Discussions and debates on the future of community development tend to focus on the particular challenges of central cities and inner-ring suburbs. But there is another America that deserves a closer look—the one that contains almost 90 million people distributed across three-quarters of the nation’s land area. This is rural and small-town America, a complex landscape of abundant natural resources interspersed with areas of intense neglect and persistent poverty; an area of huge potential and opportunity, but with challenging human needs and infrastructure deficiencies. Any next steps in community development from a rural perspective must seriously consider and address these requisites: the need for a positive narrative for rural America, the pursuit of functional integration, the case for structural investment, the imperative of regional collaboration, the centrality of entrepreneurship and the vital importance of community resilience.
The starting point has to be the creation of a positive, forward-leaning narrative for rural America based on the critical assets upon which they can build their future and contribute to national prosperity. These assets include growing food, harnessing (and growing) energy, managing ecosystems, and stewardship of natural amenities and indigenous cultures. What has to be avoided is the natural default to bemoan the fate of rural disadvantage and injustice, to accentuate the negatives, and to accept the downward trajectory of rural regions. A positive narrative has to counteract two contradictory frames1 of rural life: rural utopia—idyllic communities driven by self-help and tightly knit community life, with no need of public support; and rural dystopia—backward communities depicted as hopeless, dysfunctional and undeserving of public support.
The framing of such a narrative is the purpose of the Rural Futures Lab (see sidebar), a new initiative from the Rural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri that seeks to answer the question, “What can we do today that will lead to positive rural outcomes in the next 10 or 20 years?”
Finding ways to best use limited resources has always been a fact of life in rural America, but economic conditions—both now and in the foreseeable future—make this still more necessary. A common response has been to consolidate services, particularly in education and health, with the result that rural communities lose essential pieces of their infrastructure. Such losses threaten their very existence.
Alternatives can be pursued through integration within and across sectors, and through the creative use of information technologies. This can already be seen in rural health care with the concept of a continuum of care from prevention to intensive care, and the shift from a single focus on individual medical needs to a broader focus on community health and well-being. These approaches require the integration of services across specialties, geography and institutions so that rural people can continue to receive adequate, accessible and affordable health care. Similarly, if rural students are to be spared long bus journeys to and from urban and suburban schools, small schools must be kept viable and effective by integrating services through distance learning and shared faculty. Integration across sectors can also be pursued, such as co-locating schools, elder care, clinics and community centers in under-used school buildings.
The idea of functional integration underscores the criticality of high-speed broadband provision as an essential service to rural communities. Without broadband, affordable and practicable approaches to integrated health, education, government and financial services will be hard to find.
Chronic underinvestment in both physical and human capital has existed in rural regions for decades. Some investments made under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act were intended to tackle not only the large parts of rural America without broadband service, but also the substantial backlog of projects for water and sewer needs for rural and tribal communities. But investment is still urgently required for housing, roads, bridges and public transit—all essential to economic development and quality of life.
Investment is also essential to maintain and enhance the education and skill levels of rural people. Of critical importance is leadership development: Only with intelligent, informed civic leadership can transformative change take place.
Rural investment and leadership cannot be achieved if barriers created by jurisdictions and sectors make cooperation and joint working across regions difficult or impossible. Counties and cities have to plan and work together, sharing resources and setting aside historic differences, if they are to survive the impacts of globalization and economic austerity. The public, private and nonprofit sectors have to move beyond the public relations of partnership to genuine collaboration to achieve common social, economic and environmental goals.
Central to this collaboration is the exploration of mutually beneficial linkages between urban and rural areas. Rural America has much to contribute to national and metropolitan prosperity, with opportunities in food systems, alternative energy and ecosystems services. Creating conditions where rural regions are equal partners with their metropolitan counterparts to invest in common futures has to be the goal.
Even though the economic development approach of choice is still recruitment, research and experience show that this is not an effective strategy for much of rural America. More appropriate is fostering entrepreneurship and homegrown business development, which has proven to be a very promising strategy in a wide variety of rural settings. Entrepreneurs represent the human capital that can convert rural assets into economic opportunity. There are a range of approaches—economic gardening, entrepreneurship development systems, hometown competitiveness, enterprise facilitation—that encourage and support entrepreneurship. Whichever approach is adopted, the availability of high-speed broadband is once again vital to promote local, vibrant economies.
The increasing likelihood and frequency of disasters, both natural and man-made, requires intelligent and inclusive approaches to planning and preparedness, not just to cope with the immediate impacts of these events but to build resiliency to enable affected communities and their economies to recover and thrive. This implies that risk assessment and management have to be integral parts of visioning and strategic planning efforts to ensure appropriate land uses, strengthen building codes, and coordinate public and emergency services. A necessary aspect of such strategic planning will be to ensure that community development is structured to address a mix of economic, social and environmental goals, often described as a triple-bottom-line approach to public and private investment.
The good news is that people, communities and organizations across the nation are demonstrating the potency of these approaches to rural community development. More is needed to power up these efforts. Securing commitment and investment from public, private and philanthropic communities in rural America, and significantly widening the whole nation’s appreciation of how much it depends on thriving rural communities and economies, will be essential.