Strengthening Rural-Urban Connections

Sharon March 24th, 2009

One of the things we point out in _A Nation of Farmers_ is how deeply similar the problems of inner city and rural cultures are.  In both cases, there is often a great deal of poverty.  In both cases, there is often inadequate access to decent food, since rural areas have lost much of their garden culture, and supermarkets are often far away for both populations.  In both cases, there are inadequate jobs for younger people, and often high levels of unemployment for those committed to staying either in the neighborhood or the country.  The ability to stay there, and transmit a local culture is thus very low.  Urban dwellers become completely disconnected from subsistence culture, while rural dwellers are brought to believe, often, in the superiority of urban life, and urban culture, and strive to mimic it in destructive ways.  Rural areas are colonized by industrial agriculture, polluting the area and reducing their ability to feed people in the long term, while urban areas are colonized by industrial business, and polluted and their environment degraded.

Nearly every society struggles, in some measure, with the disconnect between urban and rural life, but most societies have had more contiguity between the two than our own does.  Having a local future, and enduring local foodshed requires that we start rebuilding connections between urban and rural cultures – because in many ways, the difficulties that both have could be partly ameliorated by closer ties – economic ones, of course, but not just economic.

Many cultures have traditionally had much closer ties between urban and rural populations.  For example, in Russia, people often had small summer cottages that they retreated to, not just for pleasure, but to garden and forage in the woods. In parts of southern and central Africa, people have ties to the cattlelands, and even city people often keep a few cattle, usually tended by an extended family member, and return to the land for portions of the agricultural season. Northern native populations have fish or hunting camps, while even low income urban Londoners at the turn of the century would spend their summer vacations harvesting crops – hops or something else.  This has evolved into the bucolic summer tourist vacation, the vacation home or the hunting camp, most of which have little to do with subsistence activities (some urban hunters that we see hunt for food, but many do not).

While it isn’t that hard to figure out what rural people might get from a trip into a city – better shopping and trade, cultural events, etc… The fact that trips out to the land have been part of the culture help keep this from being a one-way colonial event. When urban people come out to rural areas to participate in food production and rural life, they are implicity suggesting that rural culture has something to offer other than a tribute of food to be delivered.  There is a reciprocity between the two cultures, a chance for people on both sides to begin to see the impact that they have on one another, to consider it, and most importantly, to build relationships.  Tourism does not do this – instead of introducing rural people to real urban life, or urban people to the realities of rural practice, one gets a sanitized and processed and fundamentally artificial version of life, for the most part. Agritourism is a growing industry, for example, but it transforms farms (usually by economic necessity) into carnival rides or sites of nostalgia, rather than sites in a cultural foodshed.

CSAs and farmer’s markets have had a powerful role in connecting city and country, farmer and eater, but they are only a beginning.   In order to, say, decide not to develop remaining agricultural land near a large city, or to understand the conflicts between watershed pressures in agriculture and city life, urban and rural dwellers have to understand each other well enough, and be invested in one another deeply enough to resolve their conflicts.  Large chunks of both urban and rural populations truly have no idea how the other half lives. 

Moreover, they really have no idea how they might improve one another’s lives.  The chronic problem of access to food, for example, might be solved by creating markets that help low income rural dwellers take a piece of the 300+ million dollars even the poorest neighborhoods pour into the economy each year.  Most of that goes to industrial corporations, and provides crappy jobs.  What if rural poor people, who, after all, buy clothes and toys for their kids and tools for their garden could find ones that are manufactured in their local cities?

More importantly, what if we were invested in each other’s lives – that is, if people realized that they depend on their food shed and the people who support it – both economically in the cities and physically in the country.  What if it were possible to make a decent living in both places?  But to do this, we must increase the connection between the two.

 I don’t have a full set of magical solutions for this, but one thing that occurs to me is that we’re going to have to find new ways to spend some time on each other’s ground, getting to know our food, water and economy-shed.


14 Responses to “Strengthening Rural-Urban Connections”

  1. Devin Quince says:

    We live in an urban environment, but raise chickens and soon hopefully we will be raising bees and goats along with with our yard mainly made up of veggie beds! We have one neighbor who makes snide comments about how we belong in boonies and not the “city” due to our lifestyle as she puts it. We try and explain if we could live out there and not have to commute into the urban area for work, we would in a heartbeat, but in the interim we feel this is the least impacting way of living in a self-sufficient way. There is a very strong fissure between urban and rural folk that needs to be fixed.

  2. Tess says:

    There’s certainly a disconnect. So many ‘townies’ have little idea of where food comes from. A (young) vegetarian friend the other day said she doesn’t eat meat because it isn’t right to eat animals. She wears vegan shoes. And yet she seemed to have absolutely no idea that dairy products (which she does eat) also involve animal slaughter. Yes I did tell her. As nicely as possible. I think it was second only to finding out the truth about Santa…

    An organisation in the UK and globally that bridges the gap is called WWOOF (World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). It’s an exchange scheme – labour for learning.

    And I remember programme exploring the vegetable gardens in Havana, Cuba, which are tucked into every spare bit of land in the city. You can see the video here:

  3. risa b says:


    I really, really like that. It kind of says everything we’ve all talked about, all at once.

  4. Sharon, I’ve been following your blog since Toby (Hemenway) recommended it to me a few weeks ago. As someone focusing a lot of my attention on the urban situation, I really appreciate this integrative thinking! The work of increasing mutually beneficial relationships between urban and rural inhabitants sounds like a mass movement in the making.

  5. Rosa says:

    We used to daydream about getting enough people together to have a small rural-urban community. Cities are where money is, and rural areas are where space and food are. It would take a lot of people, though – 30 or 40, I think, if you’re not coming in with a chunk of money or some free land.

    I’ve known some of old hippies who when they were young lived “on the land” somewhere from June-October, then went back to Boston or Madison or San Francisco for the winter. They’d stay in a flophouse or a squat and work for the winter, then go back out into the hippie-side for the summer again. Some crunchy punks manage to do the same thing, or a variation of it.

    But then, when that falls apart, the people in the cities have jobs and resumes and connections, and the people on the land have, pretty much, nothing but responsibilities. It is hard as hell to get a living-wage job in a new city with, say, a kid and a ten-year history growing food by hand.

  6. Jerry says:

    I am always amazed when we invite schools to

    our farm that the kids have such a disconnect

    from agriculture. One school is only a mile an a

    half away but it might as well be in another

    country. We truly travel in different worlds.

  7. NM says:

    I work for a newspaper covering a smallish agricultural county in northwestern Oregon. The county seat, a town of 30-odd,000, is located in the middle of some very fine farmland, and has had a long fight with local land use watchdogs over its plans to expand onto said farmland. A couple years ago, I had the opportunity to write about an exciting development; the aging owner of a 124-acre, hundred year-old farm, located on the city’s northwestern edge where the city planned to build houses, decided he was going to save his farm. So he got the local soil and water conservation district to agree to accept it under a permanent conservation easement. Later, a land swap between the farmer, the adjacent school district and a neighboring property owner added another 50 acres to the easement. The district won’t really take it over for several years — the farmer and his sister will remain in their family home for the remainder of their lives — but it’s busy planning how it will eventually use it, and has put together a survey to ask area residents what they want to see. The district manager is thinking that maybe 8-10 acres could be used for community garden plots for rent, another section could be rented out to small tenant farmers to grow vegetables, in, say, 2-5 acre chunks, there could be walking paths along the perimter (part of the land is riparian forest, wildlife habitat), and maybe part of the property could be dedicated to Farm to School projects, and/or classes in farming, animal husbandry, etc.. Very exciting to watch.
    It interests me how much of what I’ve been writing about lately, here on the other end of the country, is tied to this, and related, posts. The same city just had a huge public debate over whether beekeeping should be allowed inside city limits, or whether that is a rural, agricultural activity. The beekeepers won … for now, at least. The city may reconsider at some point.

  8. ctdaffodil says:

    Even in my little area of the country and living in close enough proximity to actually smell horses – I’m amazed at how little some people are connected to where their food comes from. Just shopping at the farmers market is a good start – but there are a bunch that take it absolutely no farther. My kids and I staked out the garden yesterday (it was a balmy 40 degrees) Now I can hit it with the rototiller and start getting the soil really ready for some warm days….

  9. jerah says:

    Yup. Looking for land outside the city is a whole chore for us city-dwellers. I mean, I could possibly buy something, but can I really travel several hours to work and back every day, start seriously growing stuff AND keep my job? No. Could I buy some land and start homesteading full-time with zero experience (lifelong city dweller)?

    So far, since we haven’t convinced any friends that they need to share a piece of land with us, my husband and I are considering the Russian dacha model. Plant some fruit trees, some berry bushes, come spend a few weeks here and there in the summer… We’ll see how it goes. I bet friends want to come visit and help with pruning once we get bring them the first jug of homemade cider… :)

  10. Sharon says:

    Jerah – what about building a relationship with some young folks who want to farm – maybe through NOFA? You rent the land to them, make a place for yourself, and thus come back to land that is more productive for having people on it.


  11. jerah says:

    Thanks Sharon. I had actually thought of a similar thing, but with us as the farmers, and then gave up on that idea when I realized my utter lack of experience farming probably wouldn’t help… :) I didn’t think of it the other way around…

    Lemme poll the hubby with that idea.

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