In their discussions with The Other Oregon, retired professors Michael Hibbard, Ethan Seltzer and Bruce Weber offered their thoughts on what steps could help bridge the urban-rural divide — both in practical terms and how we think about the problem. Following is a synopsis of five ideas mentioned during the conversations.
1) Support businesses that create urban-rural linkages
The Country Natural Beef cooperative of family ranchers was mentioned several times as an example of a company that’s highly effective at connecting rural producers with urban consumers.
Ranchers in the cooperative abide by production standards and benefit from consumer awareness of the brand. Other examples included purveyors of cheese and seafood who work closely with producers in rural areas.
Environmental work, including the removal of invasive juniper trees that can be milled into lumber, was also seen a positive way to strengthen urban and rural connections.
With the sparser populations of Oregon’s rural businesses, it’s also more realistic to think about supporting many smaller companies rather than major employers with thousands of workers.
“Large amounts of jobs are by definition an urban thing, they’re not a rural thing,” said Michael Hibbard of the University of Oregon.
The general consensus was that bringing back the old economies of Oregon’s rural areas, in which natural resource-based manufacturing was heavily dependent on large numbers of people, wasn’t a realistic expectation.
“It’s not about how you recreate the economy you used to have. It’s given the things that you you’ve got at hand, what can we do today,” said Ethan Seltzer of Portland State University.
2) Create opportunities for interaction and understanding
After concluding the “Toward One Oregon” conference and book, professors involved in the projects continued to meet with members of the public to discuss the urban-rural divide.
Similar efforts include an “exchange” program by a Portland school in which urban children spend time in rural Eastern Oregon to learn about environmental issues from a different perspective.
It was also noted that, generally, rural people have a more accurate understanding of urban opinions and lifestyles than vice versa.
“Urban people are pretty much in a bubble. Most of rural people’s lives is spent interacting with the urban bubble in the ways they have to survive and thrive,” said Bruce Weber of Oregon State University. “Urban people, on the other hand, I don’t think fully appreciate the extent to which they depend on rural areas for food, for energy.”
3) Focus on big ideas affecting all Oregonians
It’s easy to get bogged down in all the ways that urban and rural people don’t see eye-to-eye. Meanwhile, they all share common problems that would benefit from unique perspectives.
Tackling public policy issues that are of concern to all Oregonians — including the opioid epidemic, school funding and wildfire prevention — can unite urban and rural populations.
“We’re all in this together whether we like it or not,” said Hibbard. “We have to find solutions that are relevant to the state as a whole, not just urban or rural Oregon.”
This sentiment was echoed by Ethan Seltzer of Portland State University, who said addressing “a short list of things we can get our teeth into” can overcome differences in how rural and urban people view the world. “They’re big problems but we will ultimately need to be able to show we can make progress on the things that are really threatening the future stability of entire state of Oregon,” he said.
4) Invest in government services in rural areas
While government is already proportionately a big employer in rural Oregon, further investment in schools and health care would provide more employment while improving the lives of people living there, said Bruce Weber of Oregon State University.
Having access to such vital services would also make employers more amenable to siting their businesses in rural areas, he said.
“The public investment isn’t just in the people there but it would make those places more attractive as places to work,” he said.
5) Don’t mischaracterize or exaggerate nature of urban-rural rift
Although the political gulf between urban and rural Oregonians may seem deeper than ever, it should be remembered that opinions across these regions are hardly uniform.
Also, clashing perspectives may depend on other factors than simply geographic location, so caricatures should be avoided.
“Be really careful not to describe it as an urban-rural divide problem until you’re absolutely sure that it is,” said Seltzer. “Just as I live in an urban area, I wouldn’t say that anyone who holds a position counter to mine must be from a rural area.”
Using such shorthand to describe urban and rural beliefs may be convenient but it’s not necessarily realistic or helpful. “I think it becomes a habit. It becomes a way of feeding people’s expectations in a not constructive way,” Seltzer said.