Rural lessons from the metropolitan revolution

MPR News Ground Level eBook, "Fighting for an American Countryside."
MPR News Ground Level eBook, "Fighting for an American Countryside."

Perhaps you heard the NPR interview a few weeks ago with Bruce Katz at the Brookings Institution about the book "The Metropolitan Revolution" that he co-authored. American cities are where the action is today, he argued in the interview and the book. They are the new engines of prosperity and social change, he said.

The federal government is too mired in partisanship and rancor, and state governments are inconsistent, sometimes broke and often broken, Katz and co-author Jennifer Bradley say.  So not only are cities on their own to face challenges, places like Portland, the Cleveland area and New York have been showing how mayors, businesses, universities and other local organizations can forge a new path to success.

I heard the conversation with Katz as we were finishing work on an eBook, "Fighting for an American Countryside" by reporter Jennifer Vogel. The book, an MPR News first that you can download for free to your tablet or smartphone from Apple's iBooks, Amazon and the Vook Store (Barnes & Noble and web version coming soon) , explores  challenges facing rural Minnesota and shines a light on what some small-town leaders are doing in response.


And I was struck by how many similarities I was hearing. No one is arguing that small towns on the Minnesota prairie or in the north woods are going to emerge as the nation's economic bastions and hubs of international trade, as Katz and Bradley say is true for cities. Or that the cultural pull of young people to metropolitan areas will reverse. But in the dynamic of communities looking to remain vital and vibrant, a lot of what the Brookings Institution authors say about cities rings true for rural America as well:

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  • Increasing diversity presents both demands and opportunities.

  • Places are on their own. The cavalry is not coming. The federal stimulus is over.

  • The recession of 2008 was a wake-up call that forced people to look at what really matters. A new normal arrived.

  • Finding what is unique is important. Not every city should be Silicon Valley; not every small community can build a successful industrial park on the edge of town. Portland can become a leading exporter; Fergus Falls can become a regional art center.

  • Collaboration might be a key to success for Denver and its suburbs. It's just as true for the sparsely populated counties of western Minnesota cobbling together a SWAT team.

  • Perhaps most important, there is power simply in convening and networking.

I talked to Bradley about whether these parallels made any sense to her. She said they did.

metropolitan revolution 2

"We have in our minds this juxtaposition that rural and urban are opposites," Bradley said. But population density, the basis for defining what is rural and what is urban, is less important than economic relationships and, especially for rural areas, the amount of networking people do that carries them beyond their community, she said.

"Particularly in rural areas, it's important to work through networks" involving universities and people with common interests elsewhere, Bradley said.

There is undeniably an embrace by many of the urban life, of "cityness," as the Brookings Institution book calls it. But you can find many examples as well of a smaller but also real pull of something else. Call it "ruralness" or "landedness." See University of Minnesota Extension sociologist Ben Winchester's work on people in their 30s and 40s returning to small-town America.

A big reason for writing the Brookings Institution book, Bradley said, was to hold out lessons for local leaders so they can replicate the success of others, not simply by imitating an outcome but by learning how to come up with something unique.

Given what we found putting together "Fighting for an American Countryside," that might be pretty useful in rural America as well.

So that makes two books for your end-of-summer reading list.