Technology and the Urban–Rural Divide in America

Written by Richard Florida, picture by Darya Malysheva 

The dominant narrative in America today is that urban and rural face divergent futures. The belief that technology is driving urban prosperity and rural decline shapes this view.

This perceived divide is also reflected in popular assumptions about the COVID- 19 pandemic as web searches for homes in rural communities have spiked, ostensibly driven by individuals seeking to flee the dangers of density.

This narrative fails to capture the transformation taking place across America and the pandemic threat. Advances in AI, robotics and biotechnology are sparking job and population growth in large metropolitan areas. But these same technologies are transforming rural manufacturing, agriculture, remote finance and logistics operations and giving rise to new recreational communities while some mid-sized urban areas struggle.

As the COVID-19 pandemic demands a reset of American economic policy the opportunity exists to create a new, more inclusive urban and rural agenda.

Urban vs. rural community, winners and losers
A study I completed with my colleague Karen King of changes in economic vitality between urban and rural communities between 2001 and 2016 reveals the complex state of urban and rural communities. Urban America has driven population and job growth over the last two decades. Every urban county has experienced population growth between 2001 and 2016 while the rural population declined. But the decline was not uniform. Nearly half of all rural counties grew at a rate that exceed the national average.

Similarly, while large metro areas account for over a third of the counties in the top 10% for job growth between 2001 and 2016, rural counties not adjacent to large metro areas had the second largest group of counties in the top 10%. These were counties located in states like the Dakotas, Iowa, Louisiana and Oklahoma.

Similar patterns exist in the growth of talent. Urban counties in large metro areas saw the largest increase in college grads between 2010 and 2016. But 8 of the 10 counties that saw the largest increase in college grads were rural counties located in places like Alaska, Colorado, Nebraska and Montana.

Is density a risk?
Assumptions about the impact of COVID-19 on urban and rural America are equally susceptible to broad brush generalizations. Large urban areas with dense populations and strong global connections such as New York and London are experiencing surging rates of infection and hospitalizations as are cities linked to major supply chains such as Detroit.

Analysis I undertook for CityLab found that density alone fails to capture the dynamics of the pandemic. Distinctions in the nature of jobs impacts the risks created by density. A greater proportion of workers who can easily shift to remote work and telecommuting may explain why lockdowns in places such as San Francisco are more effective at bending the curve of new infections than in cities such as New York that have more jobs dependent upon face to face interaction…

Read entire article here (pdf).