An ongoing American antagonism toward big cities

As noted in a recent opinion in the New York Times, the divide between cities and other kinds of communities in the United States has a long history.

From the beginning, Americans have differed on whether to uphold as ideal the urban life or the rural life. Should the model be New York, Boston, or Philadelphia or the plot of land in the country? These differences became more pronounced as urbanization picked up in the 1800s. With the majority of Americans now in the suburbs, the issue still is ongoing as many Americans say they prefer small towns (the suburbs?) while enjoying proximity to urban centers (jobs, cultural opportunities, transportation, etc.).

This is not just a geographic distinction or a set of preferences that some people have compared to others. These choices and systems that push people one way or another (with a lot of social actors and forces involved in encouraging uburbanization) also include a moral dimensions or a set of values and meanings. These are not just spaces; Americans have processes of meaning-making in all of these contexts.

With that in mind, there are several ways one could think about this ongoing contrast:

  1. A binary between city and country. This encourages each side to praise the traits of their option and denounce the other. Very black and white, one is better and one is worse.
  2. The suburbs are an attempted solution to this ongoing binary: some of the country, some of the city (or, as critics of the suburbs might say, none of either).
  3. Connected to different political battles. In the early days, this was part of the issues between Jefferson and Hamilton. Today, this is an issue between Republicans and Democrats. This is also about local/state/regional politics where urban interests go against those of other locations.
  4. A superfluous debate for a long time as we should think about regions with cities as anchors for wide territories where economic, social, and political activity is all intertwined. Think of Boston in the Northeast.
  5. A reaction to the rapid urbanization of the last two centuries that has upset much of human history where most people lived in small communities. Perhaps we are still figuring out how everything works with megacities where so much – population, economic activity, political power, globalized activity – is so concentrated.

In short, this divide is probably not going away soon. Hopefully, the conversation is more productive than denigrating other kinds of communities but rather seeking ways of working together since many of the issues Americans care about would benefit from cooperation across geographies.

Brick and mortar success in selling chickens and other farming supplies to new “ruralpolitans”

The shift of Americans from cities to suburbs and rural areas helped boost the fortunes of retailer Tractor Supply:

Photo by Brett Jordan on Pexels.com

Such gangbusters growth is unlikely to continue, with the pandemic easing. But the rush to the country that underpins it is less an anomaly than a speeding up of a long-tern trend, as more people – notably millennials yearning to become homeowners – look to adopt quasi-rural lifestyles. Being priced out of urban living is one driving factor; interest in healthier and more sustainable diets, including homegrown vegetables and home-harvested eggs, is another. Whatever is motivating them, Tractor Supply sees an opportunity in these “ruralpolitans” – and the COVID-driven shift toward remote work will help sustain their numbers.

Lawton, who became CEO in early 2020 after two years as the No. 2 at Macy’s, says millennials’ willingness to move farther from city centers is a “game changer”: “We seeing a new kind of shopper in our stores,” he tells Fortune. Now Tractor Supply is adapting to cater to both its established customer base and these younger space-seekers, following a strategic road map with the folksy title “Life Out Here.”…

The fast-growing cohort that Tractor Supply is cultivating, she says, are “beginning to learn how to garden. They have this passion for poultry.” Call them the “country suburban” customers.

The company is strategic about where it meets these customers. Its stores are almost all located in mid-size or small towns – communities that are often too small to support a Home Depot, Petco, or Walmart.

The economic impact of COVID-19 has hit some businesses very hard while others, like Tractor Supply, have found opportunities. From the sound of this article, they had locations in numerous places that received new residents during COVID-19 and had the right mix of products and service that appealed to them.

I wonder about the class dynamics of all of this. How do the new “ruralpolitans” who want to raise chickens or have a small farm and have moved from the city compare to the other shoppers at Tractor Supply or to long-term residents in the community?

Another question to ask is whether these newer residents with these interests in food and farming are in it for the long haul or not. On one hand, if remote work is more viable than ever, perhaps people will stay in smaller communities outside cities and pursue this. On the other hand, if companies ask more workers to return or if small-scale agriculture and animal husbandry is not appealing in the long run, this may be more of a flash in the pan. Industry-wide shifts in agriculture could have an impact as well.

Finally, the move to a more rural life has implications for private lives and community life. Many Americans say they like the idea of living in a small town but this is different than actually living in one. What is the tipping point where an influx of new residents changes the character of the community (or is change somewhat inevitable)? How involved will these new residents be in local organizations, religious congregations, local government, and in local social affairs?

Americans celebrate moving away from their small home town

An excerpt from a new book presents an American conundrum: many Americans like the idea of small towns yet celebrate moving away from them.

Photo by Syed Andrabi on Pexels.com

I was humiliated, not just because I’d left school, but because I’d glaringly stumbled off the traditional path everyone I knew had taken: If you move away from home, you don’t move back. That’s not how young adults do it. We leave. We find our way.…

So there’s this push and pull, where fulfilling this Americanized ideal of being out on one’s own and forging one’s own life comes at the real cost of contributing to families and communities in tangible ways, Katsiaficas explained. “For so many young people that I’ve talked to, they’ve narrated that hyperindividualism as a real sense of loss,” she said. Rarely, if ever, had I heard that sense of loss, or even homesickness, described as anything other than something we’re supposed to grow out of…

Because moving is so ingrained in how we think about this time of life, even though not everyone can “achieve” that milestone, staying seems like it is rarely celebrated. With going-away parties to celebrate new adventures and graduation parties to mark the close of one chapter and the beginning of another, staying in one place can feel boring…

In our conversation, Warnick pointed out that there is a stigma in America against not only small towns, but staying in the same place at all. We tend to think of it as representing “the abandonment of our big dreams,” Warnick said, a feeling of escape that some young people feel acutely. I felt called out, and with good reason: I’d clung to the belief that life would really begin once I left wherever I was. It kept dreams I was too scared to say aloud at arm’s length; it allowed me to imagine, and reimagine, the “best life” I’d finally find with a new zip code, conveniently forgetting that my real life was happening wherever I happened to be. I could participate, or I could wait. And for years, I waited.

There is a lot to consider here: the particular stage of life in the discussion here (from roughly college to settling down as an adult), mobility, frontiers, cities versus other settings, and larger American narratives about success. A few quick thoughts in response:

  1. I wonder how much these narratives differ across places. Is this more prevalent in rural areas where the allure of trying the big city is strong or is it also present in big cities where young people want to experience other places, including other appealing big cities? This could help untangle whether this is more about small towns or a general theme that emerging adults need to strike out on their own somewhere else.
  2. This reminds of some marriage advice I once read that suggested newlyweds should move hundreds of miles away from both families to establish themselves as a couple before moving back near family. Does such a narrative go against most of human history?
  3. Could all of this help explain the enduring appeal of the suburbs? They are not quite small towns but they are not cities. Americans can feel better about returning to suburban municipalities and making a home there because it feels in between.
  4. This all seems to beg for a more robust theology of place in the United States.
  5. It would be interesting to know how social media and the Internet either help connect people to home towns from afar or present just a poor and ultimately unsatisfactory substitute.
  6. Plenty of Americans do stay in the community in which they grew up or stay nearby. What is different about their stories? What are the factors that help explain why some commit to staying and others leave?
  7. How do Americans process their experiences with and understandings of place? If the emphasis is largely on mobility or making do where you are, this might discourage positive memories or investing too much in a particular place.

Slight uptick as nearly half of Americans say they would prefer to live in a small town or a rural area

New data from Gallup suggests a slight shift among Americans toward a preference for moving away from suburbs and cities:

About half of Americans (48%) at the end of 2020 said that, if able to live anywhere they wished, they would choose a town (17%) or rural area (31%) rather than a city or suburb. This is a shift from 2018, when 39% thought a town or rural area would be ideal.

The recent increase in Americans’ penchant for country living — those choosing a town or rural area — has been accompanied by a decline in those preferring to live in a suburb, down six percentage points to 25%. The percentage favoring cities has been steadier, with 27% today — close to the 29% in 2018 — saying they would prefer living in a big (11%) or small (16%) city.

Current attitudes are similar to those recorded in October 2001, the only other time Gallup has asked Americans this question. That reading, like today’s but unlike the 2018 one, was taken during a time of great national upheaval — shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the public was still on edge about the potential for more terrorism occurring in densely populated areas…

The preference for cities is greatest among non-White Americans (34%), adults 18 to 34 (33%), residents of the West (32%) and Democrats (36%).

There is a lot to consider here and it is too bad Gallup has only asked this three times. Here are some thoughts as someone who studies suburbs, cities, and places:

  1. The shift from 2018 to 2020 is very interesting to consider in light of the shift in preferences away from small towns and rural locations between 2001 and 2018. What happened between 2018 and 2020? The analysis concludes by citing COVID-19 which likely plays a role. But, there could be other forces at work here including police brutality, protests, and depictions of particular locations or different factors could be at work with different groups who had larger shifts between 2018 and 2020.
  2. One reminder: this is about preferences, not about where people choose to live when they have options.
  3. Related to #2, Americans like the idea of small towns and there is a romantic ideal attached to such places. In contrast, there is a long history of anti-urbanism in the United States. But, people may not necessarily move to smaller communities when they have the opportunity.
  4. The distinction in the categories in the question – big city, small city, suburb of a big city, suburb of a small city, town, or rural area – may not be as clear-cut as implied. From a researcher’s point of view, these are mutually exclusive categories of places. On the ground, some of these might blend together, particularly the distinction between suburbs and small towns. More toward the edge of metropolitan regions, do people think they live in the suburbs or a small town? Or, how many residents and leaders describe their suburb as a small town or as having small town charm (I have heard this in a suburb of over 140,000 people)? Can a small but exclusive suburb with big lots and quiet streets (say less than 5,000 people and median household incomes over $120,000) think of itself as a small town rather than a suburb? I say more about this in a 2016 article looking at how surveys involving religion measure place and a July 2020 post looking at responses when people were asked what kind of community they lived in.

Getting the categories right in continued urban/rural-plus-suburbs-and-exurbs-in-the-middle divide

Numerous outlets have commented on the continued presence of an urban/rural divide in 2020 voting. Here is another example:

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Rather than flipping more Obama-Trump counties, Biden instead exceeded previous Democratic win margins in Wisconsin’s two biggest cities, Milwaukee and Madison.

That pattern extended to Michigan and other battleground states, with Biden building upon Democrats’ dominance in urban and suburban jurisdictions but Trump leaving most of exurban and rural America awash in red.

The urban-rural divide illustrates the pronounced polarization evident in preliminary 2020 election results. The split underscores fundamental disagreements among Americans about how to control the coronavirus pandemic or whether to even try; how to revitalize the economy and restore jobs; how to combat climate change or whether it is an emergency at all; and the roles of morality, empathy and the rule of law in the body politic.

Four thoughts in reaction to this.

  1. The urban/rural divide is described in an interesting way above: it is cities and suburbs for Democrats and exurbs and rural areas for Republicans. This matches the patterns of this and recent elections. However, is separating the suburbs and exurbs worthwhile? Here is where county level analysis may not be fine-grained enough to see the patterns. Another way to put it might be this: there is a gradient in voting by party as the distance from the big city increases. Does it shade over to Republicans only in exurbs – which are suburbs on the outer edges? Is the 50/50 split a little before exurbs? A concentric circles approach could help though there still could be pockets that break with the overall pattern.
  2. Suburbs might just be too broad of a term to be useful in such analysis. The exurb/suburb split it one way to put it. Might it help to also think of different types of suburbs (wealthier bedroom communities, ethnoburbs/majority-minority communities, working-class suburbs, industrial suburbs, etc.)?
  3. Explaining the differences as urban/rural has a nice short ring to it and it fits the data. Introducing more categories in the middle is interesting to campaigns, pundits, and researchers but is harder to quickly describe. Perhaps the urban/suburban versus exurban/rural divide?
  4. Is the urban/rural divide one of the most fundamental aspects of polarization? Or, is it a symptom? In this story, the divide leads off the discussion of polarization on a number of fronts. But, what leads to these spatial patterns in the first place? While the geography is helpful to think about, are the real issues behind the urban/rural divide about race/ethnicity and class? Given residential segregation patterns in the United States, using the spatial patterns as an explanation covers up a lot of important social forces that led to those patterns in the first place.

Looking at which way Midwest suburban swing-state voters are leaning

Here is an update on the landscape of suburban voters in Midwest swing states ahead of the 2020 presidential election:

https://www.politico.com/2016-election/results/map/president/ohio/

Trump’s chances for a second term rest heavily on being able to maintain the margins he won by in 2016, particularly in suburban areas. He plans to campaign outside Toledo on Monday, as liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death stokes questions of whether the sudden court vacancy would energize more suburban voters who support abortion rights or social conservatives in small-town and rural areas who oppose them.

Republican lawmakers and strategists in Ohio say they are seeing research that shows a near-uniform drop in support from his 2016 totals across every suburban region of the state…

There is less debate in other states. Pennsylvania Republicans say across the longtime GOP stronghold of Chester County west of Philadelphia, for instance, Trump has slipped as far as he has in Ohio’s suburbs, though in more populous towns and in a state he carried by fewer than 45,000 votes…

A central question is whether Trump can, as his campaign predicts, spur even more support than in 2016 from rural voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Several quick thoughts:

  1. The Trump campaign has tried to appeal to suburban voters – see the rhetoric about Democrats wanting to “abolish” suburbs – yet also seems committed to trying to get as many votes as possible from more rural areas.
  2. These suburban locations in the Midwest are an interesting mix of prosperity and problems. They are located within Rust Belt states where changing economic conditions, particularly the loss of manufacturing jobs, have threatened what were once growing, prosperous states. On the other hand, many of these suburban voters are in relatively good position compared to others in their metropolitan region or their state.
  3. As Trump courts rural voters, population change in rural America is more complex than just saying the rural population is declining. See this 2019 research:
Figure 3
https://carsey.unh.edu/publication/rural-depopulation

Our research provides clear evidence of depopulation across a broad swatch of rural America. Depopulation seemingly is now built into the demographic fabric of some parts of rural America—a result of chronic outmigration among young adults of reproductive age, along with population aging and high mortality rates. Yet, depopulation is far from universal. Many rural regions continue to grow, often rapidly, including exurban areas just beyond the metropolitan suburban fringe, and high-amenity recreational and retirement areas. These counties are likely to hold their own demographically in the future. The situation is much different for the depopulating rural counties caught in a downward spiral of population loss.

Studying elite/townspeople relations in wealthy Teton County, Wyoming

Elites have made Teton County, Wyoming a home and they have complicated relationships with local residents:

When he visits the downtown bars, “I don’t tell people that I live in a gated community. They accept me as a local,” he tells author Justin Farrell in his new book, “Billionaire Wilderness: The Ultra-Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West” (Princeton University Press), out now…

According to a 2018 report from the Economic Policy Institute, the wealthiest 1 percent in Teton County bring in an annual income that’s approximately 142 times more than the other 99 percent of families in the county. The “average” per-capita income in Teton County is just over $251,000, the highest in the country, according to the US Department of Commerce, and the rest of Wyoming doesn’t even come close, with most counties ranging between $40,000 and $50,000 per year, and none going above $70,000. Coming second to Teton is Manhattan, where the average income is $194,000…

But it goes deeper than taxes. Over the last few decades, the wealthy “feel like they’ve been unfairly criticized and targeted,” Farrell says. “Because of the Occupy Wall Street movement and politicians like Bernie Sanders, attacking the rich has become part of the dominant discourse. I actually had a few people tell me that they’ve come to Teton County to escape the socialist revolution. Wyoming feels like a safe haven for them.”…

Stewart considered this relationship, and others he had with lower-income locals, to be authentic and equitable, but as Farrell points out, “his friendships are often based on economic exchange and uneven power dynamics.”…

Claire Drury, who lives in Teton County but is far from rich, has a thinly veiled disgust for her wealthy neighbors. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, the ultra-wealthy are befriending us savages while drinking a really nice 1976 Bordeaux,” she told Farrell. “It is reminiscent of all the Buffalo Bill Wild West shows, [with] the noble savages sitting there stiff as a board while their photos are being taken in some sort of sepia-toned thing.”

It is rare to find studies of the elite that includes more direct data including interviews. For a variety of reasons, sociologists tend to focus with elites in an aggregate or from a distance. And one advantage of having money and/or power is that people can exert some control of who has access to them.

And yet, this also sounds like a neighborhood or community study (albeit in a more rural area), a common feature of American sociology for over one hundred years. Even the wealthiest members of Chicago’s Gold Coast could not easily ignore the more difficult conditions just down the street from them (from the classic study The Gold Coast and the Slum). Elites do not exist outside of communities and interactions with people around them. How they get along with others – or not – is worth considering as is how these interactions affect broader communities and could affect the influential ways that elites can act.

 

 

Bringing grocery stores to rural areas and considering free markets

Declining populations in some rural areas means it is more difficult to sustain grocery stores:

Some states are trying to tackle their rural grocery gaps. Supporters of such efforts point to tax incentives and subsidies at various levels of government that have enabled superstores to service larger areas and squeeze out local independent grocers. Now, dollar stores are opening in rural regions and offering items at lower prices, posing direct competition to local groceries.

Critics see that development as a threat to public health, since dollar stores typically lack quality meat and fresh produce.

But every town and every store is different, making statewide solutions elusive. Some legislators say they are reluctant to intervene too heavily because the market should close the gaps…

In rural areas, the poor tend to live farther from supermarkets than residents with more resources. The median distance to the nearest food store for rural populations in 2015 was 3.11 miles, and a shade farther for rural households enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps, according to a May 2019 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the program.

Providing a range of social services and cultural services is an increasing issue, ranging from medical care to religious congregations to food.

While there are logistical issues in how to run, supply, and sustain organizations across such broad distances with limited participants, the political approach cited in this article is interesting. Should more conservative states provide government assistance for grocery stores? The article suggests there is some reluctance for state governments to step in. But, this might be exactly a good case where free markets simply cannot work well: there are not enough people in certain areas to generate profits or efficiencies. Plus, the federal government over the decades has helped rural areas, such as through rural electrification projects. Will state lawmakers refuse help just because of commitment to certain ideologies?

This situation also suggests Americans could think more about providing services in ways that do not have to generate profits. Instead, the services exist to serve the community. Think cooperatives. Think community-based organizations meant to help sustain each other rather than make a profit.

Building a 1,000+ foot skyscraper in a rural town of 7,000 residents

Skyscrapers and cities are tightly linked. Can one be built in a small town in the countryside?

Until a local company announced plans to send a 320-metre skyscraper soaring over the surrounding countryside, most people in Denmark had only the haziest idea where Brande, a town of 7,000 people in rural Jutland, even was.

The Bestseller Tower, designed by star architectural studio Dorte Mandrup, will not only be the tallest building in Denmark, but the tallest in western Europe, besting the Shard in London by a crucial 10.4 metres…

It won’t be the first rural skyscraper. At the height of Japan’s property bubble back in 1991, a 41-story residential tower, Sky Tower 41, was erected among fields.

But in Jutland, the surrounding landscape is so flat that the tower will be visible from 60km away. Visitors to Jelling, the royal seat of Harald Bluetooth, the Viking king who united Denmark, will see its slender form jutting up from the horizon, as will visitors to Legoland 30km away.

While the article suggests it will not be the only rural skyscraper in the world, they are certainly rare. They are rare enough outside of sizable central business districts that numerous tall buildings in the Chicago suburbs – probably in the 20 to 30 stories in height – attract attention as unusual and sticking out in the landscape in a metropolitan region that takes pride in its tall buildings and architecture.

It is certainly possible to build such a structure almost anywhere but I wonder how this will all work out in day-to-day life in this community. Small towns and rural areas have a particular scale that people are used to and that is human scaled or even dominated by nature and landscapes rather than human creations. Constructing a building over a 1,000 square feet disrupts all of this: it will be visible for miles, it will dwarf anything nearby, and it will cast shadows and block the sun from certain angles. It is not slightly out of scale for this community; it is a massive change. It could be beautiful, modern, and efficient and still have negative consequences for the community.

 

“More than 150” agrihoods in the United States

Find the true suburban ideal of combining urban and rural life by moving to a new “agrihood”:

At the center of Olivette is a 46-acre organic farm that’s already growing salad greens, root vegetables, tomatoes, squash, berries, and Asian pears. Beehives are producing honey, and there are plans to add chickens, as well as goats to help trim the grass. All this creates a bucolic setting, but the farm isn’t just there to look pretty. Olivette’s early residents are already swinging by the packing shed to pick up baskets of fresh produce grown right here—just one perk of living in an agrihood…

There’s no question the farm is the star here. Interest from potential homebuyers has backed up Scott and Allison’s idea that people are ready for a closer connection to the land. “Typically, the highest value property is always on the water,” says Scott. “But here, so far, most people have been interested in buying home sites that are by the farm, even more so than down by the river.”…

Despite the focus on open space and sustainability, no one will be living in hippie deprivation at Olivette. Buyers choose a lot and then work with a building company to customize and build their home. The high-end houses, all of which are held to the gold standard of efficiency and are heated by geothermal wells, start at $650,000, well over twice as much as the county in general…

This interest in living in nature is creating a bumper crop of agrihoods. According to the Urban Land Institute, more than 150 have sprung up all over the country. “It’s a strong trend,” says Allison. “There are so many more now than there were three years ago when we started this project. Even some golf communities are looking at transitioning to agrihoods, but of course they’ve put so many chemicals into the ground that it’s tricky.”

Not surprisingly, this amenity of living next to or in a neighborhood with a farm comes at a price.

I wonder if part of the appeal of the farm is the reassurance that the agricultural land will be protected from further development. Many a suburbanite has moved into a neighborhood with the expectation that the field/open space/park next door will remain that way only to find that several years later new homes are going up on that space. It would be interesting to see how exactly the farmland is guaranteed to be farmland in the legal documents.

I would guess these sorts of communities would attract the same kind of critiques that have dogged suburbs for decades: this is still a wasteful use of land with the emphasis on large single-family homes, the residents are not truly committed to agriculture but want the experience or boost to their property values that a nearby farm provides, and the nature the residents encounter through the farm is not the same as truly open space and the farm exists in a commodified form.