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Something Special Is Happening in Rural America (nytimes.com)
26 points by burritofanatic 26 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 82 comments

I think encouraging deurbanization is a mistake. Urban areas are more efficient for almost all resources. What we need is making urban areas more attractive. Some people will of course always choose a lifestyle that prefers a big house, which we can't provide in an urban area, but we can address other benefits people see in a rural setting by smarter city planning. Sound insulation, so that neighbors are not a problem, green spaces in the city, train connections to recreational areas outside the city, walkability, neighborhood communities, all these things can be achieved with proper city planning without sacrificing the efficiency benefits of the urban area.

Urban areas are more efficient for almost all resources.

I don’t think this is true. If urban areas were more efficient than rural areas, it would be cheaper to live in an urban area.

Urban areas are generally inefficient for resources because you have bottlenecks on available space. Anything that requires physical space to do can be done more efficiently in a less urban area. This includes obvious things like raising children, but also includes any sort of minimum wage services, which are more efficiently provided in rural areas.

The main thing which is more efficient in an urban area is assembling a large well-paid professional workforce. I think if remote work became possible for a larger set of companies it has the potential to transform rural America.

Consumption of resources and cost are only weakly correlated. Urban areas are expensive because people want to live there, for example because that's where the jobs and the cultural life are. There are more efficient in terms of land and energy use as well as in terms of infrastructure cost per tax payer.

Consumption of resources and cost are only weakly correlated.

The main types of economic resources are land, labor, capital, and natural resources. All of these cost money, and cost is a very reasonable way to measure resource consumption. The biggest inefficiencies of urban areas come from the cost of land and labor.

Except the monetary costs of natural resources are generally not reflecting the actual damage done.

This and also poor zoning laws and NIMBYism allow for (and encourage) constant sprawl which also drives city prices up more because some people don't want to commute two hours each way.

> If urban areas were more efficient than rural areas, it would be cheaper to live in an urban area.

This story might look different when you remove subsidies from the picture. NYC tax revenue subsidizes upstate life in the form of infrastructure etc. Imagine if the residents had to pay for that directly instead.

Which definition of efficiency are you using here? I don't think it matches the one in the comment that you are responding to.

Urban areas are more efficient for resources because people generally use far less of them, per person, to accomplish the same economic activity.

That "bottleneck" of space is also equivalent to much greater access to all sorts of goods, because it is so much more efficient that what would basically be impossible in rural areas in terms of shipping and communication are extremely efficient in these spaces.

Efficiency is not the same thing as prices. Prices are high in urban areas because access to that space allows so much more economic activity; people are able to pay a lot more because they also have access to a lot more economic activity. That's economic efficiency.

If you're talking about needing a lot of a particular type of resource, like land, then yes it can be more efficient to put the jobs elsewhere. If you're looking for workers that don't have access to higher paying jobs, then yes, take those jobs out to rural areas.

As a person with children, I object heartily to the idea that it's more efficient to raise children in rural areas. I grew up in a rural area, but my child will not, because it is far more efficient to have access to more humans, more services, more education, more everything that urban areas provide.

> If urban areas were more efficient than rural areas, it would be cheaper to live in an urban area.

If you subtract out the cost of the land, is it still more expensive to live in an urban area? (Honest question; I don't know the answer.)

Urban areas being more efficient also means it should be cheaper to do more variety of things with more variety of people. And it is hard to argue that is not the case.

As someone who would never move to an urban area, there’s nothing that can be done to make it attractive to a subset of us. I don’t want to live among large amounts of other humans. I don’t want to crawl through traffic when I have to use my car. I’d rather live on acres of land far from the city, and pay for the privilege with regards to infrastructure and energy costs (I have solar on my roof, electric cars, and we offset our carbon emissions). We live a far better life than if I had to earn enough on a single income to support my family “in the city” (forget the Bay Area, even West Loop condos in Chicago are crazy expensive).

Remote work uptake will accelerate this trend, versus being forced to live in a city to be close to work. Density isn’t a given, or requirement to live well, and we shouldn’t be so foolish to push it (through half baked policy) on others if they don’t want it.

Side note: Support and advocate for remote work!

As I said, there is a subset of the population that would never live in a city, just as there is a subset that would never live outside a city. But I think that encouraging more people to choose the rural lifestyle by essentially subsidizing it is not the way to go.

If it’s not subsidized, there’s no issue. I agree it shouldn’t be subsidized, and that we’ll need technology to drive down the cost of low density living (rooftop solar [cheap renewable energy in general], electric vehicles [cars, light and heavy trucks, buses], improved longevity for roads and sidewalks, led streetlights, muni fiber and efficient wireless infra, etc). That’s what technology and innovation are for.

Just as with roads (where building more doesn’t help alleviate demand), you must destroy demand for everyone to live in the same spot if you want affordable housing. You do that with fungible remote work and (efficiently and sustainably) providing high quality of life not tied to a place in space time.

I think it would also help to increase the visibility of those costs. The impression I get is that a lot of people take for granted that roads just appear, for example, while the taxes for commuter rail and public transit are an imposition.

I don't think this is ever going to happen, at least not to any appreciable degree. People are powerfully stupid enough on their own, especially when it comes to status quo bias, and especially especially when it's in their own interests. There's a stable equilibrium in which road travel and sparsity aren't heavily subsidized, but I don't see any path there that involves trying to convince people first.

Agree entirely! I am an ardent supporter of accountability and transparency in government (spending including).

I feel the same possible for different reasons. I grew up in a small city in Europe, however, I live in the suburbs of chicago now. I could make $25k more in the city right now. I am a decent developer I guess, I get recruiters contact me about jobs in the city but I just cannot imagine commuting or moving to the city. When I was younger I enjoyed going clubbing and bars but it got old.

Now, I just want the kids to get off my lawn and have some peace.

Who is pushing density on others when they don't want it?

I just don't see that happening.

The folks who are pushing for more housing to be built in the bay are pushing density on folks who are against it.

Disclaimer: I'm not saying that that's good or bad.

Eh, those same folks against density happily vote in another office park that brings in 20,000 new jobs. So I'm a bit hesitant to say they're getting density pushed on them. More like they're finally expected to pay for their free lunch.

Whether or not it's deserved doesn't change that it's still more people than the existing population who votes no wanted. Playing devil's advocate for a moment, the companies that built those office parks knew what the housing situation and politics were like before they were built and they agreed to the terms. They could've chosen a different location if they wanted to.

Those jobs drive up the value of their existing homes if additional housing stock isn’t built to support said jobs.

I know why they're doing it, I'm arguing density isn't getting forced on them. Rather it's saying "hey, you should pay for that."

Hong Kong! The zoning for that place is bananas.

People installing elevators.

The problem though is that you likely /cant/ pay for the privilege of living your rural life.

It cost $2 to $3 million to build the undivided 2 lane road for each mile out to your house. Assuming an acre per house on that road (both sides) (208 ft of frontage per house gives you 25 per side and 50 on both sides of the road) Then you personally would have had to shell out ~$50,000 to build the road...as would all 50 of your neighbors. More if the average property is larger than an acre.


Yearly maintenance of that road is also not cheap. Figures vary a lot based on location, but lets go with NY’s lower bound...$4500 per year per mile. You and your $50 neighbors would be paying about $90 a year each. Not bad.


But, every 10 to 15 years your road will have to be completely resurfaced, which is about $625,000 per mile or $12,500 for you and your 50 neighbors (~$1000 per year)


And thats just the roads. You have to have a water/sewer system. You need power, telephone, cable, landscaping for the roads, snow removal (possibly), and a myriad of other services provided by your municipality.

You and your 50 neighbors are certainly NOT paying for all those yourselves.

In a city, that same mile of road likely costs $4-$6 million per mile. but instead of sharing that cost with 50 neighbors you are sharing it with 5,000 or more.

Anyway, I love the idea of a rural property. But let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that you and your rural neighbors are actually paying the true costs to live out there.

I’m struggling to find a blog series that talked about this in depth right now, but it’s just not financially sustainable to build/maintain rural and even suburban infrastructure given the economic base in those areas. We’ve really backed ourselves into a corner.

Besides roads, I don't need any other services. I can provide my own power (solar), my own water (well), my own sewer (septic field), wireless service alone would be fine (no cable or telephone), and I can skip the snow removal with a 4 wheel drive vehicle (or even not if I'm in a warmer climate in the US).

Rural life has existed for over a century, so forgive me when it's waved away as too costly. Would some standards need to change? Possibly, but it’s not impossible.

Living off the grid is nice for you. How many other people can do the same or want to do the same? I legitimately dont know, but my guess would be that it isnt the majority

That being said, there is a difference between true rural, like you are talking about, and “rural” in the sense of exurb mcmansions on 2 acre lots, which I think much of the “i hate urban areas” folks have in mind.

I just want to make sure though that you'd still be willing to make the tax contribution or voting support to infrastructure and transit projects for urban areas that might not (but probably still do) affect you directly.

If the data shows I benefit, I would not be against a time and dollar commitment. But just as I’m not asking for subsidies (and demand transparent accounting), I’m not willing to subsidize urban living if I receive no benefit. I don’t want to support unnecessary artificial scarcity.

>Urban areas are more efficient for almost all resources.

I don't know that voters conceptualize it this way but it seems to me there is a growing movement against this sort of economistic utilitarianism. Some people have come to understand that they/their family/their community already was 'sacrificed' in this manner or that they're on the chopping block. I don't think a doubling down is going to work here.

We've known that was the ideal structure for a city for a long time. Other than sound insulation, we had the technology to make it happen a century ago. Cities aren't run by a dictatorship that can implement your vision. They change slowly and organically. We should make urban AND rural living more efficient instead of pretending we can create utopian cities that everyone would want to live in.

Depends what you visualise as urban, I'd expect that small and medium towns surrounded by agricultural and horticultural production that serve the town, and large enough to have public transport links are most efficient. Conurbations and mega cities can't be anything like as efficient or sustainable.

- small towns don't use container ships, which are far more efficient than anything else

- small towns tend to have longer trips from the grocery store to your house, which is where most transportation costs occur

> small towns don't use container ships

Nor do most major cities. The vast bulk of UK and most country's trade goes through just their top 6 or 8 ports. The container comes off a ship, then gets to the other cities and towns via rail or road. You get a similar picture across most regions.

> small towns tend to have longer trips from the grocery store

Not in my experience. Usually far less travel, and less congestion to the shops and superstore. There may be fewer stores overall. I'm assuming the town is large enough to have at least one supermarket here. You may well be right if you're thinking of having to make a trip to the next town over to do the shopping.

> Urban areas are more efficient for almost all resources.

People say this all the time. If it's true, why is the cost of living in an urban area almost always higher than in a rural area?

Because efficient is not the same concept as cheap.

Worse, you are likely looking at the costs of single family home purchasing, without considering cost of upkeep and transportation. Not to mention efficiency of getting work done.

That is all to say, because it is complicated. Scale fundamentally makes things hard to reason about. And cost discussions typically micro optimize a single factor.

Because efficient is not the same concept as cheap.

It is not precisely the same concept as cheap, but I think you are mistaken about efficiency. Economic efficiency means that goods are produced at the lowest possible average total cost.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic_efficiency https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Average_cost

A wide range of economic goods have a lower average cost in rural areas. Anything from a 5 bedroom house to a case of Bud Light.

Urban areas are inefficient for most goods. They are popular not because of their general efficiency, but because they have better-paying jobs.

They have a lower unit cost per item to the individual. Sometimes. But typically only if you ignore transportation and storage costs. And often infrastructure costs are effectively billed to society.

Consider, I can literally walk to the grocery to buy beer. I suppose I have to replace my shoes from wear, but no upkeep or gas on my car. No miles of road that need maintenance to subsidize my trip to the store.

Now, yes, there are miles of road to subsidize getting the store supplied. But that is shared for all people supplied by the store. Same is true, of course, for the trips to the store, but again, my side of that equation is zero. Which is all part of what makes me argue it is more efficient.

And again, complicated with general scale making most observations necessarily simplistic.

>Why is the cost of living in an urban area almost always higher than in a rural area

Artificial scarcity

Somewhat of a real scarcity, as far transport takes money to build and going beyond 1h commute is very problematic, more so if you have kids to send to daycare, preschool or school.

Some of it is alleviated by hub and spoke transport plus extra parking places, but not all. At some point, transport costs split the city into a conurbation, even without the sprawl, you end up with towns linked by capacious public transportation and roads. Or terrible congestion.

There are limits to density after all. Even with walking and bikes and underground and tramways and double decker busses.

Usually the jobs are better which drives prices up?

exactly. also, it's a bit of a catch 22. most great jobs are in the cities, because all of the great talent is mostly located in urban areas, and all of the great talent is mostly located in urban areas because all of the great jobs are there.

and the extreme prices are just a natural byproduct of supply/demand.

the answer for a lot of jobs is being able to be remote, but of course not all jobs can allow for this

here's a theory. shoot it down: work and cash are more abundant and salaries are higher in urban areas and this causes demand-pull price inflation.

why are salaries higher? because the labor pools in high density urban areas have, in some sectors, a more highly developed set of skills and capabilities than the comparable labor pools in other areas have (e.g. Wall Street bankers and quants, NYC chefs and restaurant workers, SV programmers and capital managers, San Diego life sciences and biotech, etc). IOW, agglomeration economies.

The cost of living has very little to do with the true cost of you living there. In the city, people are willing to pay for convenience, so you can sit in the middle of the transaction and use the added efficiency to increase your profit margin. People that own real estate in a major city are probably making a pretty good return on their investment.

Why would someone pay for convenience? Probably because it's the only affordable way to buy more time. You could pay someone to do your errands for you while you commute. You could fly a helicopter to work everyday instead of driving. Those things are way more expensive than just living in a smaller apartment closer to everything, though. That is what sets the upper bound on how much profit can be extracted from real-estate. If teleportation existed, I'm guessing a lot of urban landlords would lose a lot of money. But it doesn't.

Meanwhile, the suburbs are intrinsically less efficient, but subsidized from the urban revenues. Think about the laws that require phone companies to provide service to rural areas, or the USPS to deliver mail to rural areas, or your taxes buying roads to those rural areas. You, the city dweller, are paying for all of those things.

The TL;DR is that efficiency is not related to the price you pay to live somewhere. It's much more complicated.

Sort of. If you don't have roads out to those rural areas you can't bring food into the city. If you don't have power infrastructure out to the sticks, you can't produce food nearly as efficiently. The modern city can't exist without a rural infrastructure.

There are a large number of Suburban areas now, that began as smaller towns and cities grew into and filled the gaps between. Those primarily existed as local concentration points to facilitate rural infrastructure at one time.

Food is comparatively not a problem compared to transport of people.

* It is not as time sensitive - you can interleave and batch delivery hours. People work hours, unfortunately not yet.

* You can use big transport rail for longer distance or big trucks. This increases density vastly. People need some space, crates don't.

NIMBYs, that's why.

> . Urban areas are more efficient for almost all resources. What we need is making urban areas more attractive. Some people will of course always choose a lifestyle that prefers a big house, which we can't provide in an urban area, but we can address other benefits people see in a rural setting by smarter city planning.

It's probably politically impossible, but the right answer seems to me to stop subsidizing sparse living so heavily, and let people's preferences sort it out. I happen to prefer urban environments, but i understand the appeal of sparser living: it just seems like if you prefer something that's much more costly to society, you can pay for it.

mostly agree. currently, US city life has too many unappealing aspects unless you're either super wealthy or truly broke.

in the US high quality of life cities are actually quite scarce and in time almost always overwhelmed by large numbers of people who want to experience that quality of life. then quality of life decreases significantly.

Urban centers may be more efficient but urban sprawl is not. We need to rethink urban development and optimize for efficient use of space, ease of access to services, transportation and livability. I think the optimal solution would be a network of urban hubs connected by efficient transport and buffered by mixed agricultural and recreational land. Use mixed zoning so people and businesses can locate themselves at their preferred distances. Ideally, these hubs would be fairly close together so people could easily live, work, and play in any number of them. Focus on public transportation and walkability to give an edge to both localized and specialized businesses and to promote social contact.

This isn't really possible to do in established metropolises but it could be done in areas where small towns are the mainstay.

Yeah urban sprawl is a terrible cancer that needs to be stopped. But encouraging people to move even further away from the city center is not the way to do it.

Kinda weird they chose Ouray, Colorado for the illustrative photo. That place's economy is nearly 100% based on tourism for mountain sports and ice climbing in the canyon south of the city.

It's showing Sabetha, Kansas as the top photo for me.

Huh, looks like they changed it.

I don't care how much longing I might have for the small town I grew up in, I will never go back, and will never consider moving back. It was a bigoted, closed-minded place growing up and it's still that way today. Rural America has very little to offer anyone except cheap housing, and cheap food. Despite the crime, high taxes, high cost of living, and the abundance of traffic, the city is safer.

"Despite the crime, high taxes, high cost of living, and abundance of traffic" Only that, eh? Kind of hard to argue the city is "safer" when you admit it has higher crime.

You should step back and read your comment objectively. You're essentially saying "I don't want to live there because I disagree with [my stereotyped view of] their political/personal views, and am willing to overlook major indicators of quality of living to live with high crime, taxes, traffic, and high CoL."

I recognize you may have _reasons_ for your stereotype and I don't want to discount them, but for every anecdotal you may have, there is one in the other direction. I've seen bigots in NY and saints in KS. From where I stand, you're the one being close-minded and bigoted by judging people based on how many other people live around them and assuming you are better than them.

Until you get older and realize that you could cash out and benefit from a change of pace.

Get a nice sized house, with money in the bank, grow a garden, listen to the quiet, cut your own lawn, and share the experience with other people, who like you, eventually migrated back to give that small town feel another chance, later in life.

And now that small town has an art gallery. A Starbucks. Some nice restaurants. And town councillors that like you, moved back from the city and have a desire to fix some of what you remember being broken.

Many of the small towns I remember growing up in that were bigoted close minded places, have gradually changed. Not all. But it's happening.

Sadly still too few opportunities and especially faltering health care and education.

I can’t speak for the small town in which you’ve grown up, but I feel like if anything is close-minded, it’s declaring all of rural America as having “very little to offer anyone except cheap housing, and cheap food”.

>Rural America has very little to offer anyone except cheap housing, and cheap food.

Those are pretty important to a lot of people.

I grew up in rural Pennsylvania and moved to Pittsburgh for Uni about a decade ago. My wife and I are making plans to move to the country, for me returning, but for her living there for the first time.

When in the city we both feel low levels of chronic stress. This is alleviated when in rural areas.

Right now our worries are finding a place for the right price, sufficiently removed from other people, close to enough places that we care about, access to fast internet.

I have heard from real estate agents that this desire to move to the country is becoming increasingly common. I don't know really why that is, but I have to imagine that the ability to work remotely has something to do with it.

Good public schools (or good private schools, for that matter) can be hard to come by out in the sticks, for those to whom that's important. Hard in the city, too—there's a reason so many families, even those of us who would prefer either the city or the country, end up in the 'burbs.

In a big city, your kid won't fit into the kindergarten. In the sticks, there is no kindergarten.

Things suck for young middle-class families.

Between the money-based fight to get your kids in better schools (public or private, it's money either way, just a matter of whether the money's in tuition or housing) and health care it does kind of seem like the system's designed to eat every last dollar a normal to well-off-but-not-actually-rich family can get their hands on.

of course, these people pay a lot of the taxes. the rich don't, and poor just don't have the money to pay.

Great point; for us, we do not want children and are sure they are not coming, so this does not factor into our considerations.

My hunch is that it’s driven by the millennial generation entering the child rearing stage of life. The increased preference for urban environments was largely driven by millennials. But many of the things appealing about the city lose their luster when you stop being a single adult and now have a family to consider.

Housing goes from expensive to unaffordable when you can’t split the difference between roommates, and can’t justify living in a run down 1 bedroom closet anymore. Schools are often poor in the city, and the ones that aren’t are often very difficult to get into. Public transportation is great, until you have a child or a stroller, in which case you draw looks like you have the plague. Most of the amenities that make city life enjoyable as a young person become difficult or impossible to enjoy in the presence of children.

This isn’t necessarily the case for all cities, especially those outside the US. But for the most part, American cities are fundamentally broken for families, and as such are mostly playgrounds for the young, the rich, or those so poor they can’t leave and are confined to the corners of town where “urban life” isn’t as glamorous as is often sold. My desire for living in the city took a nosedive soon after having my first child.

It also probably isn’t entirely child driven. Even without kids, I think the 30+ stage of life is when many aspects of city life become less appealing. As you put it, city life is often accompanied by chronic low level stress, which eventually just gets old. Living in a city is great for a career, but at a certain point, careers start to calm down and the need for being in a urban center starts to die with it.

We moved to Houston, Texas, to pursue a job offer. We left less than two years later to a suburb of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Smaller cities or at least smaller-town lifestyles are more our style. "Making it" in a big city seems like it requires losing what is important [edit: for people like me].

>"Making it" in a big city seems like it requires losing what is important.

I also hate city life, but I find it depressing that this is just another instance of everything absolutely having to be an us-vs-them scenario. Why can't people just enjoy the qualities of city life or suburban life or rural life without needing to broadly label the other options as somehow awful?

You're right, it doesn't apply to everyone. I wasn't meaning to speak for anyone but me.

I've lived (nearly) my entire life in a small town in West Virginia. Like most kids from rural areas, I was looking for my first ticket out of here. I joined the Marines, explored the world and busy city life... and promptly returned to my small hometown.

I see no appeal in living in restrictive spaces for the chance at having something "special" to do in the rare moment where I have free time. There's more than enough for me in my surroundings and if needs be, I'm an hour drive from Pittsburgh, PA for some "culture" outings.

We are considering WV. My father lives in Uniontown, so it would be convenient in that way. I also have a lot of family that live in the general OH/WV panhandle area.

There are tech jobs in the northern part of the state. Lots of government contractor shops around. Pay is... well... government pay, but the cost of living is ridiculously cheap. My girlfriend is from Moundsville, and she thinks of the Morgantown area as urban... so I guess we could be more rural.

Sucks* that for a lot of us the choice is between making $100k in the suburbs or $200k in the city. I'd MUCH rather live in the burbs or country, but at the end of the day you just make so much more money living in an urban environment even after accounting for cost of living.

*Sucks being relative. I know I don't have it that bad.

The problem with small towns is, and will always be, the lack of opportunity for most people.

Most jobs in these places tend towards service jobs. You can't just move to Columbia. MO and expect to find a professional job. The best way to earn a good living in these areas is to own a business, which is not really feasible for most people. Once these rural towns have a critical mass of businesses to support an influx of professionals, they begin to evolve from small town to suburbia.

I say this as someone who was raised in a town of 515 people, 45-minutes from the closest Walmart. There was nothing there when I left, and that fact has remained over the past 20 years. Why would anyone move to that small town over the hundreds of identical ones all over the state?

Since this was an op-ed with a half-assed mix of anecdote and cherry-picked stats, I'll add my own from one of the more rural Canadian provinces.

The small towns and smaller farms that are doing well are those that are within reasonable commuting range of the bigger centers. The ones that aren't, aren't, and are still undergoing rapid depopulation and farm consolidation into very-large commodity crop growers (canola, wheat, pulses, beef/pork).

The success of rural-heavy jurisdictions of North America are those that will give up on the losing fight to keep every small town alive and start investing in the job-creating urban areas. However, the Conservative/Republican parties that are often in power in these areas know they depend on their rural base and often do the opposite, spending money on highways and crop subsidies rather than transit and education.

Having left Los Angeles to move to a very rural area in 1988 because quality of life is far more important than yearly income and that really is pretty sucky no matter where you live in LA or NY City, I think it's time Hollywood did a remake of "Deliverance" to squash this trending idea.

I actually had friends in LA tell me "they'll make you squeal like a pig there!" before I left. I'm not sure how many here will get those old references, but it really was a thing when I told my friends in LA I was leaving.

The area where I moved to has grown fast over the past 30 years. Still pretty nice though, and I'm glad I've spent those years here. No amount of money would've been worth spending them in LA.

To be fair, Deliverance was a bit more recent of a movie when you left, so one could see why they made such references, unfair as they were and still are (that said, I know for a fact that characters as depicted in the movie do exist, we just don't run into 'em often - good thing - nor really discuss them - bad thing).

The situations seem dire, speculation of properties means you either participate or lose , there's no escape and no other choice, you can avoid it but you can't avoid the inflation and wealth gap that come with it, the people joining the frenzy are richer and richer while you are poorer and poorer.

What’s “special” is that urban house prices doubled or tripled in ten years. I wonder what it would take to flip some of these states to Democratic.

Wonder how that correlates to homelessness.

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