The New American Ruralism
By Richard H. Carson
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.
The Changing Paradigm
The 20th Century was not kind to rural America. By the end of the century the 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 has let foreign competitors undercut the price of domestic resource products. The only alternative left was to pursue a tourism 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 freedom and the reality of telecommuting.
The New Rural Economics
One of the more important changes that is driving this 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. The latter has recently had a major breakthrough because the new satellite technology can give you television and high speed Internet. This means 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, writer 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
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. The urban flight will bring with it people who still have urban wants and biases.
The Changing Rural Character
According to Westerner, 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. This gentrification of the rural area is not an easy one for either the original inhabitants or the new comers. Rural centers used to have the minimum requirements for civilization – that being a post-office, a church, a general store and a tavern. The people who had stores there catered to loggers and 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 now be called Augustinos.
This results in a tremendous clash of cultures. One theme that rural area natives have is that 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. in the morning. However, these are all things that the former urbanites hate and they routinely complain to their local government about. The immigrant urbanites will also protest any new mining, logging or farming activities because they ruin their view, are to noisy or smelly.
The Politics of Ruralism
The 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.
However, 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 see as a peaceful, pastoral landscape. They too are 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.
2 - Kenneth Johnson and Calvin Beale, The Continuing Population Rebound in Nonmetro America, Rural Perspectives, vol. 13, no. 3
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, 1945
6 - Op. Cit.