Urban-Rural Divide No More

Carol Coletta, the president and CEO of Chicago-based CEOs for Cities, directed the 100 or so young, urban leaders seated before her to look up at a map of the United States as she demonstrated the steady migration of Americans out of rural areas and into cities over the last 10 years. Little blue dots representing the population piled inward and on top of one another like bees to a honeyed hive. Coletta is a true city evangelist, as were most of those in attendance at last week's Urban Next Summit conference in San Francisco.

There's no question that cities are where the action and attention are largely focused these days. According to the U.S. government, 80 percent of Americans live in an urban setting. One of President Barack Obama's first orders of office was to create a White House Office of Urban Affairs, not a surprising move for a man who won the election with city dwellers by a margin of 28 points. Richard Florida's 2003 bestseller, Rise of the Creative Class, argued that technology, talent, and tolerance were the three keys to attracting the next generation of wealth producers/consumers to a city.

It's all pretty convincing -- in this tough domestic economy, with increasing competition abroad, it is the health and wealth of our cities that will determine our collective future.

But before we write the obituary for the American outback, it behooves us to look at a contemporary twist on the urbanist tale. There's a new "creative class" in town. Or, more accurately, out of town. Increasingly, young entrepreneurs, activists, and small-business owners are trying to make lives that blend the wildness of the city with the wellness of the country.

Last week, you could have easily found Jerri Chou, 27, pecking away at her Mac laptop, headphones on, eyes intermittently pulled up from her screen by the striking beauty of the Brooklyn Bridge just outside her DUMBO office window. She was planning a conference on social entrepreneurship, in between attending U.N. meetings, and blogging for the organization that she co-founded, Alldaybuffet.com, a virtual think tank of sorts for cutting-edge do-gooders.

But this woman-about-town isn't satisfied with an exclusively urban existence. Starting in 2009, she began working on a collaborative farm and retreat center called Ananda Ashram located in Harriman, New York. She and a group of about 10 other young New Yorkers spend as little as a weekend and as much as a month at a time digging trenches, weeding and tending plants, splitting shingles, learning about permaculture, and just plain unplugging and laying near the lake.

"I'm drawn to it because I find there is so much to be learned about the world and ourselves from experiencing nature," Chou explains. "I'm sensitive to patterns, timing, and systems. Much of my work has to do with systems thinking, and there's no better example of that than the systems that nature has created."

On the other side of the country, 25-year-old Cole Bush spends about two weeks a month in the Bay Area, where she designs and maintains low-irrigation gardens for private clients, and the rest of her time in the coastal hills of Santa Cruz, where she lives and works part-time on a collective homestead called Trout Gulch with 14 other people (about half of them friends under the age of 35 who met in San Francisco).

Bush, who says she's attempting to "have her cake and eat it too," sees herself as part of a new wave of young people rejecting their suburban upbringings (she grew up North County San Diego), in favor of a hybrid rural-urban life.

"I exist in two worlds," she explains. "One is embedded in a vibrant, yet peaceful setting, where I interact with the processes of nature daily; one brings another quality of life, where the density of resources allows me to travel on foot, bike, or public transit to have rich cultural and creative experiences."

Of course Chou and Bush still constitute a minority; it's not easy to compose such a flexible life and still sustain oneself economically. Most of the young people who are making it work seem to get by on very little money, depending on the kindness of friends who let them couch surf or camp out (depending on where their primary residence is), and avoiding some of the more typical big expenses of the 20-something urban lifestyle (bar tabs, trendy clothes, new gadgets). Their desire to combine the opportunities afforded by urban life with the tranquility abundant in rural life can also be seen in a variety of explosive trends that require less investment and flexibility: rooftop gardens and farmers markets, the local-food movement, and WOOF exchanges, whereby people basically do work study on organic farms, waking up in the wee hours of the day to offer their labor in exchange for a place to stay, fresh food to eat, and an opportunity to learn about farming.

Placestory blogger, 31-year-old Molly May, says, "I'm done with polarizing urban and rural. One sets off the other. Both are vibrant."

She and her husband recently moved from an apartment in Manhattan -- filled with herbs they harvested from Central Park -- to a yurt in Montana -- complete with solar power for their laptops.

Even city evangelists like Coletta recognize that the future of cities depends, in part, on their capacity to incorporate some of the best qualities of rural spaces into planning efforts. As part of CEOs for Cities' U.S. initiative, they are inviting people to imagine a new American Dream that has five ambitions, including: "We will all have access to beauty and nature every day."

The era of juxtaposed city slickers and country bumpkins is eroding, and in its place, the possibility to be both wired and well, networked and natural, is taking shape. The great Wendell Berry wrote, "You can best serve civilization by being against what usually passes for it." We have long accepted that we must choose between the excitement of the city or the beauty of the country, but as Berry urges, we are beginning to reject the deadening dichotomy altogether.

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