Sunday, October 23, 2011

Where's everyone going?

Human beings are moving away from rural areas to cities at a higher rate than any other time in recorded history. The UN estimates that by 2030, 60% of the world's population will live in urban environments. One big reason for this movement is the lack of economic resources in rural areas that makes it difficult for people to start businesses, find jobs, and compete in a high tech global market. Cities provide a buzz, an access to more people, sharing more ideas, more frequently than in rural areas. Innovation thrives in cities and it's no surprise that if faced with the choice, many people will seek opportunity and connections.

If greater opportunity exists in cities, why do rural communities still matter?

This flight from rural areas comes at a time when the world's population is growing faster than ever before. As population rises, cities grow in size, and the innovation and economic opportunities that come from urban centers multiplies - more and more natural resources will be needed to meet these demands. Rural communities matter because they act as the stewards of the natural resources all humans depend on.

In remote and seemingly removed communities throughout the United States, there is a culture of stewardship emerging, and with it, an opportunity for a productive and substantial economy based on the active management of the natural resources that are crucial to the systems we are a part of.

What is a stewardship economy and what does it look like?

To Nils Christophersen of Wallowa Resources, an organization based in Enterprise, OR, a stewardship economy provides business opportunities that support community resilience, family wage jobs, and the active and sustainable management of natural resources. A market application based in Wallowa County takes the form of an integrated biomass campus that utilizes forest restoration byproducts that traditionally have had not market value to make densified wood products that are helping to heat the local high school, saving the community over 100,000 dollars per year.

Rural communities can't do it alone. (Urban communities can't do it alone.)

I recently attended a fundraising event in Portland held for Wallowa Resources, who's mission is to "... develop, promote, and implement innovative solutions to help the people of Wallowa County and the Intermountain West sustain and improve their communities and their lands." Aside from raising money for the organization, the goal of the event was to raise awareness of the issues and innovations occurring in rural and isolated communities throughout Oregon and the interior West. Rural communities face very similar issues that urban areas do and these issues can often be overlooked due to their seeming isolation and their scale. What rural communities have, is a strong connection to ecosystems and the ways in which their decisions directly impact the function of their landscapes. When decisions are made in urban areas that effect the health of landscapes, feedback is delayed as it tends not to be the immediate surrounding  landscapes that are impacted. 

As urban communities breed innovation and technology, rural communities harbor much knowledge of ecosystem functions. As population grows and there is more demand for natural resources, there will need to be an increased share of knowledge between rural and urban communities to properly address issues that arise. 

Perhaps, there is an opportunity within the flight from rural communities. If cities are going to be increasingly populated by former residents of rural areas, there is the possibility that these people will bring  knowledge of ecosystem services and appreciation for landscapes to decisions that are made in urban cores, strengthening the connection and in turn the health of all of our systems. 

How can this be achieved?


Anonymous said...


I wonder if there is a "both and" here. I am struck however by emerging evidence about the lower per capita environmental footprint of city dwellers (in theory at least if cities are appropriately designed). However, I also know that many in urban areas crave and, even if they aren't aware of it, need a greater connection to nature. At the same time, many that are forced to move to urban areas for economic reasons often do so unwillingly (especially poorer people). So the types of creative solution you have shared and are calling for are important.

What do you think can be done? Are there market based solutions, or is much more fundament system reform required?


Anonymous said...

p.s. I LOVE the concept of a stewardship economy. It seems as though that concept applies just as much in the urban context.