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.