An Urban's Rural View

Don't Give Up on Bridging the Rural-Urban Divide

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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By a wide margin Americans told Pew Research Center they prefer rural communities to urban. (Chart courtesy of Pew Research Center)

Say the words "rural-urban divide" and people roll their eyes. Nothing new about that, they harrumph. Hasn't there been a rural-urban divide since time immemorial?

There has, but for American agriculture it's more important than ever to try to bridge the divide. Colorado's experience with the reintroduction of wolves is a perfect example of why.

The 2020 reintroduction ballot measure passed by a 51-49 margin, with all the urban counties voting yes and most of the rural ones voting no. Naturally, the wolves have been released in rural counties, and the farmers and ranchers in those counties aren't happy about that.

Both sides have an argument. Wolves once lived in Colorado. They can be a vital part of the ecosystem, helping biodiversity, and the call of a wolf at night can be haunting.

Wolves can also eat livestock, causing economic losses. The state has a compensation system but getting the compensation takes time and effort.

This isn't the first rural-urban issue affecting agriculture and it won't be the last. If each side could see and have some sympathy for the other's point of view, perhaps we might get policies both sides could live with rather than one side wins and the other loses.

So is the gap bridgeable, and if so, how?

Someone said something recently that hints at an answer. This man said he'd lived in both the urban and rural parts of his state and in his experience, the people in both with the most negative views about the other didn't know anyone personally on the other side.

This jibes with my experience. I've lived mostly in cities but I did have a country home for more than a decade and I know a lot of people on both sides. Some on both sides are pretty extreme in their disdain for the other, but they're not the majority.

Most of the people I know in both the city and the country are pretty reasonable. They'd benefit from exposure to each other, in the same way exchange students benefit from living for a while with a family in another country.

This is not to underestimate the difficulty of establishing bridges. Real differences between city and country have indeed long existed and seem to be widening. These include a different economic base, with rural America heavily dependent on agriculture, and a different racial and ethnic composition.

That latter difference is one of the things that stands out in a 2018 study by the Pew Research Center that's one of our most extensive looks at both differences and similarities. According to the Pew study, 56% of the people in urban counties were "nonwhite" compared to only 21% in rural counties. Immigrants were 22% of the population of urban counties, only 4% of rural. (…)

The study is six years old and pre-COVID-19, but I suspect many of its findings remain valid.

It's also the case that rural Americans have less of many good things urbanites take for granted -- schools, hospitals, shopping alternatives, white-collar jobs, broadband internet.

Yet for all the differences between city folk and country folk, there are some interesting similarities. Some similar problems, for one thing. In the 2018 Pew study, half of the urban respondents and nearly half of the rural ones said drug addiction was a major problem in their local community.

A striking similarity was the weakness of Americans' attachment to their local communities. Those feeling "very attached" were only 16% of rural and suburban residents and 17% of urban residents. The "somewhat attached" were just over 40% in all three. About 40% of Americans felt "not too attached" or "not at all attached" to their communities regardless of where they lived.

Another reason for optimism: Asked what kind of community they prefer, Americans across the board preferred rural to urban. Only 23% of the 2018 respondents chose urban while 36% said rural, with 42% choosing suburbs. When Pew asked the same question in 2021, only 19% preferred urban while 35% responded rural.

Give rural America more broadband internet, continued employer tolerance of telecommuting and some effective rural-development work and some of those urban and suburban Americans might even move to the country.

No doubt, bridging the rural-urban divide won't be easy. But it isn't a pipe dream. The way to start is to find more ways to get rural denizens and urbanites to know each other.

Urban Lehner can be reached at


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