Can We Reimagine Rural Areas as Equal to Cities?

Daniel Riveong has written his fifth installment in our Emerging Fellows program. Here, he explores the continued fluctuations between rural and urban areas. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

While the megacities of the Global South continue to grow, the UN projects that over 3.1 billion people will live in rural areas of Asia and Africa in 2050. Rural areas have generally been synonymous with limited economic and educational opportunities, along with generally less infrastructure and connectivity with the broader world. While there are governments, organizations, and programs to assist rural areas, what is needed is not just assistance but also rethinking what it means to be rural.

How can we rethink rural areas as not “left behind” areas to be fixed, but as an equal to urban areas? Rural areas can play to their strengths and be rethought of as places of resilience, connection, and integration.

Rural areas are traditionally idealized as places of self-reliance and resilience. They grow their own food, dig their own wells, and build their own houses. However, it is no longer enough for a community to be self-sustaining. The idea of self-reliant rural communities must be reinvented for contemporary needs (like social justice, education, health, connectivity) and to meet modern challenges of globalization and climate change.

Countries must seek to balance the current divide between the rural areas and the urban centers that traditionally extract labor and resources from them. Towns and villages must be made again as beacons of self-reliance and resiliency in agriculture, education, health, and infrastructure. Technologies, such as in decentralized manufacturing to MOOCs, along with cultural shifts towards artisanal over mass-produced goods, provide opportunities for reimagining the meaning of self-reliant and resilient provinces.

Villages can also be places of connection as a space to reconnect urban people with traditional cultures and ecological experiences. Driven by the Chinese’s government push for rural revitalization, Chinese architects have been reimagining villages as places of education, specifically helping urban peoples connect with nature, with the food system, and ancient traditional cultures.

The Chinese architects have sought to make pastoral life as a source of pride, tied to locality and tradition. Organic farming to cultural centers has been set-up in places like the Lin’An Village Bamboo Ecofarm and the Bishan Project. These projects have varying degrees of success, but new experiments are still being put forward for rural revitalization.

Technology, such as augmented reality to autonomous vehicles, provide us with the tools to rethink how cities and rural areas can integrate. Virtual Reality could help bring the world’s universities, engineers, and doctors into classrooms, workshops, and clinics in rural areas. Provincial artisans and farmers could more easily sell to urban centers using autonomous drones. In China, companies like JD.com are using drones to help bring rural goods to urban markets directly.

Agricultural and AV technologies may radically alter the borders between rural areas and urban centers. VR-enabled telecommuting and AVs would allow people living in rural areas to better connect to urban centers. It could encourage people from urban centers to move to connected, rural communities. At the same time, the introduction of vertical farming and community gardens in urban centers are expanding elements of rural life into urban centers.

The three potential visions of rural areas – resilience, connection, and integration – would bring both positive and negative changes to villages. The last two, connection and integration, would transform rural life and culture by inviting urban culture into their communities. Yet, if they are to go beyond neglect and depopulation, villages must seek new definitions and new visions.

© Daniel Riveong 2018