Speak Your Piece: Rural and Urban Have a Shared Fate

There is now a White House office of urban affairs because President Obama says cities are the engines of the economy. Is the President implying that economic growth and innovation happen only in cities?

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Do rural and urban America have a shared fate?

Over the past three or four years I’ve become convinced they do. (Even though some days I wonder if it is a singular fantasy.) This shared fate is far larger than federal policy and what happens in Washington generally, but face it — the Feds matter. An enlightened, coordinated partnership between the federal government and rural America can only help.

But will it happen? 

With President Obama’s appointment of Adolfo Carrion as White House Director of Urban Affairs, one might well wonder if rural America is lost in the Washington, D.C. shuffle, a low priority that will only rise again in the 2012 election.

In his announcement of Carrion, the President said, “Vibrant cities spawn innovation, economic growth and cultural enrichment. The urban affairs office will focus on wise investments and development in our urban areas that will create employment and housing opportunities and make our country more competitive, prosperous and strong.” Carrion will report directly to the president.

So, is the President implying that innovation, economic growth and cultural enrichment aren’t present in rural America?  

No doubt rural America will benefit from the recently passed stimulus package. Missing, however, is the critical recognition that rural America is in as great a need as urban America for a coordinated policy pushed from the ultimate bully pulpit, the White House.

The monumental mistake of two generations of federal leadership is the conviction that whatever the Department of Agriculture decides is good for large scale commodity growers must be good for all of rural America. Nothing could be further from the truth.

There are, of course, many federal policies and programs that contribute mightily to rural America, but coordination among them is as ephemeral as footprints on the morning dew. Between the virtual hostage-taking of rural communities by USDA and disjointed policy everywhere else, no place in government is in more need of White House coordination than federal rural policy. 

The truth is that creating a White House Office of Rural Affairs isn’t enough. Keeping rural and urban interests separate misses the point. Advancing both the interests of the cities and the countryside requires us to see how the two work together. 

According to the 2000 Census, slightly over half of the nation’s rural population lives in a metropolitan county.  Dr. Andrew Isserman, at the University of Illinois, Champaign, has been making this case for years. This reality is starting to sink in, even among the most urban-centric policy makers. Bruce Katz directs the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution and is advising the Obama Administration’s HUD transition. He’s as urban as a guy can get. But even Katz understands that you can’t separate rural from urban — and if Bruce Katz says so it’s now official wisdom!

“Bottom line is that metros are [the] fundamental unit of economy and our country will prosper only when we metros meet their potential,” Katz said recently in North Carolina. “But let me be clear – these are not our parent’s metros – this is not about old notions again of city, or suburb or rural area. We live in a world, we live in a country, where the rules have changed – jobs have decentralized, poverty and immigration have suburbanized, urban development has extended far into what once were rural areas so that now about half of Americans who live in rural places actually live within the boundaries of metropolitan areas. This is a very different country requiring different solutions.”  

Well, that’s a start.

A report released late last year begins to suggest how we might do this. It’s called “Our Shared Fate: Bridging the Rural-Urban Divide Creates New Opportunities for Prosperity and Equity.” The report, coauthored by five colleagues at the Aspen Institute, The California Endowment, The Humboldt Area Foundation and the Southern Rural Development Initiative, is the distillation of a remarkable discussion between rural and urban thinkers (and doers) that took place in California in 2005. We concluded that the notion of “place” has evolved dramatically:

 Places we used to recognize as discrete and distinct – neighborhoods, communities, cities, suburbs, towns, counties, and rural areas – now have fluid boundaries with system interconnections and interdependencies that challenge our traditional policy making. We are beginning to realize that we need to develop a more nuanced understanding of place – including what is ‘rural’ and what is ‘urban’ – in America. 

Peter Pennekamp of the Humboldt Area Foundation, to the left, was a co-author of Shared Faith. Southern economic development consultant J. Mac Holladay (center) and Angela Glover Blackwell, president of Policy Link in Oakland, California, were consultants.
The report highlights the “busted assumptions” about separate rural and urban Americas. It is the rural-urban connections that are at the heart of hope in the report.

Rural and urban people both lack access to quality health care. Education is the worst in the poorest urban and rural communities. Working class families have a hard time affording a place to live in both San Francisco and the rural ski counties in Colorado. The city of New York owns and manages land in rural New York because that’s where the city gets its drinking water.

The connections are pervasive and profound — but we have to train our eyes and mind to look for them. Most often we don’t bother. Rural is over the horizon. Urban is something distant, something other. We don’t see the connections.

The report suggests five steps we could take to break down this division:

• Redefine rural, urban, suburban into working regions. First we need to start looking at the data showing the connections between rural and urban places.

• Develop new champions and non-traditional leadership. New leaders won’t be rural or urban advocates. They’ll span regions.

• Support, learn from, and disseminate lessons from emerging rural-urban partnerships. Urban and rural schools in Nebraska worked together  to increase funding for poorer schools. That’s a start.

• Build the rural-urban advocacy agenda around upcoming policy opportunities. The new administration presents all kinds of possibilities.

• Work with practitioners to test and disseminate the power of the rural-urban framework

Some days hope is hard to come by.  The recession is hitting rural America hard. National foundations’ endowments have declined significantly, and their commitment generally to rural issues appears to be declining. While it is early still for the new administration, the signs from Washington are not encouraging that there will be any coordinated leadership equal to the challenges and opportunities in rural America. 

While hope is hard it is not impossible. The small but growing number of rural-urban collaborations emerging across the country suggests that people realize that a collaborative framework is in everyone’s interest.  These small seedlings are responding to the realities of rural and urban America for the 21st Century. Understanding and acting on this shared fate will go forward, but the Obama administration needs to realize now that important opportunities will be lost without federal leadership.

Jason Gray is a writer/consultant. He lives in North Carolina. 



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