Can Cities and Rural Counties Come Together?

Recent political battles have highlighted the decades-old divide between urban and rural areas, making groups that occupy a middle ground more necessary than ever.
David Shabazian is an urban bureaucrat who understands rural life. He was raised on a farm, where his parents supplemented the family income by selling alfalfa, corn and wheat. The proceeds paid for his undergraduate degree in agricultural economics, but eventually the demands of running a farm were too much and the revenue collected too little, so his mother sold the land to a large operator.
As Shabazian witnessed structural changes sweeping through American agriculture, he also watched the city next door, Turlock, Calif., add population and land area until its outer limit reached the street in front of his old farm. He has seen the rural/urban divide, and for him, it was urban commuters competing with tractors on country roads.
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.
By contrast, the rural/urban data provided by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments is already making an impact. That’s because the research comes from a quasi-governmental body and serves an audience of government leaders. Steve Cohn, a Sacramento councilman who chairs his region’s council of governments, says the RUCS research has convinced him and other urban leaders to think more about housing, transportation and economic strategies that would help rural towns and counties. They want to concentrate new housing in urban cores, rather than consuming land that could be used for crop production. They’re also trying to support road infrastructure for farms and wineries that bring tourists from outside the region—a local boon for everyone.
In Winters, a small town of 6,800 about 40 miles west of Sacramento, Shabazian’s group is helping Mayor Cecilia Aguiar-Curry conduct a feasibility study on whether Winters and two other small towns could become a hub for agriculture-related packaging, processing, distribution, manufacturing, banking and insurance. Aguiar-Curry says RUCS data is already convincing some investors to relocate to her area. “I’ve lived my whole life here,” she says. “For the longest time, we had lots of unused land.” Now that open land is being utilized in coordinated ways, such as agriculture production that includes walnut farms. Today, says Aguiar-Curry, “as far as the eye can see, there’s walnuts.”