Monday, September 26, 2011

Three Stories that Changed How I Understand the Importance of Rural America

By Alan Okagaki, Senior Fellow, Rural Futures Lab

After casting about in the community development world for the last 25 years with CFED and ShoreBank Corporation and as an independent planning and evaluation consultant, I was looking for something fresh, new and promising.  Around that time, Brian Dabson recruited me to be part of the Rural Futures Lab.  As he explained his thoughts about the Lab, I found myself getting excited about this new project in a way I hadn’t in years.  In this blog, I’m going to relate three stories which suggest what I think is at stake for rural America and why the Lab is so important. 
The first story is an Associated Press article released July 28, 2011, that ran with the headline “Rural America is disappearing; population share hits low.” It reports that the share of the United States population living in rural areas had fallen from 20% in the 2000 census to only 16% in the 2010 census.  It cites demographers who predict that “by midcentury, city boundaries (will) become indistinct and rural areas grow ever less relevant. Many communities could shrink to virtual ghost towns as they shutter businesses and close down schools.”  My perception is that this negative viewpoint is becoming increasingly prevalent among policy makers and the general public – or at least those people who spend much time thinking about rural America.  Metropolitan areas are seen as the centers of economic strength, innovation, and growth; they are the future.  Rural areas are perceived, at best, as along for the ride and, at worst, as a drag on economic growth and a cost sink for social services, transfer payments, and public subsidy. 
The second story is the report entitled Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World (2008) written by the National Intelligence Council.  It highlights a set of global trends that have huge implications for rural America.  According to this report, global population will grow by 1.2 billion people by 2025, putting pressure on energy, food, and water resources.  Demand will outstrip supply.  The World Bank project that demand for food will increase by 30% by 2030, putting even more stress on land and water resources.  Climate change is accepted as a given: the pace at which it occurs and the places it affects most will define winners and losers.  The report anticipates that agricultural losses will mount.   One major question is whether an energy transition away from oil and gas will be completed by 2025.   The report believes that all current technologies are inadequate for replacing the traditional energy architecture on the scale needed.  In sum, resources will become an increasingly prominent part of the transnational agenda and will have significant security and geopolitical implications.
My take-away from the Global Trends report is that rural areas and the assets and services they provide will become more and more important in the future.  As clean water becomes scarcer, rural watersheds and groundwater will become more valuable.  As world demand for food grows, productive agricultural lands are precious.   London, New York, and Hong Kong may be the largest global financial centers, but they are not going to be centers for carbon sequestration.  And we are already seeing the contributions that rural areas are making towards renewable energy.    
My third story goes back to 1971 and to the state of Montana where I’ve lived most of the last 30 years.  The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released the North Central Power Study, which called for building 42 coal-burning power plants in the Northern Great Plains.  It portrayed eastern Montana as a “national sacrifice area” for energy production.  The plan would have devastated farming and ranching communities – massive strip mining, depletion of scarce water resources, air pollution, high power transmission lines.  Not surprisingly, the North Central Power Study helped catalyze the creation of the Northern Plains Resource Council, a state-wide coalition of ranchers, farmers and environmentalists committed to protecting water quality, family farms and ranches, and rural ways of life.  Northern Plains continues to this day, with nine local chapters each concerned with a set of local issues.  The intent of these rural advocates is not necessarily to stop resource development but to ensure that development be done responsibly and respects their communities and the land.
The first two stories suggest a paradox: rural resources and assets are becoming increasingly important at a time when rural areas are depopulating and falling off the public radar screen.  One can make a plausible argument that our long-term economic competitiveness will be contingent on protecting and making highly productive use of our rural resources which in turn will enhance our geopolitical positioning.  The third story begs a series of questions about the relationship between rural people and rural landscapes, between rural communities and major economic interests, and about the abilities of rural communities to control their destinies. 
There is no question that rural America will be subject to major changes over the next 20 or 30 years.  Articulating how these different factors can play out in the future– the economic utilization and conservation of rural resources, the relationships between urban markets and rural areas, the roles that rural communities play in shaping their economies, landscapes and lives – is the major task of the Rural Futures Lab.  This is an exciting and significant endeavor.      

What do you think are the best ways to change the negative narrative about the future of rural America? How does your rural area contribute to national prosperity? Do you feel that your community or region is in control of its destiny?

Alan Okagaki is Senior Advisor for Growth and Impact Strategies at Enterprise Cascadia (a community development financial institution serving Oregon and Washington) and Senior Fellow with the Rural Futures Lab. He recently moved to Seattle for his work with Enterprise Cascadia, but his heart remains in Montana where he lived in a rural community for 30 years.

Visit the Rural Futures Lab website here.

Photo credits: Street scene, Cornfield

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Quandary of Defining Rural

By Kathy Miller, RUPRI Program Director

What is rural? It sounds like a simple question, but ask 10 people and you’ll get 10 answers. Worse, ask 10 policymakers and you’re likely to get 20 answers. What makes this such a contentious and difficult dilemma? Largely, it falls to where the funds are – everyone wants a piece of an ever diminishing source of public funds for rural development.

Common rural definitions & their challenges

There are lots of ways that rural is defined for data-related purposes. The Census Bureau makes the official definitions of the words “urban” and “rural.” These are based on the population density of census blocks and block groups. Under these guidelines, urban areas have populations of 2,500 and higher, and anything not defined as urban is rural.

While the Census definitions are the official designations of rural and urban places, these pose significant problems for the purposes of targeting resources to rural areas. Many people argue that some “urban” places – such as small towns with as few as 2,500 people – are really more rural in character. But how do we agree on the appropriate threshold? Also, these areas are drawn for the purposes of statistical tabulations – there is no governmental jurisdiction that operates these census-defined areas. Furthermore, these are boundaries that are delineated only once per decade.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), recognizing these challenges, created the Core Based Statistical Area classification, designed to represent “functional regions” around urban areas. Counties are used as the basis of these areas. Counties are classified as:

·         Metropolitan, a county with a core urban area of population 50,000 or more plus surrounding counties linked through commuting ties;
·         Micropolitan, a county with a core urban area of population 10,000 to 49,999 plus surrounding counties linked through commuting ties; and
·         Noncore counties, the residual set of counties that don’t meet the criteria for metropolitan or micropolitan.

These OMB definitions are popular designations, and do indeed have strong merit. However, counties create a difficult geography to classify, particularly in the west where counties can be expansive. It is very difficult to classify a county as one thing – counties are not urban or rural, they are urban and rural. In fact, over half of all rural people actually reside in counties that are classified as metropolitan. And an image of the Grand Canyon, located in a metropolitan county, is often used to illustrate this challenge.

Thinking regionally

While it is absurd to call the Grand Canyon an urban area, this classification does have significant merit when considering more regional approaches to economic development. OMB does not intend for these designations to be utilized as strict delineations, but rather as functional regions. By definition, these areas contain a broad spectrum of territory, from the most urban to remote rural places.

Micropolitan areas in particular represent small cities and towns that act as important regional growth hubs for broad rural territory that surround them. We should not dismiss these designations because they are county based, but we should embrace these designations for their purpose, representing how regions interact and functions.

Most would agree that we rarely cross an invisible line where urban territory becomes rural territory – a drive outward from a central city will present a gradual change. Thus represents the problem. Rural and urban are a continuum – not discrete concepts. We are forcing a line in the sand when we create a firm definition of rural. The truth is, there will always be some place left just beyond the arbitrary line we draw.

The answer, then? Ultimately, there isn’t one – nor will there ever be. But in an area of declining public resources and monumental challenges, we need to worry less about who is rural and who isn’t – for these places are no more isolated in reality than the definitions try to make them. Communities need to recognize, and welcome, the interrelationships with surrounding areas and learn to function as regions.

How do you define “rural”? What is your community's experience with various qualifying criteria for rural programs? How do you define the region where you live? 

Kathy Miller is the Program Director for RUPRI. When she’s not wrestling with rural data issues, she raises chickens, turkeys, and cows with the help of her two girls and husband in Blackwater, Missouri. Contact her at

Visit the Rural Futures Lab at our website.