By Cade W. Sterling, MLA | January 25, 2017
How does the government define rural, and how can allies of the built environment challenge the incoming administration to continue and advance programs and policies that have strengthened and maintained rural character and sense of place?
The U.S. Census Bureau simply defines rural as, “areas that are not urban–that is, after defining individual urban areas, rural is what is left.” I believe this definition represents how many Americans view rural. This country has long justified the development and commodification of its rural landscape. From the initial thrust westward in the name of manifest destiny and an expanded agrarian America to the more recent sprawl of suburban and exurban development, once vibrant and interconnected ecosystems are quickly depreciating. In the past forty years alone, the United States has lost well over 20 million acres of rural land to development. Moreover, development has occurred too fast and on too large a scale for the populations it is meant to support. This should concern everyone from planners and designers to politicians and taxpayers because, as the density of the built environment decreases, the cost of providing infrastructure and social services increases. This means the rural landscape is too often being developed poorly and inefficiently. Rural landscapes developed in the past have often become low density residential housing, estates, and hobby farms that support neither agricultural nor ecological purposes. Rarely truly urban or rural, these types of development have decentralized traditional town centers and intruded on ecologically significant greenbelts. The resulting built environment can be summarized as one of residential and commercial monotony, dependent on the automobile, and devoid of a distinct cultural and regional identity.
In addition to instability in the built and natural environments, many rural citizens have increasingly felt socially and economically marginalized. Growing up in a rural timber town, I saw firsthand how rural citizens truly believe their culture and their livelihoods have been diminishing for decades due to malicious intent from “the top down.” Despite this, the research suggests that the reality of the recent decline of rural America has had more to do with the ill-planned development described above; unstable, or often overly specialized economies; automation; population loss; and environmental depreciation. The outgoing administration, despite its unpopularity in rural areas, has benefited rural America. It created the White House Rural Forum and put forth many bold rural and place-based specific policies intended to reverse environmental degradation, diversify rural economies, and encourage participatory and bio-regional design solutions. Due in part to these policies, rural America has seen unemployment decline, falling close to the numbers seen before the great recession. Additionally, rural populations have begun to stabilize after years of negative growth. Rural wages have risen, and poverty has decreased.
While the return of wealth and stable populations is expected to bring new development in rural areas, it remains uncertain if the new administration will build on the place-based and bioregional policies needed now more than ever before. Economically, many rural communities have a singular anchor industry that inhibits resilience. The new administration must champion diverse rural economies, especially those that capitalize, but don’t exploit, their local natural resources. Politically, the new administration must learn from past mistakes and understand that top-down planning and design, as well as local, state, or federal governmental policies, are often poorly received in rural areas. It must acknowledge the limited resources of many rural communities, and begin to coordinate local planning and design strategies with a broader regional focus and diverse funding opportunities. Finally, the Trump administration must promote partnerships across traditional jurisdictional boundaries to collaborate in the protection and stewardship of our shared natural resources and eco-systems vital to current and future rural communities. Local, state, federal, and tribal governments, local businesses, non-profits, and community members must be engaged, not only as stakeholders but also as collaborators in the design, planning, and implementation processes. As advocates and allies of the built and natural environments, we must champion and demand that policy makers and developers implement these place-based policies to capitalize on each community’s unique relationship within its bio-region. We must continue to champion principles of density, adaptability, difference, smallness, sustainability, and accessibility over short term and rapid “progress”. Our rural communities deserve no less.
Cade W. Sterling was raised in Thompson Falls, a town of 1,300 residents located in the Cabinet Mountains of rural northwest Montana. His love of nature and of rural communities like Thompson Falls brings special insight to his work at Lakota.