The development patterns America witnessed before the Great Recession convinced many transportation and land use professionals to appreciate regional thinking. Commuters are traveling longer distances, agricultural land is being lost to sprawl, and our metropolitan regions are growing. But planners only have the language, tools, and institutions to deal with half of this problem.
When we call ourselves “urban” and “city” planners, we exclude the rural. Some do this intentionally, believing that there’s nothing there, so there’s nothing for a planner to do. Most do this without malice. But how can we rightfully exclude something we do not fully understand?
Most people have a pretty good image of rural: trees, farms, and wide open spaces. But how do you define rural? How should we define it
The U.S. Federal Government is unclear on what “rural” means. It actually offers three competing definitions, none of which are useful for regional planners.
1. U.S. Census: Any Census-designated place with less than 2,500 people, plus all undesignated areas.
2. Office of Management and Budget (OMB): Any county not included in a Metropolitan Statistical Area. Effectively any county with fewer than 25% of its workers employed in an urban county.
3. Economic Research Service (ERS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA): A county ranked 4 or higher on rural-urban continuum of 1-9. Rankings are based on population and proximity to OMB definitions.
Based on these definitions, the 2010 U.S. population was between 19.3% (Census) and 1.7% (OMB) rural. That’s quite a spread.
The Census is the only definition that allows areas smaller than a county to be rural. This should jump out to anyone that has been on the edge of a metro area and witnessed suburbanization. Whole counties don’t wake up and declare themselves urban – residential growth is an incremental process. This sub-county texture is necessary to describe the transition from rural to urban.
But the Census is willing to sacrifice this precision for simplicity. The Census rounds up “indentations” and “enclaves” into its Urban Areas, and allows for “hops” and “jumps” to connect noncontiguous areas. These borderlands contain farmland at the highest risk of urbanization, as well as disadvantaged unincorporated communities. The Census writes them off as a statistical error.
Then, consider that a “3” or higher by the ERS continuum is “nonmetro” by the OMB standard. Anything rated a “3” is automatically a disagreement between the OMB and ERS. Confusion ensues.
How do specific cities fare by these standards? The following image shows eight California cities at the same scale. Cities to the left are always considered rural, to the right are never rural, and those in the center are rural by some definitions but not by others.
If this uncertainty doesn’t convince you that urban planners are ill-equipped to discuss rural areas, keep looking. The State of California has eleven official definitions of rural, based on everything from average daily automobile trips and population density to something as nebulous as “having a rural character”.
How does this uncertainty effect planning in rural areas? It creates an narrow urban-centric approach to planning that hinders good policy.
For example, California’s environmental quality act provides streamlining for infill projects, but for whatever reason, does not allow that exemption in unincorporated areas. “Rural infill? Impossible!” one might think. But King’s Beach, on the unincorporated north side of Lake Tahoe, had a density of 86 units per acre. Affordable housing developers were ineligible for the exemption, and the project almost failed. Why not use a quantitative measure of density to determine infill? Who knows.
More generally, the artificial difference between “urban” and “rural” creates barriers to communication. Rural residents don’t see themselves as urban, so why should they need urban planning? Urban residents can’t relate to rural areas, so why should they be concerned with agricultural preservation?
So what is the solution? For regional planning to work, we need to think regionally. Urban and rural areas are undoubtedly connected. Stronger urban schools, successful public safety campaigns, and infill projects in Downtown San Francisco can reduce development pressure on the outskirts of a suburb or rural town like far-flung Clayton. City-dwellers depend on productive working farmland for food security. Watching whole regions erode into a continuous sea of low-density development isn’t in anyone’s best interest.
Rural needs its own definition. Rural isn’t just the absence of urban – rural is something unique. The definitions above are all urban-normative, based on urban characteristics like density, traffic, and proximity to other urban areas. What makes a rural place rural, and how can you define it in its own terms?
Demographers in Minnesota coined the term “ruralplex” (as opposed to “metroplex”) to describe areas connected by similar soil types, geology, climate, and settlement patterns.
This makes intuitive sense. The wealthy resort towns around Lake Tahoe, sparsely populated exurbs, and the agricultural communities in the Central Valley are all “rural”, but they are distinct and deserve so much more nuance. Here’s hoping our academic planning programs, with names like Department of Urban Studies and Planning or Department of City and Regional Planning, can be flexible enough to imprint its students with this distinction.
Post by Ruth Miller. This research is a part of Ruth’s masters thesis at the University of California, Berkeley, conducted in partnership with the California Governor’s Office of Planning and Research. She is the editor the UC Berkeley’s Urban Fringe.