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Urban vs. Rural: Shared Problems, Separate Perspectives — Introduction to the Series

September 21, 2016

When we think of urbanization, the first thing that comes to mind is a sprawling city — one that’s simultaneously expanding its boundaries wider and wider while building higher and higher towards the sky. However, there is so much more to urbanization and the social issues it touches than just buildings. Sure, on a micro level urbanization is about the expansion of our cities, but on a macro level it’s about a more broad issue that affects all of us: how we’re going to survive and thrive in the future as a global society.

Urbanization, when thought about like this, becomes about how we’re going to house a growing population slated to reach almost 10 billion by the year 2100. Beyond finding space for 10 billion bodies, it’s about how we’re going to feed them as well because, if all of our land becomes enveloped by ever expanding cities, how will we create our food? Then, of course, climate change enters the picture as well. Urbanization and climate change have a complex and interdependent relationship, one that will need to be addressed as we head into the future because it all becomes irrelevant if the expansion we create destroys our planet in the process. Thus, it’s safe to argue that urbanization is perhaps the most pressing geopolitical issue of both this generation and the coming century.

As this series will aim to illustrate, when it comes to designing responses to urbanization, an integrative, holistic, and interdisciplinary approach will be required to adequately solve the issues urbanization presents on all levels for all people, not just for those in our cities. However, there’s a deeply ingrained divide that stands in the way of this progress: the dichotomy of urban versus rural.

Traditionally these two environment have been thought of as almost entirely separate from one another, yet, as the pieces that follow in this series show, they’re inherently interconnected. Urban and rural issues have to be thought of together and in equal measure because they deeply affect one another — as a profile within the series explains, “what we do over here in America agriculturally effects China, in both urban and rural ways.” Urbanization is by no means an isolated problem only affecting those in city dwellings. How our cities grow and expand has profound implications for rural societies — the places that grow the food and materials that sustain us all — and their essential way of life as well. Thus, the urban and rural divide is holding us all back from progress and our ability to adequately respond to the questions that urbanization poses.

However, this is where design comes in. While the design impact field has levied a surprisingly less-than-comprehensive response to urbanization itself, there are still some people and organizations who are leading the way on both the rural, urban, and integrated fronts. The folks at Rural Studio are designing houses specifically for those in rural communities and major US cities are looking to develop transportation systems that connect those at their fringes to those in their core in order to increase equity for all.  The potential for impact design to make a difference is significant because it’s our discipline that has a unique ability to push past divides and into the interdisciplinary and, as we saw in our previous series, to make progress across geographical boundaries.

The hope is that this series will spark a new way of looking at urban and rural challenges, that a more holistic and connected thinking will emerge, one that is focused more on similarities rather than differences. The ultimate hope is that we can start moving towards a place where we design for urbanization in a way that, rather than destroying the planet, sustains it in the process. The Urban vs. Rural series will hopefully bring to light the existing spaces in which urban and rural perspectives are already joining together to make progress towards a more sustainable and equitable future for us all.


  1. As a trained landscape architect who know works on climate change and health, and a former city dweller who just moved to a first ring suburb, I’m really interested in this series. With the expectation that city populations will increase dramatically over the coming years, a lot of activity and funding is focused on sustainable and resilient city growth. This is needed, but we cannot forget about the design of the growing suburban footprint and our rural areas. These areas, while they may not be growing as fast, require our attention and they MUST change in order to contribute to a resilient system re-design of where we live, work, and play. This doesn’t seem to be talked about much – will you write on this paradigm shift at all? I think the redesign of our suburban and rural living systems holds much potential and is a great opportunity.

  2. I am so excited for this topic/ series. This is also very appropriate timing given the UN Habitat III in Quito – the language of which is primarily about cities in the context of urbanization. It is critical to not have a separation of urban – rural when we are talking about equitable development, sustainability, and resilience.

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