Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

150th anniversary of the USDA/Morrill Act and the link to urbanism

US15, Virginia
US15, Virginia.

Jane Jacobs argued in the Economy of Cities that cities developed first, and that innovation capacity within cities was essential to the improvement of agricultural productivity.  While that point is arguable, there is no question that cities and rural areas are inextricably connected, if only for the fact that cities are dependent on the foodstuffs produced by farmers.

Cities and rural areas are connected in other ways. Expansion of metropolitan areas consumes rural land (sprawl).   People live in "rural areas" and commute to the city, by car or train or other means.  Farmers markets in cities build the value of place and support the redevelopment of local food systems.  Urban agriculture and sustainability initiatives look to reinterpret "rural development" for the urban context, etc.

There was a piece, "The boom on the farm," by Robert Samuelson in the Post yesterday, on the success and productivity of the U.S. agricultural sector.  He made the point that it was unreasonable to provide subsidies to certain sectors and not others, that it would be best to end subsidies.

He didn't take the occasion to discuss how the Morrill Act was passed by Congress during the Civil War.  The act was a model for the government support of industry through the creation of capacity building institutions that individuals could not develop on their own.

The Morrill Act created the system of land grant colleges to support research and experimentation and the improvement of agriculture.  It made sense to elected officials to do this, because agriculture was the country's largest industry, and the foundation of "rural" economies.  The act also created the agricultural extension system, jointly run by the newly created US Dept. of Agriculture and individual land grant colleges, organized within each state.  Over time, networking occurred across system, rural experiment stations were created to supplement the network, and other research and implementation initiatives developed.

(Some of the most important work on the diffusion of innovations was developed out of research studying this system.  See the work of Everett Rogers.)

Today's Post has a story, "USDA set to mark 150th anniversary," on the 150th anniversary of the creation of the US Department of Agriculture.

Extension agents were tasked with spreading the diffusion of innovation--improvements in agricultural practices--to increase yields and income.

While the extension system originally focused strictly on agriculture, over time the mission expanded to include focus on community and community economic development ("rural development").  One of the resources that grew out of this is the Community Development Society and its journal.

Community development, derived from the agricultural extension system, is one of the foundations of community development, revitalization, and housing development in urban communities.

Basically, the fundamentals of community different are the same, rural or urban, although of course the industrial sectors are different, the conditions vary, etc., but the same general principles obtain.

So there are a smattering (there could be many more) of "rural" resources listed in the right sidebar, from the Center for Community Economic Development at the University of Wisconsin Extension program and their fabulous Downtown and Business District Analysis Toolbox, the publication Understanding Your Trade Area: Implications for Retail Analysis from Mississippi State University extension, the Rural Grocery Store Sustainability Initiative at Kansas State, or the Community Owned Stores initiative at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  All of these resources are fully applicable to urban settings.

The "regional rural development center" network produces actionable research that is useful for many settings, not just rural areas.  It's a shame that the same model wasn't fully adapted for cities, upon the creation of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the 1960s.

While there is plenty of work being done, there isn't a good network for the diffusion and adoption of best practice across urban communities, and so much effort is wasted, at all scales (neighborhood, ward, district, sector, city, county, metropolitan region), because of duplication and repetition of unsuccessful practice in different settings.
Grain elevator, Culpeper, Virginia
Grain elevator, Culpeper, Virginia.

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