Tackling the Urban/Rural Planning Divide

An April 2014 Governing article explored the challenges of reconciling differing needs between urban and rural jurisdictions and highlighted three efforts to overcome the urban/rural divide.  First, the article discussed the work of planner David Shabazian in the Sacramento area in California.

Today [Shabazian] 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).  …

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.

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)

The article also discussed the communication efforts of the Center of the American West, a think tank located at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  The Center came up with a novel way to highlight urban and rural differences in the form of a play.

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….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.”

Finally, the article highlighted the efforts of United Growth for Kent County, a nonprofit in the Grand Rapids, Michigan region.  The group was able to start a discussion between local urban and rural areas by finding one shared interest.

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.