New American Ruralism - Technology and telecommuting are fueling the new migration from urban areas to rural areas.

July 4, 2004

New technology lets city dwellers move to rural areas – and one result is a culture clash.

American society has become more urban and less rural according to every census taken since 1790. Only in 1820 did the balance momentarily shift. However, the technological advances of the last decade are already shifting the population trends towards a New American Ruralism.

By Richard H. Carson

http://www.calapa.org/PLANNER/CalPlannerMayJune.pdf

A Changing Paradigm

The 20th Century was not kind to rural America. By the end of the century rural areas were losing population and were in economic ruin. The rural resource economy collapsed.

The combination of dwindling resources, as well as increased environmental and land use regulation led to the closure of mines, fisheries and forests. Corporate and mechanized agriculture reduced the need for workers. Finally, the new global order let foreign competitors undercut the price of domestic resource products. The only alternative for some areas was to pursue a tourist-based economic development strategy with low paying jobs.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 25 percent of Americans live in rural areas.1 Since 1990, nearly 75 percent of the nation’s 2,304 rural counties have gained population.2 The USDA also notes that: “The decade of the 1990’s has been a period of rebound in rural and small town population growth as more people move into nonmetro counties than are moving out. The nonmetro population grew by 5.3 million, or 10.3 percent, during the 1990's compared with just a 1.3-million increase in the 1980-90 decade.”3

Part of this population shift has to do with people taking a conventional retirement or buying a second recreation home in rural areas. However, the more important trend is technological – it’s based on the freedom that comes from the ability to telecommute.

One of the more important changes fostering the new urban flight is technology. My new neighbors are a good example. They both work at home. He is a securities broker and she is an insurance claims adjuster. All they need is high speed Internet and telephone access. That is because of a major breakthrough in which the new satellite technology gives you television and high-speed Internet. As a result, you are no longer restricted by the need for DSL or cable land lines.

These folks can live absolutely anywhere in the world. And now they live in the hills of southwest Washington. In an article on this subject, land use planner Ray Quay noted that: “One possible future this could lead to is the re-ruralization of America. With the decisions about location of work and home now separate, people unsatisfied with the urban experience but still desirous of current urban employment opportunities could retain employment and relocate to rural areas. Between 1980 and 1990, there was a 1.5% shift (3.7 million) in US population from rural areas to urban areas.

Even if only 20% of potential telecommuters chose to move to rural America, this could represent a potential 4 million people. Essentially this would completely reverse the loss from rural communities over the last 10 years!” 4

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Urban flight will bring with it people who still have urban wants and biases.

New technology lets city dwellers move to rural areas – and one result is a culture clash.

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This population shift brings with it some fundamental changes in rural economics. The economic shift will be from the traditional agrarian and resource-based industries, to more knowledge-based industries. There will also be social changes. Urban flight will bring with it people who still have urban wants and biases.

Changing Rural Character

According to western statesman and author Daniel Kemmis, rural Americans are characterized as “the last of what is best in America” and by their “plain-spoken, uncomplicated neighborliness.”5 However, the growth in the rural areas is resulting in a more cosmopolitan resident moving in. It’s a form of gentrification of rural areas that is not easy for the original inhabitants or the newcomers.

Rural centers were typified by a few establishments – that being a post-office, a church, a general store, and a tavern. Stores catered to loggers, farmers, and their families. However, the new urban immigrants want expresso bars, day care, a video store and a tanning salon. A restaurant that was called Fatty Patty’s will be renamed Augustino’s.

This results in a clash of cultures. Consider that rural area natives believe everything is “constitutionally protected.” That generally means it’s o.k. to occasionally discharge your rifle, ride your unmuffled dirt bike and start your diesel truck engine at 4:00 a.m. However, these are all actions that former urbanites hate, and they routinely complain to their local government. Immigrant urbanites also protest any new mining, logging or farming activities because they ruin views and are too noisy or smelly.

Politics of Ruralism

New American Ruralism is sure to bring us back to some basic Constitutional issues. The framers of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution were drawn from two very different groups with very different perspectives about what the America experience should be. One group led by people like Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wanted a more urbanist, federalist and interdependent America. The other group, led by Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams, wanted a more ruralist, decentralist and self-reliant America.

The new rural America will be the product of residents who have traditionally worked the land and newcomers who want to live in what they perceive as a peaceful, pastoral landscape. These are two kinds of people, with very different values and motives for living in rural America. Daniel Kemmis says that, “Places have a way of claiming people. When they claim very diverse kinds of people, then those people must eventually learn to live with each other; they must learn to inhabit their place together… and nurture the old-fashioned civic virtues of trust, honesty, justice, tolerance, cooperation, hope and remembrance.”6

Let’s hope he his right. Richard H. Carson is a theorist, writer and practicing planner with 30 years experience in the Pacific Northwest states of Oregon and Washington. He is Director of the Clark County Community Development Department in Washington State and can be reached at Rich.Carson@clark.wa.gov.

1. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service (http://www.ers.usda.gov/ Briefing/Rurality/WhatisRural)

2. Kenneth Johnson and Calvin Beale, The Continuing Population Rebound in Nonmetro America, Rural Perspectives, vol. 13, no. 3.

3. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service (http://www.ers.usda.gov/briefing/Population/)

4. Ray Quay, Telecommuting: Possible Futures for Urban and Rural Communities, McQuay Technologies, 1995.

5. Daniel Kemmis, Community and the Politics of Place, University of Oklahoma Press, 1945.

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