The so-called gulf between rural and urban America is really a fertile space of intense economic, political and environmental interaction. For the benefit of us all, higher education – especially land grant universities – should do more to cultivate research and public service that helps us understand this place of productivity and innovation.
This article is adapted from “Choices: The Magazine of Food, Farm and Resource Issues.”
Most Americans—taxpayers, politicians, and policy makers—have an urban-centric world view. Yet all Americans have a large and growing stake in the demographic and economic vitality of rural people and places. At a minimum, we cannot forget that urban Americans depend on rural America for food and fiber, natural resources (for energy), recreation and entertainment, and much more.
The so-called urban-rural divide is not a divide at all. It is a space of intense social, economic, political, and environmental interaction. It also is space where rural and urban interests are sometimes in competition, for example over land use management, while in other instances rural and urban interests are conflated.
The new interdependency of urban and rural America is perhaps illustrated best in the agricultural sector. America’s “food system” cannot be examined in isolation from other aspects of the economy and society. The restructuring of the meatpacking industry makes our point. Rather than shipping cattle or hogs to slaughterhouses in faraway cities, such as Chicago and Kansas City, most are now processed close to where they are raised in rural areas. For some small towns, this has been a demographic and economic boon, especially in the Midwest and Southeast, such as poultry and pork processing.
The contemporary agricultural economy has also opened up niches for some small- to medium-sized producers who benefit from direct access to large urban markets. This development has been especially rapid at the urban-rural interface. The metropolitan farmer is not an oxymoron.
The Role of Higher Education
Higher education, and especially the land grant university system, has a key role to play in enhancing social and economic opportunities at the urban-rural interface. At a minimum, it should endeavor to make the “space between the cities” an area of intellectual inquiry and excitement and a fertile ground for engaging students, faculty, and the broad array of community and regional stakeholders.
Emerging information technologies make this now possible, creating new connections in areas of business development (e.g., e-commerce), education and outreach (e.g., distance learning), healthcare, and governance and civil society (e.g., social media). Moreover, the research-based information produced by land grant scientists is largely a public good; it can be translated directly into the cutting-edge applications of immense policy importance such as environmental management, energy policy, or community and economic development.
It should be noted, however, that the land grant university research system has its critics., Some have argued that the trend toward neoliberalism in the United States has led to privatization of research conducted by land grant university scientists and, hence, a reduction of the public good value of their discoveries. Treating urban and rural as separate or self-contained spaces fails to acknowledge the intense social, economic, and environmental interaction now occurring between them.
Research and education focused on the urban-rural interface potentially benefits everyone, rural and urban alike. Most college-age young adults today, unlike their grandparents, have had little or no real exposure to rural issues. Higher education, and especially land grant universities, should target social science research at the rural-urban interface, and produce educational and training programs that translate research into innovative applications and public engagement. Colleges and universities arguably must endeavor to provide a curriculum that is spatially inclusive, that views rural and urban as symbiotic rather than competitive or distinct. “One size fits all” policies and perspectives, whether urban or rural, ignore a large and arguably increasingly important sector of the U.S. economy and social fabric. America’s natural and human systems increasingly interact at the urban-rural interface. Higher education should, and must, acknowledge this reality and focus teaching, research, and extension-outreach activities where they are needed most.
Facing the Challenge
This means adding instructors and researchers, coursework, and multidisciplinary journals that are sympathetic of an inclusive, spatial perspective. The university reward system, which emphasizes departmental rankings and disciplinary journals, has been slow to the challenge.
New research at the rural-urban interface is inherently interdisciplinary. Research, teaching, and public engagement will be motivated and shaped by interrelated social, economic, and environmental issues that require conceptual lenses and empirical approaches of many different disciplines. These include issues of environmental quality, land use management, community and regional development, food security, human capital formation, immigration and race/ethnic relations, green jobs, waste management, poverty and inequality, and many others.
These issues have large rural (and urban) dimensions that will only grow in importance over the foreseeable future. The rural-urban interface provides accessible natural laboratories that lend themselves to comparative studies of social, economic, and environmental processes that are of general rather than parochial interest.
Interestingly, the land grant system was a populist project that arose from the need to produce research-based information and education in support of the nation’s development. It can reclaim this role by adapting to the demographic, economic, and environmental realities of contemporary society and to globalization. And it can start by recognizing that many inter-connected social, economic, and environmental processes in contemporary society take place at the rural-urban interface.
Daniel T. Lichter ([email protected]) is the Ferris Family Professor in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. He is also professor of sociology and director of the Cornell Population Center.
David L. Brown ([email protected]) is the International Professor of Development Sociology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cornell University. He also is co-director of the Community and Regional Development Institute at Cornell and a faculty affiliate of the Cornell Population Center.
Choices Magazine, from which this article is adapted, is a free, online publication that covers economic implications of food, farm, resource or rural community issues. It is published by the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association.