The created dichotomy between urban and rural

The created dichotomy between urban and rural

/by Jennifer Peeler/

Within my short lifetime I’ve had the privilege, as the daughter of an Air Force officer, to move, live and travel across the United States. I grew up a person without a place that defined home – I had many places, many identities from which to choose.  We moved back and forth between military bases and suburbs in seven states.  In between moves, we traveled to major cities as tourists and rural countrysides for family visits to my parents’ childhood homes.  My father is the son of two Southern school teachers who are the product of dairy farm owners and mill workers.  My mother was the first of her Appalachian family to go to college; her mother is a housekeeper and her father was a salesman and carpenter.  These rural roots have built my intuition and guided me to a deep love and understanding of rural life.  Clarity comes as I grow older; that, neither the rural world of my grandparents, nor the suburban world of my parents is mine.  The shifts in perspective I had as a child, each time I moved, spotlight the positive and negative of living in the country and the suburbs; so as I embarked for adulthood, I chose to live in a growing city.

As a student of architecture, I am beginning for the first time to understand the making of place and the meaning of place to its inhabitants.  This new understanding is providing me with a language to describe the links within my dichotomous life – spent half in the city and half in the country.  Yet, it is also the idea of architecture, of man-made landscape in contrast to the natural landscape, which gives rise to the dichotomy between urban and rural spaces.

The rural is a part of the American landscape much loved and much ignored.  From the earliest days, America has been a land of wilderness and since the Transcendentalists, that wilderness has been a wonderful and idyllic place in sharp contrast to the dirty cramped city. However, in the last century, as the population of America switched from being primarily rural to primarily urban, this view has changed.  Gone is the idea of the dirty industrial city, we now live in shining “new” cities planned and built by modern architects.  Prevalent throughout the same culture and contrasted sharply to the college-educated city sophisticate is the idea of the backwards country bumpkin, living in a forgotten farmhouse and raising children with last century’s level of education.  Every part of society stereotypically perpetuates the differences between the city and the country.  Yet, one profession which is uniquely tied to spatial and cultural relationships almost completely ignores not just the divide, but rural areas altogether.

Our world of design is dominated by theories of urbanism in all shades, but discussion of the rural fabric is a conversation from which architects have largely removed themselves.  The massive cultural and landscape shifts that have taken place across rural areas over the past century have affected the relationship between urban and rural.  As the city expands past its densest patterns, to invade rural areas with subdivisions and strip malls, the value of rural land has become quantified into business opportunities and annex proposals.  The gap between urban and rural is expanding as quickly as the suburban sprawl that is separating the two.  The gap is physical and social.  The loss of value has been felt by both the city sophisticate and rural hick, yet each has responded by attempting to create value in vastly different ways.

Thomas Cole, “Allegorical voyage: Youth,” oil on canvas, American.

The Illinois, A Speculative Skyscraper

The desire for a better rural among architects has always been centered on the benefit to the city and city dweller.  In 1898, Sir Howard proposed the Garden City, which sought to change the definition of the city to include the surrounding agricultural land that sustains it.  In the 20th century, Frank Lloyd Wright re-framed this vision in the language of modernism.  His mile high tower concept created a closed-system alternative to the current city.  One skyscraper (infinitely dense city) supported by the efficiently productive agricultural hinterland.  In America today, these urban ideas have developed beyond their initial fictional appearance into an underlying idea about the relationship between urban and rural.  Post-modern movements heal the still growing gap from the side of urbanism.  Promising to bring the value of rural back to the front, one such movement, New Ruralism, combines the history of New Urbanism and Sustainable Agriculture to heal the gap for the benefit of urban residents that “are disconnected from rural and natural surroundings that further recede with increasing low-density auto-dependent urbanizations” (Kraus).  New Ruralism, in its manifesto, goes on to make a claim that clearly frames the distinction of usefulness of rural areas; that is that “New Ruralism is the preservation and enhancement of urban edge rural areas as places that are indispensable to the economic, environmental, and cultural vitality of cities and metropolitan regions.”  This manifesto is powerful, new and controversial, but is built on the same premise as the fictional Garden Cities of the past. Can we still assume that rural areas only exist to serve cities?  Do they have a right to exist in their own economic, environmental and cultural reality?

It is to these questions that rural residents invariably shout “Yes!”  Most rural residents have an investment in their land that goes beyond the property value to childhood memories of grandpa giving them their first ride on the tractor.  When the agricultural fabric of a rural community is replaced by the spreading edges of the city that consist of suburban housing developments and accompanying Wal-marts, rural people often feel the loss of value more than the loss of land.  The advance is often seen as an invasion of established culture and is thusly often met with animosity.  Many rural residents have reacted by increasing their already high value of independent pursuit of livelihood to a dogmatic protection of faith, identity and rights.  While this cultural exaggeration and steadfast belief in traditional values preserves rural life, the extent to which it is adhered to may limit the possibilities for future generations.  This defensive position may contribute to the current crises in rural education and employment and is evident in the difficulty young people have in extending agricultural principles into modern life.  While rural culture clearly can have a set of values independent of the city, does this view of reality allow progress?

Darren Hauck Getty Images

But the premise that urban and rural are opposite, that becomes apparent in these conflicting points of view, is constructed and perpetuated on a daily basis.  We define them as opposite, without defining their traits.  If you look for the most extensive research about the most rural parts of the country – the authority is the US Census.  Starting from their definition of rural we know that rural is “territory, population, and housing units not classified as urban” (Census Bureau, 2010). Is it acceptable to define the land of my grandparents as “not the city”?

Rather, I want to attempt to define the traits of rural spaces in the same way that Kevin Lynch (and many before him) has defined the traits of the city in his seminal work, The Image of the City (1960).  He breaks down the fabric of the city into nodes, districts, paths and landmarks.  These same categories describe, just as well, the fabric of rural.

Landmarks in the city are civic buildings and monuments; in the country, they are town halls, churches, cemeteries, shared spaces, large oak trees, lakes or landforms.   Have you ever asked directions from an old lady when you got lost in the country? They usually sound something like “… after you pass the old Myer’s cemetery, then keep going until the third fork where the church burnt down, go right and if  y’all see the old folk’s home you’ve gone too far…” You might be looking for a smoldering church that the firemen have barely stomped the flames on, but it is just a little pile of rubble that has served as a community landmark for the 40 years since it burnt.

Rural paths have a hierarchy similar to those in the city.  Roads to the country are traveled by all – city dwellers and rural inhabitants – to get back and forth between the two worlds we’ve created.  These are our highways, a separate reality that connects the urban to the rural where we drive and then “exit” into our chosen world.  Highways obviously exist in both the city and country, but have a greater influence on the experienced fabric of rural areas.  In the city, highways are contrasted to our great urban boulevards with their wide pedestrian sidewalks filled with shops.  In the country, you “exit” to a country road where, to this day, it is possible to drive alongside a tractor or horse.  On this road you find houses strung like pearls on a string, with 2 acre, 5, acre, 30 acre lots, but you also find pedestrians walking from neighbor to neighbor, gardeners, workers and mail delivery men walking through yards.  All the staples of modern residential life are present but the backdrop of boulevard, sidewalk and complete street is not there to define the path.

Districts can be described by a common identity, a distinct use or a distinguishable threshold.  In the city, this often takes the form of a change in building type or material or an historic line.  These same transitions and identities exist in rural space.  Rural areas contain a diversity of uses including agriculture, housing, and services like churches, schools, nursing homes, gas stations, Wal-marts, hotels and national parks.  In a local area, these districts define the identity of the inhabitants in just the same way a borough defines a New Yorker.  This local district identity is the same identity that we see globally projected from the rural person as they defend their land and values.

Mixed-use nodes are the hearts of cities, but they are also the heart of rural America.  Nodes are dense overlaps in use that bring people together.  On a small scale, this density is seen at every rural crossroads where you find a general store, local diner, or church.  These places bring residents together from miles around not only to shop or eat, but also to catch up on news about the weather, weddings, funerals and job opportunities.  It is at these places that the group of old men whose names everyone in town knows gather to socialize and share their wisdom with anyone smart enough to listen.

The fabric of rural areas could be thought of through the same structures of architecture – node, district, path and landmark – that make up the language we designers use to describe the city.  By allowing architecture to become a language of only the city, architects inadvertently left the rural sense of place up for sale to the highest bidder.  If we give the country back the same language, we would give ourselves the opportunity to include the threshold from rural to urban in our design.  For me, designing in a growing city provides that opportunity.  The thresholds haven’t set and the values of rural and urban are openly discussed.  While it is probable that a growing city will follow the footsteps of those dichotomous metropolitan areas that came before, it is possible to shape something else.

What new architecture is possible if urban and rural are not opposite?

References:
Kraus, Sibella “A Call for New Ruralism” Framework, UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design 2006.

Lynch, Kevin. The Image of the City. Cambridge: Joint Center for Urban Studies, 1960.

US Census Bureau, “2010 Census Urban and Rural Classification and Urban Area Criteria.” Last modified 2012. Accessed October 7, 2012. http://www.census.gov/geo/www/ua/2010urbanruralclass.html

Image Citations:
http://myweb.rollins.edu/jsiry/AEH-Summary1_four-authors.html
http://neonpoisoning.blogspot.com/2010_06_01_archive.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Illinois
http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2012/11/23/walmart-strike-protests-black-friday/1722551/
http://adashofdesign.wordpress.com/2010/09/12/kevin-lynch-transportation-perspectives/