Rural vs. Urban? Rural and Urban? Rural with Urban?

Last week, a post by Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein teed off an exchange about rural versus urban living, subsidies and government spending, and whether the two are in opposition to each other.  The Center for Rural Affairs' Steph Larsen, who has lived in both environments happily, had an interesting commentary on the dialogue which came to include Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and a host of other opinions from across the spectrum.  We're reposting Steph's thoughts here, as originally appeared in Grist.  Your thoughts on what it means to live rurally and/or in an urban environment?

I’m a rural resident. Where’s my subsidy check?

BY Steph Larsen

12 MAR 2011

The view from Washington, D.C., of the rural Midwest: quaint scenery on the way to the West Coast. Photo: Scorpions and Centaurs

I've spent the majority of my life living in cities, albeit mostly small ones in Wisconsin that New Yorkers might not call metropolitan. Before I moved to Lyons, Neb., I lived in Washington, D.C. I truly appreciate the virtues of both urban and rural living.

So it's hard to understand why some urbanites criticize rural folks because we choose to make our home in a place without traffic where you can see the stars.

My brow furrowed a bit when Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein wrote glowingly about the book The Triumph of the City and titled his post "Why we still need cities" as though a rash of people have suggested we get rid of them. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack jumped in to disagree with Klein, but the best thing Vilsack said was that Klein's post was a slap in the face to rural places — to be frank, the overall conversation wasn't Secretary Vilsack's finest moment in persuasion.

What really got my blood boiling was Klein's lament of all the assumed subsidies for rural living. I mean, I live in a rural area. Where's my subsidy check? Vilsack didn't push Klein to define what he means by a rural subsidy, but thankfully Brian Depew did. Farm subsidies do not equal rural subsidies, argues Depew, and farm subsidies actually contribute substantially to the decline of rural communities.

Klein goes on to assert that "rural living ends up costing a lot more than urban living on a variety of measures," an assumption he offers no links to support and that Bill Bishop neatly debunks with a few graphs on per capita federal spending. That's the thing about assumptions — they're often wrong.

But even if it were true that rural living is more expensive per capita, it's not just rural people that are served from strong infrastructure in rural communities. The urban driver on a trip through Wyoming or Maine will appreciate quality roads as much as the rural driver, and when either driver gets into a wreck, both will appreciate that a hospital wasn't hundreds of miles away.

I haven't read Triumph of the City yet, but I wonder how (or if) the author deals with the idea that urban areas mine resources (natural, economic, and human) from rural areas. Author Patrick Karr makes the point in Hollowing Out the Middle that rural schools teach their brightest stars to leave their communities, depriving rural communities of their most valuable human resources.

Cities export many of the dirty eyesores they'd rather not deal with to rural places, like sewage, prisons, nuclear waste, and garbage. To give one example, you don't find stinky, polluting confined animal feeding operations overrunning Seattle or Phoenix like they are in rural North Carolina. Rural places bear the brunt of natural resource extraction too — strip mines and oil pipelines, drained aquifers, and clear cut forests don't do much for the tourist economy.

And because most of the corporations that dump or extract are owned by city-dwellers, the wealth generated by these resources doesn't really benefit rural people as much as it could if they were locally owned.

Vibrant rural communities are vital to the success of cities in another way too. Not only do rural communities provide the food and materials from which cities are built, but they serve a crucial role in environmental protection. In places where there is an engaged and organized rural populace, people raise their voices in protest if someone makes an environmentally-detrimental proposal.

Sometimes the alarm doesn't get sounded until after the damage has been done, but in these situations the presence of concerned rural residents motivates environmental remediation.

There is a segment of the country that doesn't see much value in rural places, and I can only hope that it's because they've never taken the time to truly experience a rural community. To those folks (and Ezra) — you're welcome to visit Thistle Root anytime and put to rest your assumptions about us hayseeds.

Steph Larsen is currently the Assistant Director of Organizing for the Center for Rural Affairs. She lives in rural northeastern Nebraska where she aspires to grow food for her household and community. Previously she spent three years in Washington, D.C. advocating on food security and nutrition issues. Steph holds a master’s degree in geography from her home state of Wisconsin and serves on the board of the Women, Food and Agriculture Network.



Kristin Tracz

About Kristin Tracz

Kristin Tracz served MACED’s Research and Policy team from 2009-2012 working on clean energy policy, energy efficiency programs and the Appalachian Transition Initiative. She joined MACED after finishing her Master of Environmental Management degree at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. She now lives and works in Washington, DC.