A True Alternative

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Newton's Law is one of the few scientific maxims that I can recite, verbatim, years after my last science class. It's concise, it's eloquent, and it applies to so much more than physical or chemical reactions in the way that Newton described. Urbanism is the perfect example, I think.

Which came first -- the town or the city? That's actually a pretty easy question to answer, but there has been a constant push-and-pull between rural and urban places over the course of human civilization. At different times, with different demographic groups, one or the other is en vogue. But not recently; of late, we have been plagued in our building and planning practices by an intense mediocrity, a society-wide indeciciveness. What we want, of course, is the best of both worlds: the convenience, community, and culture of the city, and the peace, privacy, and pastoral scenery of the small rural town. What we've wound up with is suburbia: the best of nothing.

I don't talk much about towns here; this is an urbanist blog, after all, and I am an avowed urbanist. However, I think that small towns play a very fundamental and almost completely overlooked role in the creation of successful cities. Towns are the yin to the city's yang; the genuine, 180-degree counterpoint to urbanism. Let's be honest: cities aren't for everyone. For cities to thrive, there is a need for an equally viable rural alternative. Perhaps the most insidious facet of the suburbs' assault on society is the way in which they supplanted the small town as the alternative to the city. Racial segregation, auto-oriented sprawl, pollution, social tension, congestion -- all of these are well-discussed, very popular arguments against suburbia. But more than anything, the suburbs have caused generations of people all over the world to grow up in places that are neither here nor there.

A new study out of Pennsylvania yesterday illuminates the slow but steady recovery of that state's rural areas over the past three decades. While a decrease in unemployment and an increase in income are both seen as good signs, the report emphasizes the need for a comprehensive economic plan for the state's rural areas, which hold 28% of its population. With the growth of the internet-based economy, more and more people are finding it possible to live and work wherever they choose. This puts rural areas like Pennsylvania's at a crucial point in their economic history. These areas must begin to reclaim their rightful spot as the true alternative to the bustle of city living.

From the Pennsylvania report: "[T]he state must move beyond antiquated smokestack chasing economic development policies and invest, on a regional basis, in key rural industries with potential for growth. In much of rural Pennsylvania, these assets include natural beauty and tourist destinations, town centers, a powerful sense of community, and, in some places, colleges and universities."

While I agree with this statement, I also think that it aims too low. The need for small towns and rural communities is not simply to draw tourists from sprawling metropolitan areas, but also to convince these visitors of their supremacy over the suburban environment as an alternative to urbanity. So yes, focus on the natural beauty, the town centers, the powerful sense of community. But don't pitch them as tokens. Pitch them as elements of a truly equal and opposite lifestyle.

Rural Pennsylvania at an Economic Crossroads Says New Keystone Research Center Report on Trends Over Last Four Decades

UrbanOhio.com (Photo credit)

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