Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Redefining Rural

Rural means not metropolitan. Most of the migration data I look at puts counties into two categories, metro and nonmetro. Generally, rural means less people. That's a big perception problem. Consider the oxymoron of rural Taiwan:

That Taiwan is a mountainous island no doubt partially accounts for its teeming population. But so too does the humid, tropical climate of the lower elevations. Tropical ecosystems are the most productive in the world, in part due to their year-round growing season and generous precipitation. It’s why the majority of Taiwan’s population lives on the flat, western sliver, and why farmers there don’t need large land holdings. It’s also why the Taiwanese countryside is as populous as some American suburbs.

As we whizzed by parked cars, rice paddies, and murky fish farms, I had an epiphany. I was in the country. Sweeping aside my preconceptions, I realized that “countryside” is inherently interpretable term, one that depends more on how the land is used than it does on population density.

The link between population and rural informs bad economic development policy. A rural county could have a few towns and even cities with high density. It's still a rural county in terms of dominant land use.

Density along with education is way for a community to be more productive with less population. Just look at the agricultural industry. The same trend is apparent in manufacturing. Why aren't rural towns trying to become denser and more efficient? That's the best way to attract more people.


Brian said...

Is it possible that the allure of the countryside is the space between you and your neighbor?

BrianTH said...

It is tough for small towns to beat cities at their own game--call it economies of scale in density efficiencies.

Some small towns can live off being college towns, government centers, or tourist gateways. As total population grows, a very few small towns may become the seeds of new cities. But as the productive processes in rural areas become less labor intensive (most notably agriculture, but also mining, logging, and so forth), much of the shotgun pattern of small towns becomes fundamentally unnecessary.

So consolidation of population in fewer, larger urban areas becomes inevitable as long as there are economies of scale in density efficiencies and increasing labor productivity in rural industries.

Jim Russell said...


Elbow room is often one of the attractions. Some people like the freedom from oversight (i.e. government). But others enjoy the sense of community and quality of life that town living provides.

If you will, there is high density rural and low density rural. But the geographic stereotype of rural is low density.