In the 21st Century, the challenge is to build on the existing strengths of rural areas to increase their competitive advantage as places to grow companies, raise families and earn a good living. They need not – indeed, cannot – become what cities are, but they can offer different, complementary values, and offer them to enough of the global population to create a virtuous cycle of organic growth.
Ask most new residents of rural areas why they have moved there, and they will recite the same litany of benefits. Compared with urban and suburban living, there is a slower and more humane pace. There is natural beauty and open spaces that feed the spirit.
There is greater respect for what has gone before, for traditional ways of thinking and living. Conditioned by the seasonal rhythms of agriculture, rural culture leans toward continuity: what Shakespeare meant when his young King Henry described the farmer as following “the ever-running year with profitable labor to his grave.”
There is less obsession with the self – with what I have compared to what you have – and more awareness of the value of community. Perhaps perception of our fellow human beings follows some kind of inverse square law. The fewer people per square mile or kilometer, the more we are likely to value each one.
There are more measurable benefits as well. Land is cheaper, regulations fewer, and public institutions are typically more eager to smooth the path of any company promising to create employment.
All of this is valuable. It helps account for why successful rural areas are successful. But it has not been enough to overcome the economic disadvantages that come with the rural lifestyle.
Density. The biggest difference between city and country is population density. One of the primary benefits cited by urban advocates is proximity. A person starting any kind of undertaking in a city can hardly avoid running into like-minded people, absorbing new ideas and being challenged by peer pressure. A wide variety of vendors, potential partners and possible employers are within arm’s reach. Engaging in the social network that powers so many organized activities is easy and convenient. As Derek Thompson and Jordan Weissman put it in the August 2012 issue of The Atlantic, “Our wealth, after all, is determined not only by our skills and talents, but by our ability to access the ideas of those around us; there's a lot to be gained by increasing the odds that smart people might bump into each other.”
But in the country, distances are greater between people and places. The number of interactions you can have in a day, week or month is fewer, which limits the number of like-minded people you can meet, the new ideas they can transmit and the peer pressure they can exert on you to succeed. Vendors, partners and employees are fewer and farther between. And just hanging out together can require spending a lot of time in your car or truck. It takes longer and costs more to connect the essential components of organized activity in rural areas, so the economic, social and culture return on investment tends to be lower.
Scale. Closely related to density and distance is the issue of scale. Cities have more of everything than the country: talents, information, businesses, schools, hospitals, public services, communications, transit services and transport networks, arts and culture. And money. For thousands of years, cities have been places where money concentrates and can be effectively invested to make more money. Compared to cities, rural areas have some but not much. Wealthy farmers may abound in some places, but they are more likely to put their money into global funds than local businesses, because the know-how and social structure of angel investing are weak or entirely absent.
All of this adds up, in economic terminology, to a lack of scale. So it is much more challenging to grow a business, social enterprise or artistic venture from sprout to seedling and from seedling to tree. Everything may be available but not in quantities that give a natural impetus to growth. In particular, risk capital – the kind that powers fast-growing businesses and is hard to come by anywhere – may be all but absent in rural settings.
Charisma. Rural areas face a Catch-22 in their efforts to increase economic sustainability. It requires that they hang on to their best and brightest young people, who have been raised and educated locally, so that their talents can benefit the community. That’s a tough assignment when electronic media in every form shows us the charisma of the city: the dynamism, the energy, the opportunity and excitement of urban living. Cities are places where jobs turn into careers, where interests become passions, where fate becomes fortune. By definition, the best and brightest want more than a dead-end job. They will only remain if they can find jobs and culture and like-minded people equal to their abilities. But how is a rural community, with its charisma deficit, to foster the creation of such jobs and culture if its best and brightest have left to seek their fortunes elsewhere?