Show Up and Be Heard for Rural America
Posted by David Holtzman on July 25, 2013
As I was reading recently about China's effort to herd around 250 million farmers and their families from the countryside into cities, I was surprised to learn that the farmers have any choice whether to move. Historically, when the Chinese government decided it wanted to send everyone in the cities off to the country, or vice versa, the people didn't have much say in the matter.
Of course, while they may technically be able to say no, the farmers today are put under a lot of pressure to move. The government will do what it can to make their rural existence untenable, because it believes the country can better compete with the U.S. and other world powers if most of the people live in cities.
But it isn't really the Chinese situation that's inspiring this post. It's ours.
It worries me when only a handful of people show up at a public forum in Virginia to discuss the future of the county's rural lands. It worries me more that the handful of people argue that any government effort to preserve rural character smacks of Communist China.
What are these people so riled up about? Seemingly they equate a government program to encourage property owners to preserve their land for agricultural or open space uses as a form of social control. Moreover, they object to planners telling them that encouraging development near existing settlements, rather than sprawl, is preferable.
I think the first response is ludicrous. But their objection to the dominant planning perspective is worth considering, even though I feel strongly that they are wrong.
I would think that in China, citizens might want to ask whether pressuring everyone to live in urban high-rises is good for their well-being, or for their communities. They should have the same right to question the government's process as those citizens in Virginia.
As someone who has observed these patterns as a government planner, I can say that power resides in the voices of those who show up at the meetings. There is remarkably little public participation in many rural communities. It's not that people don't care, and it's certainly not that they all agree with the handful who do attend. It just takes more time and energy to conduct proper outreach to a broad swath of the public than planners have at their disposal.
The planners who organized the Virginia public forum may have to report back to the elected officials that the public is against protecting the land and keeping people on the farm. This may give the electeds confidence to allow development to eat up more of the rural areas, something they're under pressure to do in this age of fiscal austerity.
You can be sure that the Chinese leaders won't be holding public meetings to drum up support for their long march to the cities. As the American example shows, democracy is clearly far too messy to be worth their trouble.
(Photo by Eli Christman CC BY)
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David Holtzman is a former planner for Louisa County, Virginia, a newspaper reporter, and a former Shelterforce editor.