The ongoing debate about the deepening divide between rural and urban America and how this plays out in North Carolina was the topic of a previous blog post, Our Shared Fate. This post discusses some ideas about how the divide can be bridged.
The Triangle J Council of Governments held its regional summit in September 2017 on A Future Together: Connecting Our Urban and Rural Communities. The Triangle region faces challenges of rapid growth and the associated issues of land use, urbanization, and transportation. The framing for the rural-urban discussion is how to ensure that the benefits of increasing prosperity are fairly distributed.
Presenters and panelists provided practical examples of and ideas for improving rural-urban cooperation. A core theme emerged of an urban-rural multiplier to describe the potential flows of benefits from economic development. Investments in rural locations are advantaged by access to metropolitan areas, and investments in the urban centers provide a range of social and economic benefits to rural residents. Whether these flows of benefits materialize depends on a set of factors:
- The presence of high-speed broadband – a critical utility for business, education, government, and households without which rural communities cannot thrive.
- The recognition of valuable rural assets – natural, cultural, and historic – upon which to build new economies that provide local jobs and attract customers from urban centers. These assets include regional food systems and sustainable agriculture.
- An entrepreneurial culture that converts these assets into local jobs and income, and attracts entrepreneurs from the urban areas looking for a different lifestyle.
- Strong community colleges and regional universities that act as rural anchor institutions, provide a wide range of training options attuned to regional labor market demands, and drive economic development strategies.
- Mechanisms to encourage and facilitate urban-rural dialogues, including civic dinners, sharing of services and expertise, joint planning, and community twinning.
There are also common challenges that are best dealt within the context of regional comprehensive planning, primarily affordable housing, transportation, education, and health care. Finding solutions that work well for both urban and rural communities was a clear message from the summit. One immediate response from the Triangle J Council of Governments is to gain designation as an Economic Development District from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. This will enable the COG to dedicate staff to coordinate regional economic development strategies and to lead an update to the region’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy.
Meanwhile, the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute has received a grant from the Duke Endowment to launch a two-year project to research economic disparities in the Charlotte region and to identify ways to forge stronger ties between the economically robust urban core and rural communities that risk being left behind. The project is seeking to test the notion that regional economies can create a mutually beneficial bridge between rural and urban communities.
These steps are important ways of focusing attention on the rural-urban divide and how it can be bridged, but they also highlight two conundrums for policymakers at the state, regional, and local levels.
First, the initiatives for the Triangle and Charlotte regions are concerned with managing fast-growing metropolitan areas and ensuring equitable outcomes for all their communities. One probable outcome of successful efforts to better integrate rural places and economies is that they will no longer be rural: they will be absorbed by urbanization. The question arises: is it possible to safeguard essential qualities of being rural – whether cultural, social, environmental – while opening economic opportunities that increase incomes and wealth? Jason Gray at the Rural Center has proposed the facilitation of conversations in the Triangle with residents of places such as Oxford, Smithfield, Angier, and Pittsboro to find some answers.
Second, the rural-urban question looks somewhat different in those areas further away from the metropolitan centers. Carolina Demography has analyzed population trends among North Carolina’s 553 municipalities and found that 41 percent experienced decline from 2010-2016. The largest percentage population declines were in the north-eastern counties of Bertie and Northampton, and the largest numerical losses were also mainly in the counties between the Triangle and the coast. All were beyond the direct influence of metropolitan centers. Does this imply that remoter rural places are doomed? Not necessarily. But it does suggest the need for different, creative strategies to connect rural assets to urban markets and investments. The essential ingredients listed earlier seem like a good place to start.