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

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