Last week I was pleased to speak to the Rural Philanthropy Conference. They are a set of private and community foundations that identify problems and issues facing rural America and seek to improve the areas through foundation investments. They want to do good works and see the lives of rural peoples improve.
There was discussion about what “rural” really means. It is fair to say that rurality as a concept has for years been derived from first identifying various types of urban areas. In that sense, rural areas are residual to urban areas; everything that’s not urban is rural.
For example, looking at the area around Peoria, Illinois, illustrates the problem (see graphic). If we use the city limits of Peoria as the urban unit, then we deduce more land as rural adjacent to it. If we identify land use patterns, then we bring into a Peoria urban area more space, mainly suburban ring areas. If we use commuting patterns and other data to describe a cohesive economic center, then the rural fringe shrinks even more.
So, “urbanicity” (and thus “rurality”) is currently defined by various combinations of civil jurisdictions, population density, land use and economic notions.