Does bringing agriculture to cities erase the distinctions between cities and rural areas?

Urban agriculture is a growing field. Does it blur the lines between cities and country?

Photo by Mark Stebnicki on

As more people pour into metropolises—urban populations are projected to double in the next three decades, according to the World Bank—scientists like Bousselot are investigating how designers and planners can ruralize cities, greening roofs, and empty lots. The concept is known as “rurbanization,” and it could have all kinds of knock-on benefits for ballooning populations, from beautifying blocks to producing food more locally. It dispenses with the “city versus country” binary and instead blends the two in deliberate, meaningful ways. “You don’t have to set this up as a dichotomy between urban and rural, really,” says Bousselot. “What we should probably focus on is resilience overall.”…

But while rurbanization has enticing benefits, it has some inherent challenges, namely the cost of building farms in cities—whether on rooftops or at ground level. Urban real estate is much more expensive than rural land, so community gardeners are up against investors trying to turn empty spaces into money—and even against affordable developments aimed at alleviating the severe housing crises in many cities. And while rooftop real estate is less competitive, you can’t just slap a bunch of crops on a roof—those projects require engineering to account for the extra weight and moisture of the soil.

But the beauty of rurbanization is that agriculture and buildings don’t have to compete for space. Urban land is limited, which means that high-yielding, fast-growing, space-efficient crops work great, says Anastasia Cole Plakias, cofounder and chief impact officer of Brooklyn Grange, which operates the world’s largest rooftop soil farms. “That said, we approach the design of our own urban farms, as well as those we build for clients, with the consideration of the unique character of the community in which we’re building it,” says Plakias. “Urban farms should nourish urban communities, and the properties valued by one community might vary from another even in the same city.”

The primary dividing line referenced here is the presence of agriculture: this happens in rural areas, not so in cities. Bring agriculture to denser population centers, and important lines are crossed.

Maybe? Adding agriculture may or may not affect some of the key features of cities and rural areas: population, population density, land use (not just agriculture), amenities, and ways of life.

Perhaps this is more of an experiment that is just starting up. What are the effects of introducing significant amounts of agriculture plots in major American cities?

How Republicans became the party against cities

After noting Republicans barely mentioned the word “city” at the Republican National Convention, the rest of a review piece in the New York Times looks at how Republicans became anti-urban:

IT could hardly be otherwise. The Republican Party is, more than ever before in its history, an anti-urban party, its support gleaned overwhelmingly from suburban and rural districts — especially in presidential elections.

This wasn’t always the case. During the heyday of the urban political machines, from the Civil War to the Great Depression, Republicans used to hold their own in our nation’s great cities. Philadelphia was dominated for decades by a Republican machine. In Chicago — naturally — both parties had highly competitive, wildly corrupt machines, with a buffoonish Republican mayor, “Big Bill” Thompson, presiding over the city during the ascent of Al Capone. In the 1928 presidential election, the Republican Herbert Hoover swept to victory while carrying cities all across the country: Philadelphia; Pittsburgh; Chicago; Detroit; Atlanta; Birmingham, Ala.; Houston; Dallas; Omaha and Los Angeles…

FOR Republicans, cities now became object lessons on the shortcomings of activist government and the welfare state — sinkholes of crime and social dysfunction, where Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queens” cavorted in their Cadillacs. The very idea of the city seemed to be a thing of the past, an archaic concept — so much so that Gerald R. Ford seriously considered letting New York go bankrupt in 1975…

In short, they promise to rip and tear at the immensely complex fabric of city life while sneering at the entire “urban vision of dense housing and government transit.” There is a terrible arrogance here that has ramifications well beyond the Republicans’ electoral prospects.

Fascinating.  A sociologist adds an addendum through a letter to the editor several days later:

While I agree with much of Kevin Baker’s article, his statement that in the postwar years “newly prosperous whites and eventually blacks pursued the American dream out to the suburbs” suggests that postwar urban America became the bastion of the poor and minorities.

Mostly true. But in cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston, many members of the black middle class continue to live in proximity to their poor and working-class counterparts.

Indeed, in the postwar and post-civil-rights era, blacks have been inheriting urban America, hence the rise of black mayors and other elected officials across all levels of government. Mr. Baker’s analysis of the concerted turn away from urban America by the G.O.P. reveals that a major consequence of this strategy is not just a forsaking of cities but also the alienation of a large swath of poor, working-class and minority voters.

This has all led to the situation today where both parties try to cater to middle-class suburbanites as more exurban and rural voters are in the Republican camp and more urban dwellers are in the Democratic camp.

I have three other ideas about this:

1. Republicans have shifted over the years toward protecting “traditional” American life which sounds often like it can best be lived out in small towns. While the country may still hold on to some small town values (think of President Obama’s talk about Wall Street versus Main Street), the era of Main Street, even in suburbs and towns that have real Main Streets as opposed to the shopping mall kinds (see here and here), is over.

2. This is a bit odd considering that cities and metropolitan regions are massive economic engines. Aren’t Republicans for markets and a growing economy? Most of this is not happening in rural areas but rather in cities.

3. Tied to #2, suburbs are in part made possible by cities. On one hand, suburbs are more independent than ever before but they are still tied to cities for things like major cultural institutions, major financial institutions, airports and other transportation facilities, and sports teams. Additionally, we should be thinking more about metropolitan regions anyway rather than cities versus suburbs

Overall, we aren’t going back to a United States that is primarily small town or rural. The percent of Americans living in non-metropolitan areas in 1910 was 71.6% while over 80% of American live in metropolitan areas today – a complete switch. The population density of the country tripled from 25.7 to 79.6 people per square mile between 1900 and 2000. The United States of today is an urban nation – and both Republicans and Democrats have to adapt to this.

Sociological views of the village in India

A review of a new volume on the Indian village provides some insights into how the village is viewed:

AT a time when the general disenchantment with village life appears to be the spirit of new India, the editing of a volume on village society is definitely an act of intellectual courage and professional commitment. We keep hearing scholarly pronouncements on the declining sociological significance of the village and village studies. We are told that the Indian village is no longer a site where future can be planned. Rather, it is an area of darkness – full of despair, indignation, filth and squalor, and mindless violence…

Interestingly, for the urban Indian, the village has always been more than a simple social morphological other to a town or a city. The village has not merely been despised for its lack of electricity and other modern amenities; it has also been perceived as a burden on the national conscience because of its abstract moralised qualities of backwardness, bigotry, illiteracy, superstition, and a general lack of civilisation and culture. For the children and grandchildren of “Midnight’s Children”, the village continues to be emblematic of the rustic world of thumb-impression (angutha-chaap) country bumpkins. At any rate, unparh gavar (illiterate yokel) can hardly be a worthy role model for a nation as aspiring as ours. In a way, the decline of the village in the creative imagination of Indians in recent decades is almost complete…

Put differently, it is time we treated the village as an explanandum in sociological research. We cannot go on assuming the village as the container par excellence of the larger processes of rural-agrarian social change. It never was. The introduction brings out in lucid prose the historicity of the study of rural society. It demonstrates that, for long, the study of the village has been an abiding preoccupation of sociologists/social anthropologists in India. So much so that “village studies” came to stand for Indian sociology in the initial decades of its growth and development as an academic discipline.

In course of time, the village attained paradigmatic status as a template of indigenous society and economy, and village studies very often came to be projected as a shorthand for knowing and understanding Indian society by both professional sociologists and the intelligentsia. The efflorescence of village studies, as a distinctive disciplinary tradition of inquiry, is testimony to the considerable analytical and theoretical significance that the village and the studies of the village enjoyed for more than a century and a half.

Three thoughts:

1. It would be interesting to know how the view of the village in India compares to how villages are viewed in other developing cultures. In places where mass urbanization is currently taking place, are there countries where the village is viewed more positively?

2. I was asked a while back about rural sociology. This subfield has really declined and only a few schools still specialize in it. I assume this is partly because the United States has become an urban nation (80% of Americans live in urban areas). Yet, rural places are still important, particularly in other countries (like India) where rapid changes are taking place.

3. This is a reminder that big city life (living in places with more than a million people) is a relatively recent development in human history. Even in developed countries, this has only become common in the last 120 years or so. We may like our cities but most humans have lived in smaller settings. This change was so remarkable during the Industrial Revolution that it helped give rise to the discipline of sociology.

Republican secret to success: “a rich-poor alliance of affluent suburbs and poor rural counties”

In discussing the outcome of the recall election in Wisconsin, one analyst argues Republican electoral success is based on combining votes from two geographic areas:

McCabe argues the secret behind Walker and decades of Republican success nationwide is “a rich-poor alliance of affluent suburbs and poor rural counties.” In the recall election, Walker swept Milwaukee’s suburbs by huge margins and dominated the countryside. McCabe says in 2010, “Walker carried the 10 poorest counties in the state by a 13% margin”; these counties used to be reliably Democratic. He elaborates:

“Republicans use powerful economic wedge issues to great impact. They go into rural counties and say, do you have pensions? ‘No.’ Well, you’re paying for theirs, referring to public sector workers. Do you have healthcare? ‘No.’ Well, you’re paying for theirs? Do you get wage increases? ‘No.’ Well, you’re paying for theirs.”

The scenario was far different 50 years ago, explains McCabe:

“The Democrats were identified with programs like Social Security, the G.I. Bill and rural electrification. People could see tangible benefits. Today, they ask, ‘Is government working for us?’ And often their answer is no. They see government as crooked and corrupt. They figure if the government is not working for us, let’s keep it as small as possible.”

Another way to look at this would be to say that Democrats tend to get votes from large cities and less affluent suburbs. This is not the first time this suggestion has been made: Joel Kotkin has discussed how Republicans appeal to suburban voters  and others noted in the 2004 election how George Bush won a clear majority of votes in fast-growing exurban counties.

In the lead-up to the November 2012 elections, when there is commentary about geography, it tends to be about which states are toss-ups between the two candidates. But you can rest assured that the advisers for the candidates are looking at much finer-grained data and how to get more votes from more specific geographic areas like inner-ring suburbs, monied burbs, and the metropolitan fringe. States are too large to analyze quickly: think of Illinois and the differences between Chicago, Chicago suburb, and downstate voters. The analysis in the media could at least be about the areas in the states where there are greater population concentrations. Will Mitt Romney primarily campaign in “affluent suburbs and poor rural suburbs” while Obama will stick to the big cities and middle to lower-class suburbs? Is Romney making a suburban/rural pitch in a majority suburban nation while Obama is promoting a more urban campaign?

Trend of some moving back to rural areas?

A sociologist  argues that while there may be a lot of talk (and data) about adults seeking out denser communities, there is a countertrend of some adults moving to rural areas.

Tolkkinen’s experience is similar to that of many people who move from the city to the country. They love the beauty and peace and security. But they tend to have a hard time finding decent paying jobs and don’t like to drive the long distances to work, school and shopping.

Winchester posits that while young people continue to leave rural areas for the cities, there is an ongoing countertrend of people in their 30s and 40s moving back. He calls the phenomenon the “brain gain.” We’ll have more coverage of the report this afternoon, but here’s a summary of what people told us…

Interestingly, Winchester has found that people who move or return to rural areas tend to have higher incomes and be more civically engaged than longtime locals. That’s definitely true of Ann Thompson, who returned to her hometown of Milan, in western Minnesota, seven years ago after living overseas for 18 years. “When I left, I didn’t necessarily think I would come back,” she said. “I just thought I wanted to see the world.”…

Cheap housing draws a lot of people to rural Minnesota, judging by Winchester’s research and responses to our PIN query. Hoglin wrote that her husband “was missing rural life and wanted to be able to hunt and fish more often. I was definitely not missing rural life, but eventually warmed to the idea of moving back when I realized we could afford to buy an acreage, while we couldn’t afford to buy anything in the Twin Cities area.”

Most of this isn’t too surprising; people who move to rural areas find both advantages and disadvantages. I did find it interesting that those who move have higher incomes and higher levels of civic engagement: are they moving because they have the option to do so (you have to have money to move and perhaps going to a rural area is just another choice to try out for a while) and/or they are seeking out some “authentic community” they haven’t found elsewhere?

This article reminds me of a foundational concept in urban sociology: place matters. Even in a connected world where people can use the Internet to communicate and work from a distance, where one lives still matters a lot for jobs, cultural amenities, and social life.

I wish there were actual numbers in this story: how many people are actually moving back to rural areas? How many are doing it because of economic reasons (cheaper), family reasons (caring for family), or looking for something in the rural environment they can’t find elsewhere?

Fighting for presidential votes in the French suburbs illustrates a different kind of suburbia

American suburbs are often considered home to a lot of white and wealthy residents who have fled the city. This is not how suburbs work in some European settings: two stories about politicians fighting for presidential votes in France illustrate these differences.

It was here that Marine Le Pen managed to secure the greatest percentage vote for any village in the country; of its 60 residents, nearly three quarters put the far-Right candidate above all others…

“What has worked has been to turn this campaign towards rurality, and the far suburbs, poor France,” said Bertrand Dutheil de La Rochère, one of Miss Le Pen’s campaign spokesmen. “Her people versus the elites seems to have taken root.”…

According to sociologist Christophe Guilluy, these rural areas, along with many middle-sized towns hit by de-industrialisation and layoffs represent, 40 per cent of the electorate.

Here is another report:

But “rural” areas today does not mean villages full of farmers. It means small provincial towns, and the new housing-estate commuter belts being built on the distant outskirts of the cities.

“The rural underclass is no longer agricultural. It is people who have fled the big cities and the inner suburbs because they can no longer afford to live there,” says Mr Crepon.

“Many of these people will have had recent experience of living in the banlieues (high immigration suburbs) – and have had contact with the problems of insecurity.”

In this semi-urbanised countryside, people feel the hopelessness of a life in poverty uncompensated-for by the traditions and structures that would have made it bearable in the past.

In these stories, the wealthy live in cities and inner-ring suburbs while the poor live in more far-flung suburbs (what Americans might call “exurbs”) and more rural areas.

If Americans read about this run-off in France, I wonder how many will notice this difference in suburban life in France compared to the United States. Actually, I wonder if many Americans simply think that Americans suburbs are a common feature of metropolitan areas around the world rather than a more unusual case.

New Census figures: population 80.7% urban, most dense cities in the West

The US Census Bureau released Monday some figures about cities in America. Here are the updated 2010 statistics about urbanization:

 The nation’s urban population increased by 12.1 percent from 2000 to 2010, outpacing the nation’s overall growth rate of 9.7 percent for the same period, according to the U.S. Census Bureau…
Urban areas — defined as densely developed residential, commercial and other nonresidential areas — now account for 80.7 percent of the U.S. population, up from 79.0 percent in 2000. Although the rural population — the population in any areas outside of those classified as “urban” — grew by a modest amount from 2000 to 2010, it continued to decline as a percentage of the national population.

Translation: the proportion of Americans living in urban areas didn’t change very much over the last 10 years. In comparison, the urban population jumped 6% from 1970 to 1980, 3% from 1980 to 1990, and 3% from 1990 to 2000 (see figures on pg. 33 of this Census document). Does this mean we are nearing a plateau in terms of the proportion of Americans living in urban areas?

And here are the new figures for the densest metropolitan areas:

The nation’s most densely populated urbanized area is Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, Calif., with nearly 7,000 people per square mile. The San Francisco-Oakland, Calif., area is the second most densely populated at 6,266 people per square mile, followed by San Jose, Calif. (5,820 people per square mile) and Delano, Calif. (5,483 people per square mile). The New York-Newark, N.J., area is fifth, with an overall density of 5,319 people per square mile…
Of the 10 most densely populated urbanized areas, nine are in the West, with seven of those in California. Urbanized areas in the U.S., taken together, had an overall population density of 2,534 people per square mile.

These new figures continue to support one of the trick questions about cities: which city is the most dense? A common answer is New York City because of Manhattan but the densest is actually Los Angeles. Of course, some of this has to do with Southern and Western cities having more space because of the drying up of annexation opportunities in Midwestern and Northeastern cities in the early 1900s.

While these are very interesting figures, where is the percentage of Americans who live in suburbs?

Evangelicals and Catholics first joined forces in the suburbs

In the middle of an article about how Rick Santorum has appealed to evangelicals, one of the factors mentioned is geographic: evangelicals and Catholics both moved to the suburbs after World War Two.

The plate tectonics of social mobility also figure into the Santorum surprise, note scholars like the political scientist John C. Green of the University of Akron. In the post-World War II years, many Catholics moved out of insular urban neighborhoods while many evangelicals left their rural and small-town homes for the suburbs and exurbs. In subdivisions, in office parks, in colleges, the young people of the two religions began to encounter one another as benign acquaintances rather than alien enemies.

It is no coincidence, then, that a Santorum voter like Carissa Wilson has grown up in the suburban sprawl between two cities with strong Catholic heritages, Dayton and Cincinnati. Like the Michigan autoworkers in 1980 who made a break with Democratic tradition to vote for Ronald Reagan, Miss Wilson just may be the embodiment of a new wave.

In other words, evangelicals and Catholics met and learned to like each other in the suburbs. United by suburban values and perhaps a dislike for both cities and rural areas, these two groups settled into the land of single-family homes and found that they could find common ground on some social and theological issues.

This brings several questions to mind:

1. Are Catholics and evangelicals more interested in preserving suburban values than finding common theological ground? Perhaps this is crassly put but the way the argument is written in the article, it suggests that the suburbs came first before the social and theological common ground.

2. How do race and class play into the process? In other words, while both groups came from different places to the suburbs, they were probably mostly white and the educational status of both groups was rising. Does this mean that the older city/rural divide was transcended by common status interests based on race and class?

American politicians push small town values in a suburban country

America is a suburban nation: more than 50% live in the suburbs, roughly 30% live in cities, and about 20% live in small towns or rural communities. Despite these demographics, this article suggests that politicians still frequently draw on the idea of small town values:

American politics may live in the cities and suburbs — but it dreams in small towns.

More than a century after the American people migrated from the farms to the cities and then to the suburbs, the image of small-town America endures as the birthplace of solid character and sound values. In the gauzy image of politics, as in popular culture dating back more than a century, small-town America is a place where the people go to church, work hard and help one another in ways unknown in the cities and suburbs of America…

Still, politicians love to wrap themselves in the sentimental image.

“The people still have the same spirit in Waterloo that Iowans have always come to exemplify. We work hard. We don’t spend more money than what we take in,” Bachmann said in Waterloo, where she was born.

Perry wears his childhood in Paint Creek, Texas, as a badge of honor. “Doesn’t have a zip code. It’s too small to be called a town,” he said during a recent visit to Waterloo. “What I learned growing up on the farm was a way of life that was centered on hard work, and on faith and on thrift.”

Obama can’t claim a childhood in a small town — he was born in Honolulu. But he, too, reveled in small-town values during his recent Midwest bus tour.

So while Americans may no longer live in small towns, they want to hold on to particular characteristics such as hard work, community, and religious values. These are symbolic values, perhaps even more so than actual actions that people carry out. (There is often a disconnect between what people say they believe and what they actually do.) And, of course, people may want to hold on to these values but they don’t necessarily want to live in the places where these values arose.

This reminds me of a theory I have had about the popularity of American suburbs: they are a uniquely American adaptation that combines some of city and rural life. This is about perceptions. On the rural side, suburbs still offer lawns, single-family homes, good schools, safety, and community life. On the city side, suburbs have easier access to the city, more cultural amenities, more jobs, are more open-minded, and more opportunities over all. Suburbs don’t really offer the best of either of these worlds but offer some of both, allowing Americans to straddle these two worlds.

A question: how difficult is it for Americans to elect urban politicians to higher office (particularly compared to more rural candidates), candidates who would portray themselves solely as a city dweller and act like city dwellers? Perhaps Barack Obama is the closest we have come to this but because of political realities has primarily tried to appeal to working and middle-class suburbanites who may just swing the election.