Stereotypes about the divergent lifestyles and viewpoints of urban and rural populations are nothing new.
The cliché of urban centers being sophisticated or decadent compared to traditional or backwards rural areas certainly predates the modern era.
Even so, elections data show the differences in political leanings among urban and rural residents of Oregon and other states have grown more stark in the past half-century. Rural areas now overwhelmingly favor Republicans, while urban areas sway heavily toward Democrats.
A decade ago, several Oregon universities organized a conference titled, “Toward One Oregon: Rural-Urban Interdependence,” which explored the links and divisions among these populations.
The conference panelists later submitted papers expanding on their presentations, which were compiled into a book of the same name.
Since then, the polarization between the politics and culture of urban and rural Oregon does not seem to have receded, judging from recent voting patterns.
The Other Oregon sat down with three of the professors who helped organize the conference and edit the book, “Toward One Oregon,” to discuss the reasons for the rift between urban and rural communities and what can be done about it.
The following conversations have been edited for length and clarity.
Michael Hibbard, professor emeritus at the University of Oregon’s School of Planning, Public Policy and Management
The Other Oregon: What are the reasons for Oregon’s urban-rural divide?
Michael Hibbard: Over the long haul, like say 100 years or something like that, the urban and rural economies have split apart.
It used to be rural and urban economies were highly interdependent. Trees were being cut down in the Cascade foothills, being milled into product and the product then gets shipped out. You’ve got this economic linkage. Wheat would be brought down from the Columbia plateau, milled into flour in Portland and then shipped out to the world.
That economic linkage is associated with political linkages and social linkages and so on. Everybody is making their living off this stuff, so they have a mutual interest in natural resources and agricultural products. But over time, that linkage has disappeared. There’s been an economic disconnect between urban and rural areas, so there’s a social disconnect and a political disconnect.
Now, what you’ve got is strong linkages between rural Oregon and the global economy, urban Oregon and the global economy but not so much between urban and rural Oregon.
To take wheat, as an example, instead of wheat being milled in Portland then shipped to the world, the wheat is shipped to the world and gets milled into flour someplace else, China or some place. So the raw material goes out without having this stopping place where valued is added.
TOO: What caused the economic disconnect?
MH: Technology. The centralization of the timber industry. The economists’ term for this is commodity production.
Instead of having small entities like small timber mills or flour mills, you have really big ones. And then they become more and more automated because one of the important costs of production is labor.
If they can reduce the cost of labor and increase the amount of technology that goes into automation, it can reduce their costs. All businesses are interested in reducing their costs.
You get fewer and fewer bigger timber mills employing fewer and fewer workers. That’s great for the timber industry, for the companies, but it’s not good for the little communities that used to have small mills.
TOO: Why should people care about the urban-rural divide?
MH: We are and ought to be really concerned about the future of the environment. There is this view that if we just leave it alone, it will take care of itself, but I think that’s kind of naive.
I think the environment needs to be managed and the question is, what are we managing it for?
If we’re managing it for long-term environmental health: Number one, somebody’s got to do that work and it’s out in rural areas. So there need to be people out in rural areas who are taking care of the environment, who are managing things, who are concerned about conservation and environmental restoration.
The second piece of it is, everyone’s got to eat and the food is produced in rural areas. We need to be concerned about the quality of food and quantity of food and so on.
Urban people need to be concerned about rural people and rural places for those two basic reasons. We need to be taking care of the environment long term and we need to be feeding ourselves.
TOO: What can be done about the urban-rural divide?
MH: One of the things that they can do is figure out ways to create jobs and wealth from natural resources in different ways than they used to.
There is a lot of interest in environmental restoration, environmental conservation and that sort of thing. That requires workers and it’s activity that goes on in rural areas.
There is a huge amount of salmon restoration work going on. Well, who does that work? Most of that work is paid for by the feds and the state but the work itself is being done by local contractors hiring local workers. Something on the order of 80 percent of the money that goes into restoration goes into local rural communities, stays in local rural communities.
Ethan Seltzer, professor emeritus of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University
TOO: Why should people care about the urban-rural divide?
ES: Probably the biggest one is the things we share by living in the same watersheds.
Whether you’re in urban or rural Oregon, you depend on the watersheds for water, for enabling us to sustain the activities we’ve gotten used to and the population centers that we’ve grown.
The boundaries of urban and rural are kind of irrelevant when it comes to the way the biophysical world works. We share that world, so we’ve better know how to talk about it and get along.
The second reason to care about it is that in 1859 when Oregon became a state, the lines were put down on the map that defined the boundaries of the state and I don’t see those lines changing anytime soon.
Whether we like it or not, we share the legislature, we share the institutions we’ve created for governance, we share the way our state is recognized by the nation. That’s not going away, that’s not optional.
TOO: Given the population disparity between urban and rural, will rural communities always be at the mercy of urban policy considerations and policy directions?
ES: If you color the map of Oregon by county using the red and blue, it looks like the entire state is red but is, by and large, dominated by blue policies and politicians.
But the reality is that within those red areas there are a lot of blue voters and within the blue areas, there are a lot of red voters. If you boil it down to a simplistic map of red and blue by county, I think that hides the fact there is more common interest out there than we usually give credit to.
Politics is the art of compromise, right?
Even in this legislative session, which is considering the Clean Energy Jobs bill, for example, that’s a piece of legislation that most climate activists will say will be highly compromised before it gets enacted.
You may ask, why is that, if in fact this red-blue or urban-rural split in Oregon is so profound? I guess what I’m telling you is, I don’t think it’s that profound. I think there are mediating factors on both sides.
I think if you ask urban communities, they will tell you that urban communities are not getting everything they want, that they’re compromising. Obviously if you go to rural communities, they will tell you they’re being overrun by urban policies.
TOO: What’s the best way for natural resource dependent rural to navigate the current environment? Not everyone in rural areas is going to be able to have a niche where they’re selling to urbanites. And if you’re regulated differently than competitors, you’re going to be at a disadvantage.
ES: In the 19th Century, it was all about competing on the basis of price. In the 21st Century, there are some things for which competing on the basis of price is the way it’s going to be worked out.
But there are other opportunities that have to do with quality and I don’t think those are niche markets. I think you kind of diminish the importance of those markets by calling them that.
If your expectation in making those statements that the only thing we can do in urban Oregon to show our affiliation with rural Oregon is to allow them to mark the price down of their products and compete with places that don’t care about natural resources, don’t care about climate, don’t care about water quality, don’t care about endangered species, then you’re never going to see urban Oregon going along with rural Oregon.
But if, on the other hand, what you’re saying is: What can we do to accelerate the way in which Oregon commodities can emerge on the world stage as the best, or in forms that make them more useful to a broader set of markets? That’s something we support and we’ve already shown we are supporting.
TOO: Sometimes there’s a sense urban policy makers dictate exactly how you have to do things in a very prescriptive way without really understanding agriculture or forestry. That they have preconceived notions and they want to micromanage without really understanding the industry.
ES: I think there are two dimensions to that.
One is that indeed there are very few people in the urban area who really understand what it’s like to be a farmer or a forester and what that entails. Just as I think there are not a lot of people who identify strongly with rural Oregon who understand what it’s like to walk in the shoes of people who live in urban places.
There are some fundamental misunderstandings out there.
There’s something deeper at play here. In an urban area like this, there is no way you’re going to know everybody or that everyone is going to know you. In urban areas, in order to get along, we depend on rules. We don’t know who those people are but as long as everyone is held accountable to the same set of rules, at least we have some basis for expecting how they’ll behave.
In rural ares and smaller communities, sociologists have studied for years the fact it’s not so much about rules, it’s more about about relationships.
When you’re in a town where everybody plays multiple roles — this person is an auto mechanic and they’re also a volunteer firefighter and they’re also on the planning commission and involved in their church — it’s bound and mediated not so much by rules and laws as it is by relationships.
They’re two very different ways for relating to each other in urban and rural. That’s not going to change. But I think, on the other hand, if we can agree on a short list of things we can get our teeth into, maybe we can bridge some of those different ways of seeing the world that we’ve engaged in for a long time.
Bruce Weber, professor emeritus and director of Oregon State University’s Rural Studies Program
TOO: What are the reasons people should care about the urban-rural divide?
BW: It seems like we basically have common aspirations — urban people, rural people, Democrats, Republicans — we want strong families, we want strong communities, we want healthy kids and educated, prosperous communities.
We all want the same thing, but the context we live in gives us different views of the options. Is there a way of getting back to what unites us?
We should care because we are part of a single humanity, and maybe it’s nothing more profound than that. Our inability to see that we share these common goals and that we want to work toward the same thing means that we’re not going to get there.
TOO: What’s changed and why has it come to the fore?
BW: The highest levels of inequality in our country are in the largest cities and the most populous states, the lowest levels of inequality are in rural places. That’s because there’s a base of lower middle-class of people everywhere and then the rich people move to the cities, so there’s inequality in the cities.
Rewards are going to people with education and not to people without education, so it’s partly a level of education and the rewards that come with having marketable skills.
One thing that’s happened is the economy has become a lot more unequal and that has geographic implications for rural and urban. Rural people can see that both incomes are lower and inequality is higher, and that breeds a certain discontent.
There’s also a power dynamic where the resources are concentrated in the cities, decisions are made in the legislature that take city interests into account, because that’s where power and money is, and rural people feel disenfranchised, which I feel is not an unfair statement.
What has changed is an economic system that’s skewing toward the rich and toward the cities, and that produces tensions between urban and rural.
TOO: What can we do to strengthen rural areas economically?
BW: People are sometimes surprised that the government sector is larger in rural as a share of the economy than it is in urban.
That’s partly because of scale — you need a sheriff in every county, no matter how many people. So, we can make sure that the government services are adequately provided.
That’s of course education but it’s also health care. Health care in rural areas is an important and concerning issue. Rural people don’t have as good of access to medical clinics and hospitals and part of that is scale — you can’t have a hospital in every rural town.
One thing we can do for rural places is make sure those services — health, education — are more adequately provided. That would both provide an economic base and it would make the investment in human capital that would benefit everybody, both urban and rural.
Those public investments made in rural areas would be one thing that would make it more attractive for businesses to thrive in those places as well.
I do think that economic development is organic. In our system, it’s driven by people with good ideas and access to capital.
There is something attractive about these places. If you live in one and have either a family connection or a business connection, there’s a lot of reasons people don’t want to leave this place or stay there.
I think it will be people who desire that life who will figure that out. I don’t think the master planner can figure out how the future is in these rural places.
And some rural places are going to shrivel. Other places are going to persist and thrive in their own ways.