Ideal vision of rural development

Reviewed: May 31, 2024

Visitor Question: What is the ideal vision of rural development? We are having an uproar here about what it means to stay rural, whether we even want to stay rural, and if so how can we be successful. It seems like the odds are stacked against rural people and rural topics, and I am sick of it.

On the other hand, we want our kids to be able to make a living here, and so far they are not seeing too much that interests them. I have a feeling that as soon as I am unable to crack the parental whip, they will be “outta here.”

So the question boils down to whether it is even realistic or desirable to stay rural, given today's economic situation, which is pretty dire for a number of towns around here.

Editors Reply: On this website we want rural people to feel welcome and invited, and we don’t want rural topics to be ignored at all. Rural people do have to speak up if they don’t want their voices drowned out by the sometimes louder and more organized urban activists, so thank you for posing the question.

We certainly understand the desire to have your children be able to make a good living in or near their home towns. This requires a purposeful, determined, and persistent approach to rural economic development within your own community. The momentum worldwide is an increase in urbanization, but that doesn’t mean this is the only option for you.

You ask for an ideal vision of rural development, but our experience thus far is that there is no one answer to that question.

You do need a unique vision though. Your town and its surrounding rural area simply must talk with one another, meet in person or virtually, talk some more, learn from sources such as this and other websites and from experts such as your university extension agent and other state or county offices, and then talk some more until you figure out a path forward. It sounds as though that work has started, and provided the uproar doesn't go on for years and years without any decisions being made, the uproar will be a productive one.

We suggest that you use your voice to try to steer the conversation away from the more philosophical questions that you refer to in your question. "What it means to stay rural" needs to be translated into a list of the values you want to preserve in the future vision of your community.

Do you mean that you want to preserve large tracts of land and prevent subdivisions? Do you mean that you want to keep your locally owned grocery store or general store, and prevent the big box stores from coming to your town? Do you mean that you don't want building codes, public health codes, and more telling you what you have to do? Whenever anyone says they want the community to stay rural, urge them to wrestle with specific questions such as these.

Another unproductive discussion is "whether you want to stay rural." A more helpful way to talk about this is to decide whether you want a specific benefit of becoming less rural and more connected to urban areas, and if so, whether that benefit is worth what you would lose. Imagine your children having to drive 40 miles to work each day, the amount they can earn when they plug into a larger economy, and then what is sacrificed when that much of their time and energy is spent commuting. Probably many parents have already done this, but urge them to write down what specifically they feel is being sacrificed if this is the option that the kids choose.

Or imagine becoming somewhat more involved in organizations or projects in the nearest city, and how that might entice that city toward being more sensitive to and interested in the challenges and opportunities present in your rural community. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has used the term "enhanced rural-urban interdependence," and we think it is worthwhile to invest some effort in helping your nearest city understand how dependent they are on your success. This dialogue could result in that city being more helpful to you as well.

You raise one more question that we want to address. You say people in your community are asking if it is realistic to stay rural. Being practical, we have to say that in most parts of the world, there will be increasing influence of urban areas, if only because the internet and cell phones make rural isolation both less possible and less desirable. But we do think it is realistic for a community to work hard to preserve the values, customs, and practices that they define as being unique to their own rural community. This will not be as easy or automatic as it was in the days when transportation and communication was much slower, and when agriculture or mining was sufficient to sustain a rural community’s economy and support locally owned stores.

The answer is the hard work of rural community development, which requires conversation, information gathering, learning, and then decision making and bold leadership. You cannot copy anyone else's template, although to be sure, there are many worthwhile initiatives around the country and the world to adapt to your own situation.

A useful tool for starting this conversation is a half-day or full-day session using an asset-based community development approach. Ask a skilled facilitator from a neighboring community or university to help you keep the conversation on track and specific. The idea of asset-based community development is to focus the conversation on what you have going for you, whether it is a big item such as a beautiful natural setting that tourists would like to visit or just an awesome store, restaurant, barbecue tradition, person, or history. In fact, you might need more than one session to get people to be specific enough that the conversation moves away from seeking some ideal vision of a rural community that you have to search for, and into more productive channels about how you could build on one or a few existing positive factors.

Once you see the potential of your rural area for cheese making, rural retreats for city folks, iris farms, small-scale timber operations, or whatever it is, then you need to start learning through both reading and visiting other communities that have been successful with a similar economic development strategy, if you find some within a feasible distance.

About this time, you also need to have hard conversations about what it will take to keep your children happy in ways other than economic. A big problem in many rural areas is that the available housing hasn’t kept up with current trends, even among rurally raised young people. You might need a coffee shop, a bar that isn't an old school smoky tavern that wouldn’t welcome a woman, or some entertainment for the teens. Especially in a rural area, those challenges will have to be addressed in order to keep a viable economic base.

We urge you and your neighbors to dig into pages on this website and discuss whether our points would be applicable to your community. See especially pages about rural economic development, rural housing, and even rural zoning. Yes, even mentioning rural zoning would probably cause a major commotion, but it is actually a tool that might help you keep your own special vision viable, once you have decided on a direction (and not before you have a direction). You can keep an eye on pages we write that may be relevant by looking for rural topics in the yellow box on our Sitemap page reached through the link near the bottom of our navigation column on every page.

In short, your own community must figure out its own ideal vision. Adapt our community planning process outline to fit your own needs, omitting tools and laws more common to urban areas unless you see how to fit them to your own rural advantage.

Other particularly valuable rural development organizations are the Center for Rural Affairs, the Housing Assistance Council that deals with and provides financing for rural housing, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s regional rural development centers.

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