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Can Cities and Rural Counties Come Together?

Recent political battles have highlighted the decades-old divide between urban and rural areas, making groups that occupy a middle ground more necessary than ever.

David Shabazian works on rural/urban issues in Sacramento, Calif.
David Shabazian works on rural/urban issues in Sacramento, Calif.
Jessica Mulholland
This story is part of a special series on America's rural/urban divide.

David Shabazian is an urban bureaucrat who understands rural life. He was raised on a farm, where his parents supplemented the family income by selling alfalfa, corn and wheat. The proceeds paid for his undergraduate degree in agricultural economics, but eventually the demands of running a farm were too much and the revenue collected too little, so his mother sold the land to a large operator.

As Shabazian witnessed structural changes sweeping through American agriculture, he also watched the city next door, Turlock, Calif., add population and land area until its outer limit reached the street in front of his old farm. He has seen the rural/urban divide, and for him, it was urban commuters competing with tractors on country roads.

Much of what Shabazian experienced in the San Joaquin Valley has happened across the United States. Scientific advancements in farm equipment, chemical herbicides, seed genetics and land cultivation techniques allowed farmers to increase the size of their farms and the rate of production without needing more manpower. In the past 30 years, the typical size of the American farm grew from fewer than 600 acres to at least 1,100 acres. The bigger farms thrived. A study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2006 found that large and very large farms accounted for just 9 percent of farms in the United States, but 73 percent of the production value. Meanwhile urban expansion claimed more than 1 million acres per year between 1960 and 1990.

In a way, urban expansion claimed Shabazian too. After college, he became a city planner in Davis, which led to his current post as a rural/urban program manager for the Sacramento Area Council of Governments. Today he oversees a project called the Rural-Urban Connections Strategy (RUCS). Since its start in 2007, the group has advised city and county officials on how to capitalize on the metropolitan region’s agricultural sector while reducing traffic congestion on rural roads and improving cities’ access to fresh food.

The Sacramento area includes six counties and 22 cities. About 70 percent of the land is either forest, open space or farms. Although that rural portion accounts for only 13 percent of the region’s population, it has almost half of the road network. When the rural/urban program launched, Shabazian found that the region’s planning maps suffered from what he called an urban bias. Central cities, suburbs and exurbs received 13 color designations, depending on density and whether the primary land use was residential, commercial or industrial. The doughnut surrounding Sacramento was one color: green. The message, he says, was that the urban areas came off as a vibrant mix of different uses, while the outlying area was a big, undifferentiated mass marked “rural.” The RUCS staff drew a new map (below).

“We went field by field. You could see where you’re growing peaches, wine grapes, alfalfa, whatever,” he says. The outer circle of the new map showed an extensive palette for every imaginable use, from almonds and mandarin oranges to horse pastures and olive groves. No longer could urbanites mistake open space for unoccupied land. “That map was huge. People started to realize what we had here. It changed the conversation.” Shabazian and his team found that agriculture in the region was a $1.66 billion industry and—unlike other parts of the local economy—it actually grew during the Great Recession.


RUCS' new map replaced the large swath of "rural" land, left, with a more nuanced depiction, right, that reflects the varying uses of land surrounding Sacramento. (Source: Sacramento Area Council of Governments)

Thanks in part to this more nuanced view, the Sacramento Metro Council can now shortlist significant rural road projects that connect everything from processing plants to city markets, and that serve the interests of the entire region. This hasn’t translated to funding allocations yet, says Shabazian, but it’s a first step in forging a common path for rural and urban communities.

Sacramento is not alone. Groups in places across the country are working to move away from old-school binary “rural or urban” thinking and instead find issues where the two groups can work together. To some extent, their work is merely the latest riff on regional governance. But recent political battles over water, fracking and gun regulation have highlighted the decades-old divide between cities and their rural counterparts. With some counties in Colorado and Nevada agitating last year for the creation of new rural states—no longer tethered to Denver or Las Vegas—groups that occupy a middle ground may be more necessary than ever.

One such group is the Center of the American West, a think tank run out of the University of Colorado, Boulder. Since its inception in 1986, the center has published reports on the prevailing public policy topics of Western states: energy, water and air quality. During a speaking tour in the 1990s, Patty Limerick, a center co-founder, noticed a rift between the state’s urban and rural communities. “Urbanites and suburbanites can become so complacent about their water supply and energy resources,” Limerick says. People in developed parts of Colorado didn’t think about the origins of those natural resources because “those places of are out of sight and out of mind.” As a result, rural Coloradans resented their urban and suburban neighbors. Limerick wanted to promote a public conversation about urban/rural conflicts, but she knew it had to be more than a dry policy brief for government officials.

So she wrote a play. The Urban/Rural Divorce in the American West was a comic take on the divorce trial of its two main characters, Urbana Asphalt West and Sandy Greenhills West. “The presumption was that the urban interests and the rural interests had worked like a marriage,” Limerick says. Country boy Sandy felt exploited and unappreciated. He complained that Urbana had despoiled his home with trash dumps and polluted air. The play outlined arguments from both sides about their contentious and sometimes opportunistic relationship. Limerick and two other colleagues from the center performed more than a dozen shows in Colorado, Idaho and Oregon, each time casting local public officials and citizens as witnesses and the presiding judge. In a few townships, participants told Limerick the play came up during subsequent public meetings. “We would hear that our ridiculous metaphor was helping people talk about the issues.”

Leslie Durgin, a former mayor of Boulder, remembers participating in one production in 1998 along with a state senator, the president of Coleman Natural foods and a U.S. district court judge. “It would bring people together who were not normally in contact with one another and who had different points of view,” she says. Limerick and her colleagues would “insist on and engender respectful disagreement.”

Although the center’s play was somewhat unconventional, it fit the basic mold for how some rural/urban coalitions have tried to resolve intraregional conflict: by facilitating an informed debate. “We try to put out accurate, evidence-based research,” says Mark Partridge, who heads a rural/urban policy program at Ohio State University. Through working papers, policy briefs and roundtable discussions, Partridge and his colleagues illustrate the trade-offs associated with new or popular prescriptions to economic and social ills, such as tax breaks for prospective shale drilling companies. “A lot of times,” Partridge says, “we end up being a speed bump to bad policy.”

Groups like Partridge’s and the Center of the American West can be successful at spurring thoughtful discussion. But they rarely take the next step of advocating for specific policies—much less trying to implement them. Organizations that act as educators or conveners could risk alienating one faction or another if they took sides.

But it is possible to corral both rural and urban interests around a single idea, says Kevin Wisselink, a transportation planner for the city of Grand Rapids, Mich. Wisselink is a board member for United Growth for Kent County, a nonprofit in the Grand Rapids metro region. His group found a subject where city dwellers and rural residents shared a common interest: farmland preservation. City residents want access to fresh, local food; farmers want to protect their lifestyle and business. About 10 years ago, Wisselink’s group pushed for county funding of a program that pays farmers not to allow commercial or high-density residential building on their land. In part because of their efforts, the Kent County Board of Commissioners budgeted four years of funding for the program.

The success—however modest—of groups in Kent County and Sacramento suggests that there are advantages to building rural/urban policy programs outside academia. Many of the working papers and journal articles published by Partridge’s program at Ohio State University, for instance, use economic regressions and other analytical tools that aren’t widely understood by the general public. Even if academic groups tried to boil down their research, says Durgin, the former Boulder mayor, “they would probably need a lot of translation and application assistance in rural areas or even for elected officials.”

By contrast, the rural/urban data provided by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments is already making an impact. That’s because the research comes from a quasi-governmental body and serves an audience of government leaders. Steve Cohn, a Sacramento councilman who chairs his region’s council of governments, says the RUCS research has convinced him and other urban leaders to think more about housing, transportation and economic strategies that would help rural towns and counties. They want to concentrate new housing in urban cores, rather than consuming land that could be used for crop production. They’re also trying to support road infrastructure for farms and wineries that bring tourists from outside the region—a local boon for everyone.

In Winters, a small town of 6,800 about 40 miles west of Sacramento, Shabazian’s group is helping Mayor Cecilia Aguiar-Curry conduct a feasibility study on whether Winters and two other small towns could become a hub for agriculture-related packaging, processing, distribution, manufacturing, banking and insurance. Aguiar-Curry says RUCS data is already convincing some investors to relocate to her area. “I’ve lived my whole life here,” she says. “For the longest time, we had lots of unused land.” Now that open land is being utilized in coordinated ways, such as agriculture production that includes walnut farms. Today, says Aguiar-Curry, “as far as the eye can see, there’s walnuts.”

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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