Roundup: A Subway Stop Too Far

Urbanization as ultimate solution? • Losing rural lawyers • Funds for rural broadband • Rural America and climate change • Coal dust "feeds" cancer cells

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Is there any problem that moving to the city can’t solve? If so, you wouldn’t know it from reading Charles Kenny’s “Small World” column in Bloomberg Businessweek.

Titled “Cheer up, Liberals: City Dwellers Will Soon Rule the World,” the piece celebrates the myriad ways global urbanization will save humanity, the planet and liberals, not necessarily in that order.

Leaving aside the assertion that cities produce more liberals, or whether, if true, that’s a good thing, let’s look a little closer at Kenny’s claim. His thesis – one we see repeated as gospel among many Washington-D.C. think tanks – is that urban areas generate prosperity while rural areas are a drag on economic progress.

Not for a moment would I discount the economic importance of cities. But Kenny’s column goes over the top in equating urbanization with unmitigated progress – no downside at all, except perhaps for the few people he sees remaining in the world’s non-urban areas.

Here’s the gist of Kenny’s argument:

The environment will likely benefit from declining rural numbers because urban living is simply more environmentally sustainable. At the same income level, dense cities have lower per capita energy use than sparsely populated rural areas because people don’t have to travel as far for work, school, or entertainment, and expensive land makes for more compact housing. City living is also good for human development—urban populations in the developing world see higher life expectancies and better education outcomes because public service provision is so much more straightforward than trying to provide electricity or schooling to sparsely populated rural areas.

The problem here is that there are no problems here. Kenny omits evidence that the nation’s largest urban areas also have some of the biggest disparities in wealth and income. The Financial Times’ Simon Kuper equates these luxury cities like Paris and New York with “gated communities where the 1 percent reproduces itself.”

Per capita energy use may decline with population density. But why, then, if the global population is urbanizing, is energy demand going up so fast?

In the United States, I'd say part of the discrepancy is that the energy-sucking suburbs are a big factor in economic productivity.  Kenny doesn't include this fact, despite evidence that suburbs, not just urban cores, are at the heart of much of the U.S. productivity.

And human development? It may be theoretically easier to provide services to densely populated areas. But the reality is that services like broadband and good education are unequal across geography in urban areas. If population density alone solves infrastructure problems, why is there a 65-point gap between cities with the highest and lowest broadband subscription rates. 

The answer is that problems go where people go. Depopulating the countryside is not going to improve cities. Nor will it feed and fuel our growing urban population.

There are certainly advantages to living in a city, as there are to living in rural areas. As someone who has done both, I’m happy to discuss their relative merits. But claiming that urbanization alone is the answer – well, that’s going a subway stop and five exits too far.

— Tim Marema

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You “don’t know what you got till it’s gone,” they say. One thing going fast is the small town lawyers. The Des Moines Register reports the local angle of a national trend: Lawyers in rural areas are retiring and no one is taking their spots. Young lawyers, fresh out of school, are too often saddled with so much debt they’re forced to take jobs in urban firms just to get by. That leaves many out in the cold when they need a will or help with their taxes.

"We take so many things for granted in our world, in our society and in our communities," [Ringgold County’s (Iowa) judicial magistrate James] Pedersen said. "And one of these days … people are going to say, 'Why don't we have any attorneys here?' You've got to fight for those things."

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Nineteen states are slated to receive a combined $109 million in federal grants and loans to increase their rural broadband capacity and infrastructure. State Tech Magazine looks at how the states will do it.

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Grist’s Nancy Shulins covers a lot of ground in a piece about rural Vermont, rural America, the state of family farming, and climate change.

It’s a fact that bears repeating for the vast majority of Americans — 81 percent — who don’t live in rural areas but who are no less dependent on them, not only for food, but for water, forests, recreation, energy, natural amenities, and more.

With 95 percent of the nation’s land and just 19 percent of its people, rural America is a vast and varied place, a patchwork of plains, forests, deserts, shoreline, mountains, hills, and hollows. It’s bound not by geography, but by the economic and cultural relationships between its people and the land, what David Hales, a lead author of the NCA’s rural America chapter calls “the economic basis for how people give meaning to their lives and put food on the table.”

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A new study says inhaled coal dust from mountaintop removal sites may promote the growth of cancer cells.

“We found that dust collected from residential communities close to mountaintop removal mining sites caused changes in human lung cells indicative of cancer development and progression,” says Dr. Michael Hendryx, professor of applied science at Indiana University.

Cells exposed to dust collected from communities farther away from mining did not show the same changes. “This is an important new development in the research line,” Hendryx says.

 

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