Earlier this week I had the opportunity to speak before a group of city and town planners at a forum hosted by the American Planning Association. Before I spoke I asked the crowd to raise their hands if they had worked in a community of less than 50,000 population. To my surprise, three-quarters of audience raised a hand.
When I then asked for people to keep their hands raised if they worked in communities under 20,000, and close to half the hands were still up.
It was another reminder that people who live and work in rural communities are highly engaged—enough so to attend a conference here in Washington D.C.—and intent on exploring solutions for small towns and rural areas.
The president of the APA’s Board, Mitch Silver of Charlotte, North Carolina, made a point of noting in his introductory remarks for our panel that urban and rural communities are dependent on each other and that too often what we hear out there is about the differences between city and farm folk. President Obama and Secretary Vilsack have been talking openly about the ties between urban and rural for some time, so it was gratifying to hear it expressed by a leader in the city planning community. For America to move forward economically, it is essential that urban and rural citizens work together in a strategic manner.
On a similar note, I was struck by Economic Development Administration’s John Fernandez who reminded the audience that American communities, be they rural or urban, need to spend less time competing with their neighbors and more time thinking about how scarce resources can be utilized strategically to form regional economic clusters that can challenge competitors abroad, be they in central China or central Germany. From my standpoint, even within rural America we are going to have to do a better job of thinking strategically, shed the competition between towns and counties, and work together to devise strategies that will attract jobs and families back to rural America. It is an effort I am enjoying working on here at USDA.
After the presentation I was approached by Larry Ward, the Executive Director of the Southwestern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, and we discussed his work developing a regional economic strategy in his area. The Commission recently received a large planning grant from HUD, and I am looking forward to ensuring that USDA field staff is involved in the process, so that future federal infrastructure investments are made based on a community-based strategic plan.
To find out more about USDA’s rural and community development efforts click here.