January 17, 2017

Field Notes: The Rural-Urban Relationship

By James Arentson, Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellow

Photo credits: Rural Iowa by James Arentson

It’s been about 2 months since the unexpected election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States.  At this point there is seemingly no end to the analysis and speculation about what changes the rather unconventional Trump administration will bring.  Rural America has also received a fair amount of attention (early on at least) as the rural vote was quickly identified as a deciding factor in the election.  Very few people saw this coming and it has led to a lot of confusion, stereotyping and finger pointing about what rural really is or is not.   

Rural America is many things. You can’t put rural in a box and say “this is rural” any more than you can say New York and Chicago are the same simply because they are cities.  We know they are different.  Rural issues, just like issues faced in urban areas, vary by location.  It’s also safe to say that much of rural America is struggling today.  The economy is not as strong as it used to be, children tend to move away for different opportunities, and most rural communities are not as vibrant as they once were.  Amongst the older members of these communities there is often a sense that “our best years are behind us.”  Decades of slow, incremental social and economic decline has led to anxiety about the future and a sense that rural issues are misunderstood or overlooked by the predominantly urban power base of our government – which is not entirely true or untrue.

Photo credits: Abandoned farmhouse in Minnesota by James Arentson

There are many examples I could give to illustrate the frustrating reality of our current rural-urban relationship.  Through my fellowship work in rural southwestern Minnesota, I personally know well educated, successful rural citizens who simply cannot accept more of the same government policies that have, in their view, weakened the economy, slowed down progress, complicated state and federal programs, and allowed rural America to slip into the shadows.  This sentiment is real and strong enough for them to vote for Donald Trump, despite his unproven track record and the divisive racial rhetoric that he represents – the latter of which was not what they were voting for.  Many of these people are not proud to have Trump as our next president, but in the context of their experiences and the election ballot, they felt the Republican ticket was the only option.  In sharp contrast to President Barack Obama’s campaign for change in 2008, Trump was the vote for change in 2016.

Photo crElection maps from the Minnesota Secretary of State website 

The election was a surprise because our predictive national polling data told a different story.  Everyone was primed for a Hillary Clinton presidency.  Rural and urban, Republican and Democrat alike, were shocked by the result.  This data miscalculation underscores the point that the rural perspective is in fact not well understood or fully considered at a national level.  If it were, then the election outcome would have been no surprise at all.    As important and useful as statistical data is to understanding our world today, it is not the end of the story.  Facts still need to be checked on the ground, and there are times to trust data only as far as you can throw a real person.  The 2016 election was one of those times.

All of this is troubling because historically rural and urban areas have been viewed as complimentary sectors of our society.  This perspective was based on knowledge, not perception.  For example, during the Great Depression the Works Project Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) projects put millions of Americans to work across the country along with national new coverage about life in rural areas.  People knew about rural life even if they didn’t live there.  After World War II, the nation enjoyed not only a unifying sense of accomplishment in “winning the war” but a national population that was well distributed.  Rural to urban cultural exchange happened organically because most urban and suburban people had family ties or close relationships in rural areas, and vice versa.  This natural form of communication continued through the 1970s before the farm crisis of the 1980s and advancements in agricultural technology began to impact employment, incomes and the population in much of rural America.  Prior to the 21st century, the rural-urban exchange was more common and ongoing.  That does not mean that rural and urban have always agreed, but they listened and learned more affectively from each other in the past.

Photo credit: Rural rush hour by James Arentson

There are many reasons for the increasing polarization of American politics today, beginning with the fact that the world we live in is increasingly complex.  But another reason I see is that rural and urban are no longer viewed as complimentary voices in our society.   Arguably, we were more successful as a nation working together and finding common ground at times when rural and urban represented similar portions of the population.  Both voices were more equally heard and together they provided perspective and a form of political balance that we do not have today.  So I do see some correlation between increasing political polarization and rural/urban disparity.  Rural and urban cultures are different, but they are also complimentary even when they disagree.  We need to rediscover and rebuild, in our 21st century context, the ties that have always connected rural and urban America.  We are losing the balance that both have historically provided us.


james-arentson.jpgAbout the author: James is hosted by Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership (SWMHP), a community development corporation based in Slayton, Minnesota. SWMHP serves twenty-seven counties in southern and west-central Minnesota, with additional projects in northwest Iowa. James works to incorporate comprehensive design practices into SWMHP’s pre-development process, enabling this leader in green building to maximize impacts on resident health, community space and energy efficiency. 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Enterprise Community Partners.

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