What Makes a Place Rural?

What Makes a Place Rural?

The 2016 electoral map, with its seas of rural red, has served as the basis for a misleading and simplified shorthand for urban and rural life. These maps suggest different approaches.

Since “rural” is, at its most basic, a geographic distinction, it seems as though whatever other difficulties we might have pinpointing the essence of rural America, we should at least have a relatively easy time placing it on the map. Yet if we begin looking for a convenient cartographic borderline where the city ends and rural life begins, we find not only that these categories evade convenient definitions, but also that the ways Americans orient themselves in terms of politics and culture have a complicated and by no means deterministic relationship with how they orient themselves in terms of geography.

The practical-minded demographers of the Census Bureau, for instance, can’t settle on a single answer about where exactly to find rural America. The prevailing bureaucratic definition is a negative one: certain parts of the country are determined to be urban, and the leftover is rural. One complicated Census flowchart explains the many considerations that go into defining an urban area; at the end of the flowchart, “everything not urban” points to a vestigial “rural” category. Other attempts to demarcate the boundaries of rural America draw on functional characteristics like distance from market centers or economic dependence on primary production. The Department of Agriculture offers researchers the oracular advice that one should choose the definition of rurality that “best fits the needs of a specific activity” from over two dozen such categorization methods in use by the federal government alone.

Even taken together, density, population, land use, morphology, economic structure, and demographic composition leave an unsatisfactory final conclusion about rurality’s whereabouts. Is Central Park rural? (It has a near-zero residential population density, and its primary economic function is outdoor recreation and agriculture.) What about the oil patches of North Dakota? (They are intensely industrialized, draw on a diversified labor pool, and feature many laborers living close together in quick-build housing.)

Many people now think of a kind of political geography, a red-and-blue map of America, as offering a shorthand for the practical ramifications of the urban–rural distinction. But this also breaks down on even a casual examination. Vermont, by some definitions one of the most rural states in the country, is also one of the bluest, not to mention the home base of the Democratic presidential primary’s self-styled democratic socialist candidate. Meanwhile, the strongest results for Donald Trump in New York’s Republican primary came from the New York City borough of Staten Island, where the future president—himself a resident of the nation’s largest city—earned a margin of victory more than double that returned by most of the state’s rural counties. More voters pulled the lever for Trump in fully urbanized Harris County, the home of Houston, than in all of North and South Dakota combined...

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