By Laurent Belsie writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
Americans are pushing out to the countryside - either to more- pristine and less-crowded suburbs or to remote rural areas where they can live by a mountain, lake, or ocean.
This return to rural areas, after a hiatus in the 1980s, reconfirms a movement first seen in the 1970s. It suggests that after two centuries of urbanization, which emptied America's countryside and fueled the growth of its great metropolises, the nation has reached a rough equilibrium.
Metropolitan areas continue to grow (up a preliminary 14 percent during the 1990s, according to new census figures). But rural America is coming on strong (up a preliminary 10 percent). In 11 states as diverse as Florida, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Utah, nonmetro growth actually outpaced the rise in metropolitan population.
Here in Missouri, the trout streams and country-music shows of Branson have proved a stronger draw than the quicker pace of St. Louis or Kansas City. The counties surrounding this resort mecca represent some of the state's biggest growth areas.
This rural rebound remains patchy. Some areas, notably in the Great Plains, continue to decline. But in those areas that are growing, local governments are struggling to keep ahead of the sometimes explosive influx of people. If the rebound continues, it could signal a restructuring of work, as would-be employees live farther away from the workplace.
"Everybody is watching the baby boom [generation] very carefully," says Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at Loyola University in Chicago. "If just some of them retire, they may kind of disengage from the labor force more gradually. You don't quit, but you become a consultant."
The rural rebound stems from many things. Part of it is a numbers game. So many people live in metropolitan areas - 4 of 5 Americans - that even a small flow to rural regions can pack a dramatic wallop, says Calvin Beale, senior demographer with the US Agriculture Department's economic research service. And using new census figures to describe nonmetropolitan growth remains a tricky and preliminary undertaking, because the White House Office of Management and Budget is scheduled to redefine what "metropolitan" means in two years.
Even so, the move to less-crowded surroundings remains impressive. Cutting-edge suburbs of a decade ago are giving way to even more remote areas. Colorado's Douglas County, for example, saw its population nearly triple - the fastest growth of any county in the United States - despite its location halfway between Colorado Springs and Denver. No. 2 Forsyth County, in Georgia, grew 123 percent, even though it lies two counties away from rapidly expanding Atlanta. New York City's fastest-growing suburb - Pike County - lies two states away in eastern Pennsylvania.
Far from the madding crowd
Meanwhile, nonmetro counties accounted for half of the nation's fastest-growing areas (counties whose population increased more than 50 percent during the decade). While critics worry, with justification, about the effects of sprawl, the driving force behind it is people's desire for deconcentration, demographers say.
"They want to live in this low-density environment, live close to the schools, have some control over their lives," says William Frey, a demographer at the Milken Institute, a nonprofit economic think tank in Santa Monica, Calif.
When one suburb becomes congested, families move out to the next ring. "I don't think we've stopped trying to get away from the crowded suburbs," says John Blodgett, who manages the data archives for the Missouri Census Data Center in Jefferson City. When he himself moved out of St. Louis County nearly 20 years ago, less- crowded St. Charles was 80 percent farmland. By the time he moved out 2-1/2 years ago, 90 percent had become overrun by subdivisions. …