Magazine article Public Management

Rural Sustainablity: Factors and Resources for Communities to Consider

Magazine article Public Management

Rural Sustainablity: Factors and Resources for Communities to Consider

Article excerpt


Rural communities are varied places with different assets and challenges, and these can help inform a community's approach to sustainability policies and programs.

* There are many resources on rural sustainability, which focus on a range of subjects, from general sustainability, to land-use and zoning codes, to transportation.

This community pride sign hangs in front of the courthouse in Grundy County, Missouri.

Each year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS) publishes a short document called "Rural America at a Glance." Last published in December 2012, this brief report provides an overview of social, economic, and population trends in rural America. ERS examines the 2,053 non-metro counties in the United States, which are home to 51 million people. So what does this most recent snapshot tell us about our rural communities?

* Population growth is slowing. In the five-year period ending in 2011 (the latest year for which data is available), population growth in non-metro areas slowed and the population grew at a rate far slower than in metro areas. However, although half of non-metro counties lost population from 2010 to 2011, 350 gained population at a rate higher than the national growth rate.

* Unemployment rates are lower, but employment growth is occuring more slowly. Metro and non-metro counties began the recession with identical unemployment rates (4.8 percent). In the third quarter of 2012, non-metro counties had an unemployment rate of 7.7 percent, while in metro counties it was 8.1 percent.

In the first half of 2012, employment grew by 1.1 percent in metro counties and by 0.1 percent in non-metro counties. In eight states, non-metro counties saw net job losses.

* Poverty rates are higher. Rural poverty rates (17 percent) have been and remain higher than metro poverty rates (14.6 percent), although during the recession (2006-2011), rural poverty rates increased at a lower rate (1.8 percent) than metro poverty rates (2.8 percent).

What does this statistical picture actually tell us? The data show that rural communities are varied places facing a range of challenges. As in metro communities, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to sustainability. Sustainable communities give weight to economic, environmental, and social equity concerns in the policy and programmatic decision-making processes.

Communities approach sustainability for a range of reasons. Some are interested in going "green," others in the long-term benefits, and some see cost savings from sustainability initiatives.

So, then, what is a sustainable community, and what does it mean in a rural context? The Partnership for Sustainable Communities, a partnership between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), outlines six livability principles for sustainable communities--rural, suburban, or urban:

1. Provide more transportation choices.

2. Promote equitable, affordable housing.

3. Enhance economic competitiveness.

4. Support exiting communities.

5. Coordinate and leverage federal policies and investment.

6. Value communities and neighborhoods.

These six principles not only guide the partnership's work, they can also provide a framework for policies and programs that address all three pieces of sustainability: economy, environment, and social equity.

Because there are many approaches to sustainability in small towns and rural communities and sustainability can encompass a wide range of programs and policies, it is important for communities to assess current community conditions, including assets and challenges.

It is also important to engage community members in defining what sustainability means for your community--when deciding on an approach or combination of approaches--whether that be working to revitalize a main street, creating transportation options for senior residents, preserving farmland from development, managing new growth and infrastructure demands, or stemming population loss. …

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