If you landed here on purpose you probably came with an opinionated point of view on the subject of the rural/urban divide.
As the founder of Rural on Purpose, my POV is decidedly optimistic and solution-oriented but very much focused on the wellbeing of rural communities, which, as it turns out, also means the improved wellbeing of urban folks.
Before I dig in and explore the issues that make up the infamous “divide” I want to start with point of view and offer a human one that exposes the ugliness that was, and is, the rural/urban divide.
We debate the efficacy of rural communities, rural life and rural people and the current dominant narrative is this: Rural communities are unwelcoming, uninformed and unenlightened when compared with their urban counterparts. Residents have to leave rural to become successful.
Make no mistake, rural is on trial today.
This rural story is entrenched and continues to amass a mountain of headlines that keep it alive like: In the Land of Self-Defeat; Go Home to Your ‘Dying’ Hometown and The Best Way to Rejuvenate Rural America? Invest in Cities.
It’s untenable and polarizing. Challenging that narrative with corollary stories of excellence, kindness, innovation and hope that exist in every single rural community is critical, and there are many rural advocates taking up the cause.
The reality is that rural communities are struggling and have been in a persistent state of decline since the 2nd Industrial Revolution began. The rural/urban divide has been around for the same length of time. The difference between the 2nd and the 4th Industrial revolution is which side is on trial.
In the early 1900s it was the city that was on trial.
We debated the efficacy of urban life and urban people. A dominant narrative then was that cities were a blight and needed to be restricted in their growth and influence in order to preserve and protect the countryside.
An urban/rural divide had begun.
According to social researchers, urbanization was considered a “destructive process leading to overcrowded, disease and poverty-stricken slum cities and the breakdown of social cohesion.”
The initial divide was a purposeful one, particularly in Britain, in order to protect the countryside from urban sprawl and “the invasion of what was seen as the urban way of life.”
Just as “…it was easier to think of the inhabitants of the (city) slums as being, not hard-working but impoverished people,
but only drunkards and thieves”
it is easier today to think of rural residents as being not intelligent, authentic, creative people who are casualties of a rapidly changing, technology-focused world,
but only racist, ignorant, drug addicts.
The harsh narrative offers the same stereotype, but the sides have flipped and today the defendant is rural.
20 years ago scholars anticipated the coming global shift in mobility options and the opportunities that technology would present to declining rural communities, “Today (2002), we seem to be witnessing a third phase whereby the urban-rural linkages are moving beyond the single one-way exchanges and demonstrate a more complex and dynamic web of interdependencies which is shaping the fortunes of cities and countryside alike…for the first time since the Industrial Revolution technological change is allowing rural areas to compete on an equal basis with towns and cities for employment.”
That didn’t happen.
Instead, the chasm that exists today between urban and rural is wider than ever and is in urgent need of redress.
There are many reasons for the failure of a “rural rise to equality” but the promise of a new phase of rural prosperity, built on strong urban-rural linkages and pathways, is still very real and I’ll be exploring it in this blog series.
The unique propositions that make up the Pro-Urban and the Pro-Rural arguments are not often explored together in any meaningful way; but, quality of life is at the center of both. It’s an important start.
The rural/urban divide is the result of over a hundred years of change and development and has been fuelled by mutual disrespect. Both sides have been on the receiving end of the inflammatory narratives and both sides stand to lose it all if a winner is ever declared.
We all need to step back and acknowledge, with empathy, that the divide is not serving any of us and ensure that our past and present inform our future — not dictate it.