Monday, October 31, 2011

How are Rural and Urban Linked?

By Brian Dabson, Director, Rural Futures Lab

Much of what passes for policy discussion around place-based strategies tends to emphasize the differences between urban and rural, often to the detriment of rural people and places.  To a great extent this is the result of the unsatisfactory way urban and rural places are defined, as described in Kathy Miller’s blog, The Quandary of Defining Rural (September 12, 2011).  It is also an outcome of a general lack of awareness of the contribution that rural America makes to the overall prosperity and well-being of the nation as a whole. 

A potentially fruitful way of reframing the discussion is to focus on the linkages between urban and rural people and places to better understand the nature and strength of their interdependence.  This was one of the important topics for discussion at the recent Rural Wealth Creation and Livelihoods conference in Washington DC sponsored by the Economic Research Service and the Ford Foundation.  The particular mechanisms favored by Ford for exploring these linkages are value chains. These, as defined by USAID, refer to the full range of activities and services that are required to bring a product or service from its inception to sale in its final markets, whether local, national or global.  They include input suppliers, producers, processors and buyers and are supported by a range of technical, business and financial providers. 

US Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack
at the Rural Wealth Creation and Livelihoods Conference

Analyzing value chains helps to focus on the linkages and relationships among firms, on where power is exercised, and on where different links are located – urban, rural, or suburban.  When at the depth of the Great Recession the auto industry began to retrench, the impacts were not just felt in the Detroit region but also along complex chains of suppliers and retailers that extended into small towns across the rural Midwest and beyond.  There, small manufacturers and service operations experienced first-hand the strength of urban-rural linkages and who controlled the value chain. 

There is much scholarly work underway across the world dedicated to better understanding rural-urban linkages, particularly in the context of rapid urbanization.  In the US the focus has been on industrial and employment clusters and on the economic benefits of agglomeration in growing city regions. 

The Rural Futures Lab is currently working with the Ford Foundation-supported Wealth Creation in Rural Communities initiative on a series of case studies of rural-urban linkages and their impact on rural wealth creation.  We are studying linkages in wind energy in Texas, food systems on the Gulf Coast, bio-manufacturing in Nebraska, and forestry and forest products in Oregon, to better understand the spatial dimensions of linkages within these value chains.  Of particular interest to the initiative will be the extent to which it is possible to measure the impacts of these value chains on the accumulation or depletion of capital – whether individual, social, intellectual, natural, built, political or financial – in rural regions and communities.

If you have insights, studies, and initiatives that you think would enrich our study, please share them with us.  We would very much like to hear from you.

To visit Rural Futures, Lab click here

Monday, October 17, 2011

Are Rural Communities Ready for Energy Transitions?

By David Kay, Senior Extension Associate, Community & Regional Development Institute (CaRDI) in the Department of Development Sociology, Cornell University

I have become increasingly concerned about the changes facing rural communities as our country comes to terms with its dependence on cheap oil. My experiences in community and land use planning in my hometown and my research/extension roles at Cornell University have combined to focus my attention on how a volatile energy economy is likely to magnify instability, for both better and worse, in rural places.

Allow me to develop an imperfect but personally significant metaphor. For me this detour is most relevant because it underscores the roles of information and knowledge, collective planning, and action.

When I was a teenager I had the good fortune to spend two years at a splendidly isolated rural high school near a village in Wales called Llantwit Major. This part of Wales abuts the Bristol Channel, which can experience a thirty foot vertical difference between high and low water – the second largest change of tide in the world. Within a matter of hours, vast expanses of beach can be deeply submerged under fast moving currents.

Bristol Channel

Of course, most adults understand the tides and have learned how to work with them. Ships often harness the current to their advantage. Nevertheless, extraordinary factors ranging from storm surges to unusual tidal confluences and tsunamis can doom the unlucky. In 1607, thousands of unfortunates drowned in a singular tidal flood: villages vanished, farmland was engulfed, and livestock devastated.

So what’s the intended metaphor? I want to draw attention to the pace and scale of rural change in relation to coming energy transitions. Some of this change will be regular (even if large), like the daily tides. However, from the perspective of individual communities especially, some changes will involve extraordinary surges and retreats, like the floods. Communities that are paying attention and can come together to plan ahead will be able to better adapt to an amplified pace and scale of change. Unprepared communities will be at the mercy of the economic tides.

A paper we wrote recently for the RUPRI Rural Futures Lab explores the likely implications for rural America of a transition away from cheap oil. We suggest that rural places will experience unique pressures because:

·         Wind, biomass, most solar & other renewable resources are especially abundant in rural places.
·         Different kinds of energy resources (renewable and fossil fuels) are distributed widely but unevenly across the rural countryside.           
·         Renewable energy tends to require a great deal of land per unit of energy produced, and several sources require a good deal of water, too.
·         To reach urban markets, massive new infrastructure projects will likely cut through rural corridors to connect urban populations with the energy sourced in rural places.
·         The well-being of rural places depends greatly on the cost of moving goods, services, and people around.

In that paper, we argue that the pace and scale of the shift to a new energy economy will be of critical importance. Many factors constrain rapid change. These include political will, consumer habits, and the complex nature of energy and climate systems themselves. Yet rural residents who have seen factories and mines close, farms consolidate, or oil and gas fields expand know that technology, trade agreements, market forces, environmental concerns, and more can trigger rapid and large scale community change.

Figure 1: Historical changes in fuel dominance

Recent work evaluating the impact of drilling for natural gas in vast shale reservoirs calls attention to the ways pace and scale matter at the community level. Will the impacts of 400 wells projected for eventual development in a single county be the same if they happen over 10, 25, or 50 years? What if it is actually 4,000 wells rather than 400? What about a similar calculus for wind turbines: 140 in five years? 500 in 10?

We already know from history that pace and scale make a difference. Natural resource driven boom and bust economies have left a deep imprint on much of rural America. On the boom side, demand for labor and housing can rise quickly. Rents and wages can skyrocket. Jobs are created, some well paid. Farmers and other landowners can earn large rents. Fortunes are made. Given time, markets adjust, governments adjust, and residents have a reasonable chance of adjusting constructively to new conditions. A certain kind of American dream can be realized.

But there are also downsides to the boom. When changes are too fast and too large, systems break down.  Local workforces may be inadequate to meet demand. Newcomers can outnumber longtime residents, and local people and businesses can be displaced or gentrified. Schools may be overwhelmed, and crime and congestion can increase. Government can’t keep up with permit and inspection requirements, and the environment is often scarred.  Later, overbuilt communities grasp for resources as jobs disappear, buildings stand empty, the community is hollowed out, and the remaining citizens pay more for less. There are few winners in this phase.

We know a lot about the pros and cons of boom and bust in rural economies. But we still lack a practical, policy relevant understanding of the rates and types of change that can be integrated well by existing communities, and when enough becomes too much.

Like many educational institutions in rural areas, my school in Wales provided services to the surrounding community, including emergency rescue services for 20 miles of coastline. We trained diligently, working with surrounding communities to integrate the information and collective planning we would need to take effective action. When the claxon sounded, we were on call to save the lives of the ill informed, the inattentive, and the poorly prepared.

The emergency rescue team

Communities facing rapid change will have no rescue services waiting for the siren’s wail when the waters of energy driven change rise and fall. Ideally, they will figure out how to move out of the metaphorical (and sometimes literal) tidal surge zones and flood plains ahead of time. To do so, they will have to look ahead and try to understand their roles in a higher cost energy economy. Those who do best will adopt appropriate land use, housing, planning, schooling, regulatory, and capital management strategies that anticipate and can adapt to change.

The magnitude of the challenge is large, and capacity to anticipate and respond is increasingly limited. Institutions and government at all levels, not least land grant universities like my own, must help “lift all boats” by working with communities to develop the information, expertise, and community capacity building that provide the foundation for effective action.

What are the likely opportunities and concerns a changing energy landscape might bring to your community? Have community leaders planned for or even thought about this issue at all? What pace and scale of change would be manageable? What might overwhelm and transform your community altogether?

David Kay, a Senior Extension Associate with Community & Regional Development Institute (CaRDI), was trained as an economist, works in the Department of Development Sociology, Cornell University, and focuses on land use planning and community/economic development issues.  He grew up in California’s burgeoning Silicon Valley  but settled in Ithaca, New York, after graduate school, not least because of his growing  appreciation of  the small city’s uniquely combined scale of community and pace of life.

Visit the RUPRI Rural Futures Lab here.

Images provided by the author.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Making Connections for Effective Rural Philanthropy

By Racheal Stuart, Senior Program Director, Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation

When I’m trying to figure out a particularly sticky community issue in my work on behalf of the Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund, I stop by Paul Grenier’s garage on the East Side of Berlin, New Hampshire. Paul can be found there on most Sundays, rebuilding vintage Harley Davidsons. He is the Mayor of Berlin, a city of about 10,000 people in Coös County. He is also a Coös County Commissioner—all this while he holds down a full-time job at an automobile dealership.

Paul is a dedicated and persuasive leader in a region that is going through intense community and economic transformation. I count on him for the “unvarnished truth”—not that I always agree with him, but I know I’ll hear an important perspective as well as a get a good hearing of my own. The last time I stopped by Paul Grenier’s garage we discussed the tension between addressing urgent, critical needs and investments that will not pay off for years, maybe even generations. Paul remarked, “If the region takes another body blow, we might not have a future worth investing in.”

Paul recognizes the challenges of his home place. Coös County is physically isolated from the rest of New Hampshire by the Northern Presidential range of the White Mountains. The region has a multi-generational history of large paper mills as the principle employer and a legacy of civic leadership characterized by benevolence, strong local ties and community loyalty. According to research by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire, Coös is undergoing a major transformation from a resource-dependent manufacturing economy to a future that is still being defined.

Photo: Coös County in late fall.

Building Social Capital and Leadership

My connection with Paul reflects the philosophy and approach of the Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund of the NH Charitable Foundation, a provider of philanthropic capital in the region. We believe in order to be successful our work must be jointly owned and led by people on the ground, and that we are at our most effective when we are in true partnerships with community leaders.

There is an ongoing need for more bridging between communities and sectors, and between long-time community leaders and economic development professionals in the nonprofit sector. To address this need, the Tillotson Fund uses multiple methods to strengthen and expand social capital – feelings of trust and reciprocity – across the region:

  • We insist on local staff with real ties to the community, reflecting the philosophy of Neil Tillotson, whose generosity created the Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund. Mr. Tillotson believed we should personally know the people who are affected by our decisions.
  • We engage existing and emerging leaders in the region in all levels of governance and decision making to build a pipeline of leadership for the Fund itself.
  • We operate as a social capital broker, using several programs to strengthen “bridging social capital” across communities and sectors, and among those inside and outside of the region.

Photo: Coös Symposium participants, a group of leaders from around the region.

Image: A network diagram depicting the many ties among Coös Symposium participants.

Decisions being made by today’s leaders will determine if Coös County heads toward a vibrant future or persistent poverty. Yet there are promising signs that our work together is paying off.  New Carsey Institute research and our own network analysis suggest that the Tillotson Fund’s work to strengthen social capital has had a positive impact on efforts to advance regional economic initiatives. After years of tireless effort by nonprofit leaders, elected officials, and state and local agencies, Coös County is holding its own and moving forward: 

  • re-opening of a major manufacturing plant,
  • ground-breaking on a key renewable energy project, and
  • experiencing an uptick in tourism revenue for the first time in years. 

There is no doubt we have a ways to go in Coös County, but these are good signs that our leadership is up to the task! I have hope that our work together will pay off for generations to come.

What is your community’s experience with philanthropic organizations? How are you developing strong local leaders and a sense of trust in your rural region?

Racheal Stuart lives and works in the Coös County, New Hampshire. She enjoys biking and hiking in the White Mountains when she’s not building bridges of trust for her work with the Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund.

Visit the Rural Futures Lab website here.

Photo and images supplied by author.