mixed greens

‘Rural character’

Posted 6/9/21

Over the past year, there has been a significant relocation from urban areas to the Upper Delaware region in response to COVID-19. What started as a run on short-term rentals as pent-up city dwellers …

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mixed greens

‘Rural character’


Over the past year, there has been a significant relocation from urban areas to the Upper Delaware region in response to COVID-19. What started as a run on short-term rentals as pent-up city dwellers sought a temporary escape from the pandemic has morphed into a super-heated real estate market for upstate properties. Realtors report bidding wars and homes purchased sight-unseen and without inspections. While sellers may be celebrating their fortunate timing, the downside is that long-time residents and first-time homebuyers are priced out of the market. Of course, this is nothing new. City dwellers have fled to the countryside to escape disaster or illness since ancient times. Then, as now, “rural character” represented health in the form of fresh air, wholesome food and open spaces.

No one knows whether the current trend will have a long-term, transformational effect. But in the context of climate change, it certainly gives us some things to think about. Over the coming decades, climate change will present us with a much more intense experience of internal migration, and not just for the affluent. We generally associate the notion of climate refugees with coastal flooding, which is projected to be intense on the east coast. Changing patterns of intense heat across the south and persistent drought in the southwest may trigger the reduction or loss of food production in the worst-affected areas. By the end of this century, regions with temperate weather, sufficient water resources, productive farmland and room for growth are going to feel serious climate migration pressure.

What does “rural character” mean in the context of climate change? The concept is celebrated and defended in numerous planning documents, zoning codes and letters to the editor, but often only vaguely defined. In farming counties, the emphasis may be on a predominantly agricultural local economy. Other definitions reference the visual landscape, the predominance of vegetation and open spaces, mountains, lakes, forests, pastoral viewsheds, wildlife habitats, small towns and opportunities for outdoor recreation. Zoning intended to preserve rural character usually prescribes large lot sizes and low-density development. Unfortunately, “rural character” can also be a coded term signaling resistance not only to urbanization but to the smart growth principles that could help us preserve our wild areas.

What if we chose to define rural character in terms of a deeper understanding of our relationship with nature­—focusing not just on how things look but on how our environment works—and the role we play in our own habitat? What if we based our development decisions on the notion of working with nature while restoring and enhancing the natural systems that sustain us?

At the moment, the word that seems to best describe that approach is “regenerative.” It’s a concept that moves beyond sustainability and the directive to “do no harm” by seeking to actively restore, repair, revitalize and renew. You’ll find regenerative design principles for farming, architecture, planning, education, communities, economies, systems of justice and just about any human endeavor. Buildings can be designed to be affordable, to generate their own renewable energy and to use materials and systems that sequester carbon while supporting the health of occupants and the surrounding landscape and wildlife. Farmers can use regenerative agricultural practices that help reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity, which reduces carbon in the atmosphere and provides other benefits like more nutritious food and reduced water use.

Some aspects of regenerative design can be incorporated into our zoning and building codes and comprehensive plans. Others have to be conveyed through education, the arts, our civic organizations and the examples we set personally and as resilient communities. Like many transformational ideas, regenerative design can guide our concrete actions—what we build and create—and inform our human interactions, our whole approach to life and the kind of world we want to leave to the generations that follow us. It tests our character by asking us to plan for events beyond the span of our own lives and to focus on cooperation rather than competition or conquest as the source of genuine wealth.

With these ideas and practices in the foreground, we could mitigate many of the causes of climate change, create healthier communities and cultivate more beneficial, inclusive economies. We could prepare for the future while preserving what we really cherish about rural life—not the romantic, idealized notion of the poets, but the opportunity to explore a deeper, more dynamic connection with the natural world.

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