Why did 575 people from all over North Carolina cram into a hotel conference room in downtown Raleigh on February 11th? The occasion was the ReCONNECT Rural and Urban Forum led by the Institute for Emerging Issues at North Carolina State University. They came to explore how rural and urban communities are interconnected despite the ongoing narrative about the growing rural-urban divide. An impressive array of speakers from business, nonprofits, government, health care, churches, philanthropy, and the media offered insights, stories, and data. The energy in the room showed that there is a hunger for breaking down barriers and seeking new and stronger connections.
In two previous blogs from 2017, Our Shared Fate and Our Shared Fate 2, the background on this topic was discussed as well as initiatives underway in North Carolina to find common ground. It is heartening that these efforts continue at the Institute of Emerging Issues, the Triangle J Council of Governments and the Urban Institute at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. Recently, LOCUS Impact Investing has launched a new project with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Regional Solutions to Rural and Urban Challenges sets out to test the idea that regional collaboration can be effective in improving social and economic opportunity and health. Specifically, researchers are seeking examples of policy and practice to promote boundary-crossing and multi-sector solutions to regional challenges that benefit rural areas, low-income people, and people of color.
The project hopes to learn about the effectiveness of these examples, who the main players and beneficiaries are, what makes them innovative and repeatable, and how they might be improved; and critically, what lessons can inform policy and practice more generally.
As a first step, a LOCUS review of the literature on rural-urban connections and regional collaboration reveals ten early findings:
- Formal definitions and common perspectives are misleading. Federal definitions of ‘urban’ and ‘metropolitan’ areas are quite precise but assume that everywhere else is ‘rural’. Policymakers and researchers continue to use these definitions despite their obvious limitations and available alternatives. Common perspectives and images of rural America are often based on, at best, partial reality, including a reliance upon agriculture. The truth belies such beliefs. Rural America is vast, complex, diverse, and evolving.
- Rural-urban relationships are constantly changing. Most research rejects the simple rural-urban dichotomy and points to the shifting, crossing, and blurring of boundaries between rural and urban. Data does not support the view that urban America thrives while rural America struggles. In fact, economic growth and opportunity occurs unevenly across the rural-urban continuum. Some urban places struggle while some rural places prosper. New ways of describing the areas where urban and rural meet and mingle have emerged. They highlight the dynamic nature of rural-urban interactions.
- Urban areas benefit most from rural-urban interactions. Rural-urban interactions and location patterns of economic activity result from comparative advantage, aggregation economies, and costs of transportation and communications. Three themes emerge: the economic dominance of cities is a strong and continuing centralizing force, the benefits of rural-urban interactions tend to favor urban centers, and the most visible interactions happen through commuting.
- Small towns, suburbs, and exurbs act as rural-urban bridges. Evidence supports the positive roles that small towns and micropolitan areas play in forging rural-urban connections. These can benefit low-income households and long-time rural residents, and can support upward economic mobility of low-income youth. Suburbs act as bridges between rural and urban places; exurbs blend urban and rural values, cultures, and landscapes.
- Poverty is both urban and rural but more deep-seated in more remote rural areas. Poverty is a feature of both rural and urban places; however, more remote rural places have suffered generations of relatively higher rates of poverty and lower levels of income. .
- Rural areas are more racially diverse but possibly more segregated. Rural areas are becoming increasingly racially diverse, although social and capacity challenges exist in areas where this shift is recent. It appears that residential sorting with whites and minorities concentrating in different rural places is taking place.
- Rural strategies are evolving. Rural economic development strategies favor greater integration with the urban economy for rural places within commuting distance; whereas for more remote places, they promote local asset-based economic and entrepreneurial development.
- Fragmented government gets in the way of regional collaboration. Complexity and dynamism of rural-urban interactions raise questions about the ability and capacity of governance structures. Fragmentation of governance inhibits collaboration to tackle region-wide issues and brings with it inefficiencies, costs, externalities, and conflicts.
- Regional collaboration is complicated and far from easy to advance. Obstacles to regional collaboration include high transaction costs, imbalances of resources and power between cities, suburbs, and outlying rural areas.
- There are examples of rural-urban collaboration but intentionality is rare. New forms of regionalism are adding cross-functional and cross-jurisdiction strategic thinking to existing structures while balancing the desire for local autonomy with the need for collective action. There are many examples of regional initiatives that provide useful implementation lessons. However, intentional rural-urban regional collaborations are rare.
 LOCUS Impact Investing (a wholly-owned subsidiary of the non-profit, Virginia Community Capital, a regulated, certified CDFI loan fund and CDFI bank) is a social enterprise created to empower place-focused foundations to invest their capital locally to build prosperous, vibrant communities. Brian Dabson, Research Fellow, UNC School of Government and Deborah Markley, Senior Vice President, LOCUS co-direct the Regional Solutions project.
Photo: Institute for Emerging Issues, https://iei.ncsu.edu/reconnectnc/rcru/