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November 17, 2009

No Urban America Without Rural America

Photo, Flickr

Photo, Flickr

I live a double life.

Most recently that life has been spent amid a cacophony of rumbling trains on the elevated subway line outside my window, the din of car horns from the drive-through fast food restaurant below my building, shrieks from emergency vehicles, bangs and clashes from the construction work on Columbia’s new campus across the way, shouts from passersby, and yes on rare occasions, gunshots.

In contrast, I spent the majority of my life – I’m only 35 – in rural America where the audible equivalent to my current urban context consisted of insects louder than the 1 and 2 trains rumbling above Broadway, roosters and wild turkeys announcing the coming daylight, solitary cars on the highway just down what use to be a dirt road when I was a kid, the distant haunting drone of the Silver Meteor or the Palmetto passing through town three miles west, and, though with more frequency but less suspicion, gunshots.

Lately, I’ve been giving a considerable amount of thought to just how these two extremes, both of which I love for peculiar reasons, are actually two sides of the same coin. On Wednesday, May 23, 2007, that coin got a tad bit weighted to one side as scientists from North Carolina State University and the University of Georgia projected that the earth’s human population, for the first time in history, had become more urban than rural.

Even as these scientists urged us to avoid placing greater importance on urban populations in light of these findings, much of academia rushed to exploit and skew this information with untold numbers of urban studies. Urban had become academically fashionable in a way it never had been before. In actuality, we’re not talking about some dramatic shift; the United Nations estimated that by 2010, less than two months from now, there will only be a 2.6% difference in favor of urban population numbers!

This isn’t a zero-sum game. Urban and rural communities are not in competition with each other – at least they shouldn’t be considered that way. Rural communities produce goods and resources that are then processed by our cities for both urban and rural consumers. Interestingly, researches suggest that if either had to sustain themselves without the other, “few would bet on the cities.”

But there’s a dark side to this relationship between urban and rural communities. NC State and Georgia researchers concluded that not only do rural areas have more than their share of poverty and low education attainment, but they also receive a disproportionate amount garbage, polluted air, contaminated water, and hazardous waste produced by their urban counterparts!

Urban America, regardless of its newly established majority standing, can not afford to continue dumping on rural America.  While one might go so far as to consider this immoral, I believe it’s just plain dumb. Cities need the resources provided by surrounding rural areas for their continuation. Conversely, rural America cannot be left out of the conversations that are going on across this country regarding infrastructure, sustainability, community empowerment, education, and the arts.  It just will not do.

As I continue to discover the similarities and differences between my double lives, I look forward to sharing them and making the connections more mutually meaningful. Moving forward, it’s quite clear there can be no healthy urban America without a equally healthy rural America.

Yahya E. B. Henry

About Yahya E. B. Henry

Merging his passion for cities, real estate, tech and travel, Yahya is introducing the world to a new model of real estate development that draws from best practices around the globe.

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8 Comments

  • I wonder how much “urban” is actually “suburban.”

  • Love the post. Rural America must be a part of the conversation about the future of our nation because urban and rural are a part of the same ecosystem. If one is sick, it’s bound to infect the other. I’d like to add that there’s a danger in viewing rural and natural resources as the same thing. For instance, part of the reason rural communities have struggled is that rural policy is largely agricultural policy. There’s definitely more to rural than ag.

  • Christi,

    This is how the US Census Bureau classifies urban and rural. “Urban and Rural Classification

    For Census 2000, the Census Bureau classifies as “urban” all territory, population, and housing units located within an urbanized area (UA) or an urban cluster (UC). It delineates UA and UC boundaries to encompass densely settled territory, which consists of:
    core census block groups or blocks that have a population density of at least 1,000 people per square mile and

    surrounding census blocks that have an overall density of at least 500 people per square mile

    In addition, under certain conditions, less densely settled territory may be part of each UA or UC.

    The Census Bureau's classification of “rural” consists of all territory, population, and housing units located outside of UAs and UCs. The rural component contains both place and nonplace territory. Geographic entities, such as census tracts, counties, metropolitan areas, and the territory outside metropolitan areas, often are “split” between urban and rural territory, and the population and housing units they contain often are partly classified as urban and partly classified as rural.” source: http://www.census.gov/geo/www/ua/ua_2k.html.

    It's interesting that this classifications include areas that are split, but the Census Bureau, as far as I can tell, doesn't have a classification for suburban.

  • Thanks, Mike! You make a great point in terms of rural and natural resources. We should consider the wilderness as an essential component in what you refer to as one ecosystem. It's apparent that these gradations of human settlement can not be isolated, even as the Census Bureau suggests, due the the flows of materials, processes, wastes, and currencies that occur in both directions across otherwise arbitrary classifications. We don't need urban, rural, agricultural, or even wilderness policies as much as we need overall systems policies to correct our errors and move toward a more inclusive solution.

  • Love the post. Rural America must be a part of the conversation about the future of our nation because urban and rural are a part of the same ecosystem. If one is sick, it’s bound to infect the other. I’d like to add that there’s a danger in viewing rural and natural resources as the same thing. For instance, part of the reason rural communities have struggled is that rural policy is largely agricultural policy. There’s definitely more to rural than ag.

  • Christi,

    This is how the US Census Bureau classifies urban and rural. “Urban and Rural Classification

    For Census 2000, the Census Bureau classifies as “urban” all territory, population, and housing units located within an urbanized area (UA) or an urban cluster (UC). It delineates UA and UC boundaries to encompass densely settled territory, which consists of:
    core census block groups or blocks that have a population density of at least 1,000 people per square mile and

    surrounding census blocks that have an overall density of at least 500 people per square mile

    In addition, under certain conditions, less densely settled territory may be part of each UA or UC.

    The Census Bureau's classification of “rural” consists of all territory, population, and housing units located outside of UAs and UCs. The rural component contains both place and nonplace territory. Geographic entities, such as census tracts, counties, metropolitan areas, and the territory outside metropolitan areas, often are “split” between urban and rural territory, and the population and housing units they contain often are partly classified as urban and partly classified as rural.” source: http://www.census.gov/geo/www/ua/ua_2k.html.

    It's interesting that this classifications include areas that are split, but the Census Bureau, as far as I can tell, doesn't have a classification for suburban.

  • Thanks, Mike! You make a great point in terms of rural and natural resources. We should consider the wilderness as an essential component in what you refer to as one ecosystem. It's apparent that these gradations of human settlement can not be isolated, even as the Census Bureau suggests, due the the flows of materials, processes, wastes, and currencies that occur in both directions across otherwise arbitrary classifications. We don't need urban, rural, agricultural, or even wilderness policies as much as we need overall systems policies to correct our errors and move toward a more inclusive solution.

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