Urban and Rural: Eating between the lines

The urban-rural divide is a hot topic these days. We mostly hear about it in the context of politics, but it’s a phenomenon that impacts all of us and is of critical importance for any discussion of sustainable food and agriculture. As someone who lived the first half of my life in a commuter town in New Jersey and the most recent half of my life in suburban Atlanta, I have limited perspective on both urban and rural life. I’m the product of suburbia, that pleasant but bland swath of space that’s neither urban nor rural, where SUVs and minivans move kids from one location to another and strip malls act as the town-center. In considering my next career move and what part of the country I’ll live in, I’m not a huge fan of suburbia; both the urban and the rural life appeals to me much more. But perhaps my suburban background gives me a good perspective of the urban-rural divide and what that means for leading a sustainable life in general.

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Besides creating a lifestyle hooked on the automobile, what I think suburbia lacks for me is a connection to place. In the rural United States, there is a strong connection to the land, whether it’s to cornfields, mountain ranges, apple orchards, or sweeping plains. Perhaps that sounds overly pastoral but compared to suburban existence, it’s certainly true. The landscape is defined by its people and the people are in turn defined by their landscape. In the cities, there is a similar connection to place. Every graffitied wall seems to have meaning to someone, every street corner to someone else. The neighborhoods have individual identities while the skyscrapers unify them under a symbolic cityscape. Both urban and rural people have the chance to feel a “sense of place”. However different their backgrounds and lifestyles maybe, however opposing their values and politics, urban and rural people seem to share a strong understanding of their surrounding environment.

So, where does food fit into all of this? Having a sense of place and an understanding of environment is critical to valuing sustainable food. Food is a product of environment. We need to see that a bag of potato chips doesn’t just come magically from the shelf at Walmart, we need to know that a McDonalds hamburger patty actually comes from cattle, we need to learn that while our city might not be in a drought, the regions that produce our almond milk might be having a water crisis. One would expect that rural residents might see, feel, and understand these connections quite easily. But I think urban residents as well have the potential to extend their sense of place to where their food comes from. I recently came across a thought-provoking TED Talk by Denver architect and urban planner Brad Buchanan. Check it out:

Brad exudes a passion for having a “sense of place”, both as a proud urban Denverite and as a cattle rancher in rural Colorado. While most of Brad’s presentation isn’t about sustainable food, I think he sheds light on the necessity of bridging the gap between urban and rural places. Suburbia is an attempt to bridge that gap, by creating safe, quiet communities for people to raise their children “closer to nature” (i.e. lawns, gardens, and trees) while maintaining the convenience of a nearby urban area. Personally, I think the suburbia model is failing, both culturally and environmentally. I believe that to advance food sustainability for an increasingly-urban population, we need to focus on improving our urban spaces rather than on expanding them outwards. We should instill a ” sense of place” in the future generation by advocating for mixed-use development, giving cities a connection to their surrounding rural regions, and emphasizing the importance of the environment in food production.

Obviously suburbia won’t go away and it’s a stretch to imagine an urban existence that is truly connected to the environment. But I think more and more we’re seeing people in cities seeking that connection; there’s the “locavore” movement, the push for urban greenspace, urban community gardens and farms, etc. These aren’t the only answers to feeding cities sustainably, and cities will continue to rely heavily on the rural environment as the true backbone of our food system. This is why I believe that sustainable food is the perfect point at which to bridge the widening urban-rural divide. As a country, we can’t lose sight of our surrounding environment. Realizing that the food we eat is a product of our environment, no matter how rural or urban our own existence, might just bring us one step closer to a sustainable food future.