There’s a debate amongst those of us suburban dwellers who have rural fantasies. We dream of chickens, of eggs, or sheep and spinning our own wool and knitting it into fantastic sweaters. We dream of mornings on the farm, pulling out pristine, dew-covered carrots from the ground and turning the earth. Surely, the reality is different from this. Just as the suburbs are not Leave it to Beaver and urban life is not all Sex and the City, I imagine that rural life is not the pastoral fantasy painted above. Yet it has a definite attraction for we urban and suburban gardeners, we displaced back-to-the-landers.
What’s the controversy, then? Well, there is a debate about rural versus urban and suburban living. Simply put, are humans better off joining together in urban areas, where they can build a complex infrastructure to support themselves? Sewage treatment, transit, and other goodies come with scale, and large numbers of people live in urban areas, not rural ones.
Or is it better to fly solo, or with the help of a few neighbors? Rural living can mean fewer building codes, which can lead to things like cob and straw bale building, passive and active solar design, wind power, and composting toilets. Great stuff, but let’s face it, rural living isn’t there yet. Although many possess a modicum of self-sufficiency, many others still depend on the power grid and less-than-adequate sewage treatment and need to drive long distances to get to stores.
There are some people who love the city and would stay there no matter what. They are deeply fond of their urban gardens and of the challenge of growing food on rooftops and balconies. They thrive on the diversity of thrift stores in the city and the growing connections with rural areas through farmers’ markets. They also love the capacity that city-dwellers have to share: for every person in a city of a million who is interested in learning how to spin or how to make cheese, there are many, many others. The ability to learn from others and to create joint educational opportunities is amazing, due to the scale of the city.
Then there’s the down side of urban life. Urban people don’t have to be cut off from nature, but it can be more challenging to find access to land to grow food in the city as it is presently designed. It’s often harder to get to walking trails surrounded by forest, too. While it’s not impossible to be a city kid who loves nature, it’s often more difficult to connect, especially when it’s so easy to move from home to car to office or school, and then back home again.
The city is a big animal, and it’s hard to shift the habits and thinking of urban dwellers. Yet this is exactly where we need to change, because it’s where the people are and it’s where people are making the greatest impact. Better transportation systems, more reuse and less consumption, and more food self-sufficiency are all critical issues for the urban environment and for ecosystems as a whole.
If those who are environmentally-inclined move to rural areas to pursue their straw bale dreams, does this mean that the city loses its advocates for change? Perhaps, to a degree. But maybe the two feed into each other. These former city-dwellers can reconnect the city to its rural neighbors, providing opportunities for current city-dwellers to develop new skills, eat fresh and local food, and learn about building practices that may not be allowed within city limits. Can urban and rural areas act as complementary inspiration to each other, driving each to more environmentally-friendly and trans-formative practices? I hope that it is so.