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Spreading out: a modest plan to save the cities and repopulate rural America
by Phil Soreide
In some respects, the migration from country to city began at the dawn of civilization, just as humans started to form wary alliances and live together in non-family groups. The invention of agriculture, ironically, is what made denser human populations possible. The increased output of food per unit of land created surpluses that led to both trade and specialization in occupations. More people working more closely together created more wealth and opportunity, which in turn attracted more people.
Since the earliest mud-hut villages, cities have grown almost continuously until today vast megalopolises like Tokyo, New York, Mumbai and Mexico City comprise tens of millions of souls each and massive urban complexes covering hundreds of square miles.
And it’s not over yet.
Here in the U.S., the rural population has dropped to the lowest it has ever been — 16% — while metropolitan areas have enjoyed double-digit percentage gains in population. The rural share is expected to drop further as the U.S. population balloons from 309 million to 400 million by midcentury, crowding millions more people into cities and suburbs and filling in the remaining open spaces around them.
But really, is that the best way?
A cultural shift
In 1910, rural America’s share of the population was 72 percent, which meant that the vast majority of Americans knew how to milk a cow, clean a chicken and plant a garden. In the hundred years that followed, the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War occurred, and agriculture shifted from a self-sufficiency model to a highly commoditized industry. Fewer people were required to work the land and industrial expansion in cities created good-paying jobs. Transportation improved. Cities evolved new paradigms in education, employment and entertainment. It’s easy to see how a kid growing up on a Nebraska farm would find it hard to resist the siren song of the big city.
But for all the diversity, all the restaurant and specialty shopping options, all the cultural richness a city can provide, cities are not without problems of their own.
Interestingly, the most dramatic population shift in the U.S. in the past fifty years has not been country people moving to the city but city people moving to the suburbs, creating the phenomenon we know as urban sprawl. This shift notwithstanding, urban life continues to be characterized by traffic congestion and slow commutes; overcrowded and poorly-integrated schools; smog and other pollution; visual blight; and disproportionate violence and criminal activity.
- Cities struggle with overcrowding in classrooms, while rural areas compete to find enough students to keep perfectly good schools open.
- Urban commuters suffer from seriously congested streets and highways while rural commuters have wide open roads.
- People in cities need jobs; rural areas like ours have jobs but need workers.
- Housing is scarce and pricy in big cities but generally affordable and abundant out in the heartland.
- You have to be aware of crime all the time if you live in the city but it rarely crosses your mind in the country.
If governments were to offer incentives to encourage a population shift not to suburbia and greater urban sprawl, but to towns and small cities in huge under-populated swaths of the Midwest and other rural parts of the country, the entire nation would benefit.
If the country could just spread out…
Cities would become less crowded. Traffic congestion would be relieved and the need for new roads or mass transit greatly reduced. Smog levels would likely drop.
Rural towns and small cities would experience a renaissance as tax or other incentives swelled their populations. New residents would help refill underutilized schools and strengthen local economies. As rural populations increased, new businesses would have the customer base needed to open more and different retail and service options; employers would have an adequate workforce to start a new branch or operation to pursue new market opportunities; attracting healthcare and other providers would no longer be an issue.
If the country’s population were more spread out in general, we could make better use of the infrastructure, including the railroads, highways, electricity and broadband already in place in most rural areas. A more spread-out country would mean more and better resources for travelers, including lodging, restaurants and entertainment. And everyone would likely end up living much closer to primary sources of food.
Last, but not least, consider that a nation whose population is spread out across the entire land mass rather than concentrated in a few megalopolises is dramatically less vulnerable to foreign attack of any sort and would be in a much better position to recover from it.
The end of cities?
Not by a long shot. But while a program to encourage population redistribution might actually improve the quality of life everywhere, it is towns and counties that have been losing their young people to the cities for 80 or 90 years that will benefit most. In many, the average age has gradually risen as young people leave to find jobs and older residents stay put. The infusion of even a relatively few young families and other residents into these areas could have a tremendous impact on the quality of life and future prospects of rural Nebraska.
I grant that making something like this happen, especially in the current political climate, is unlikely to say the least, but I plant the seed and hope that it will take root. If government fails to take strong and decisive action to support businesses, entrepreneurs and individuals in rural areas, only the largest rural towns will remain in 50 years, and it will be a long way in between them.
And that’s not good for the country. That’s not good for anybody.
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