Rural Capacity Map

Posted on: 1/23/2023 - Updated on: 1/23/2023

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The Rural Capacity Map is a free online map and data tool developed by Headwaters Economics to help identify communities where expertise are needed to support infrastructure and climate resilience projects.

Communities will need capacity—the staffing, resources, and expertise—to apply for funding, fulfill onerous reporting requirements, and design, build, and maintain infrastructure projects over the long term. Many communities simply lack the staff—and the tax base to support staff—needed to apply for federal programs. Even communities that can put together applications are often outcompeted by higher-capacity, coastal cities. The places that lack capacity are often the places that most need infrastructure investments: places with a legacy of disinvestment including rural communities and communities of color.

Places that receive the most external funding – whether from state and federal programs or philanthropy – often have larger staff, more expertise, and deeper political influence, not necessarily greater merit. Communities that need the most assistance may be the least likely to even submit applications. For the United States to fully adapt to climate-driven threats and bolster aging infrastructure, its programs and policies must account for community capacity.

Headwaters Economics created a new Rural Capacity Index on a scale of 0 (low capacity) to 100 (high capacity). The Index is based on 10 variables that can function as proxies for community capacity. The variables incorporate metrics related to local government staffing, community education and engagement, and socioeconomic trends.

The tool displays data across the urban to rural continuum to illustrate the variability in community capacity across the country. The inclusion of metropolitan communities is necessary to show the comparatively lower capacity that exists in most rural communities. Results are available at the county, county subdivision, and community scale in the interactive map.

You can customize these interactive maps in three ways:

  1. Select a state.
  2. Use the Rural Capacity dropdown menu. Choose to view either the lowest quarter OR lowest half of communities ranked by the Rural Capacity Index.
  3. Move the Risk slider bars below the maps. Move sliders to the right to see communities with higher risk of flooding and wildfires.


The Rural Capacity Index can be used by communities to advocate for resources. It can also be used by federal and state agencies to more deliberately invest in communities that would otherwise be left behind. The Index can be used to target dozens of infrastructure investments, including transportation, outdoor recreation, internet access, education, and climate resilience projects.


Patricia Hernandez

Managing Organizations

Headwaters Economics is an independent, nonprofit research group.

The staff at Headwaters Economics blends innovative research techniques and extensive on-the-ground experience working with a range of partners across the West for more than 20 years.

The mission of Headwaters Economics is to improve community development and land management decisions in the West.

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