Posted October 30th 2012 at 3:51 pm by
in Planning 101

Rejecting the Narrow Framework of "Urban" Planning

A “pipe farm” in suburban Georgia.

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.

ru•ral |ˈroŏrəl|


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.

Infographic by Ruth Miller.

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.

The aging town of Wells, Nevada.

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.

7 responses to “Rejecting the Narrow Framework of "Urban" Planning”

  1. Eliza Harris says:

    Interesting train of thought. Perhaps it’s not just a matter of better defining “Rural” but also of defining a much richer spectrum in place of the binary. We do like to think in binaries, don’t we? Of course this goes back at least to “City mouse, country mouse” (which apparently goes back to the greeks). Or perhaps even defining a separate axis for architectural scale. Is “rural town” an oxymoron?

  2. Ruth Miller says:

    Excellent point, Eliza. The binary also suggests we occupy one or the other, but people commute from, through, and two multiple portions of this spectrum on a daily basis. And I don’t believe “rural town” is an oxymoron at all – it’s just another place on that spectrum.

  3. Thom Shepard says:


    Thanks for Twit-connect on this.

    What I appreciate so much about the Rural to Urban Transect is that it takes into account that while large areas might be urban and others rural there are a lot of gradations and it is the shift between the two that is most often important.

    I think people realize that you don’t have to go way out to the countryside to find rural and as we are breaking out of the American auto-era planning paradigm where there is a city center surrounded by sprawl that would be considered most void of rural and then in the distance you encounter rural.

    Current patterns weave urban and rural together with formal parks being the connective tissue. But clearly Central Park, while in many areas a more formal park or gardens, gives way to a lot of rural right in the middle of NYC.

    So I think rural is context based. If you have lot of land set aside in the middle of sprawl that is not really useful or accessible, that would not be rural, it is more left-over. But right next to an urban place, with trails and connectivity rural can happen very easily.

    As well if we are becoming more compact but not utlilizing TDR, CE and other free market conservationist tools to preserve the beautiful places close to new urban centers, we are really missing the point.

    It was the desire for connecting to rural, open spaces, land, farms and trails that drove the sprawl bubble, and it is something that will drive higher quality places when achieved. The young monied creative class demands it and they will go where it is and shun those places where it is not.

  4. BASIC Design says:

    Thanks to the writer for tackling this subject matter and attempting to flush out the often “binary” approach that is part of the conversation at all levels from higher education to local governments.

    The points brought up by Eliza and Thom are insightful and bring us straight to the point about understanding about what each ‘place’ has that makes it unique and enriches the overall context, be it locally or regionally. One of the big questions about planning is what role it plays in this obviously cyclical pattern about growth and contraction. The “sprawl bubble” which Thom refers to I believe has been in the making ever since the end of WWII. Let’s recall that after the war, tract housing was the big thing advertised as affordable housing on large plots to provide the opportunity for families to escape the confines of the stifling, decaying city center.

    Out here in LA, those suburbs needed to be connected so freeways were built. Well these thoroughfares then needed to connect to what was once farmland to be able to serve the growing population and physical layout of those new suburbs. Then suburbs started to sprout up in these farmlands creating a small node, which over time grew to be a large node, which then over time started to blend in with similar nodes and thus creating the large mass that is currently LA.

    Would having the foresight and understanding of what affect the falling of the first domino have been enough to stop developers and cities from making their deals?

    With that question in mind, what measures are being done now to apply this tried and learned method from happening again? There is only so much that one can learn at school or at any other level, but ultimately the power lies in the hands of those who are in government and those who want to make money. Now if we can all learn to speak that language and use the transect not only as a planning tool, but as a way of making money for these developers and cities, then we can begin to affect change. I believe this conversation has already begun and is being heard more and more as is evidenced by some of the newer developments which start to talk about providing walkability and usable open space for everyone. As Thom so eloquently pointed out, rural doesn’t necessarily mean it is out of reach, but a characteristic which can enhance the non-rural.

  5. […] Rejecting the Narrow Framework of “Urban” Planning CoLab Radio – October 30, 2012 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? This entry was posted in Blog, SGA News Clips. Bookmark the permalink. […]

  6. […] Rejecting the Narrow Framework of “Urban” Planning – 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? […]

  7. April Nowak says:

    As a trained “urban and rural” planner that works in a part of the country that is majority rural (ND, SD, MT, WY, CO, UT), it has been hard for me to figure out how to plan for things like grant outreach in places, where many federal grant opportunites, are connected to “urban” issues like brownfields redevelopment, infill, and walkability. I have been trying to put my federal planner mind in a rural mindsight, but our grants and policies, often don’t support this.

  8. Really great post questioning the binary nature of the urban / rural debate. I feel like much of the same logic is applied and related to discussions on density and how it is defined, perceived, and measured.

  9. […] Rejecting the Narrow Framework of “Urban” Planning […]

  10. fragarcolin says:

    Good town planner survey the land the properly, with the help of that planner do planning. Planning how to cover each corner, narrow side of the land. Planner try his/her best to show the capability of using the land.