part of the story since the early days of European settlement. Iowa's urban and rural stories have been intertwined for many generations. Both settings have much to offer Iowa's citizens. The conflicts that have existed between the two over the years have caused problems. The future will continue to offer opportunities and challenges related to both urban and rural life in Iowa.


  • Schwieder, Dorothy. Iowa: The Middle Land. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1996.


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