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Why Study the Rural West?

Photo by TravelBakerCounty via Flickr


By Surabhi Balachander


The Bill Lane Center for the American West’s Rural West Initiative, first launched in 2009,  is an interdisciplinary project that brings together scholars and practitioners from across the region, creating a network of individuals and organizations who examine rural western life through scholarship, public policy, and journalism. 

The Country Life Commission, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Rural West Initiative roots itself in over a century’s worth of history. In conceptualizing the project, the Bill Lane Center’s founding director, David M. Kennedy, thought back to the 1909 "Report of the Country Life Commission". President Theodore Roosevelt, sensing that rural American ways of life might be threatened, tasked this commission with surveying the country and making recommendations to mitigate the difficulties facing rural America. Many of the issues this report identified, such as deficiencies in health care, communication infrastructure, and educational opportunities, continue to impact the rural West today. As the urbanization of the West accelerates — the region first became majority-urban as of the 1920 census, and today, many of the country’s fastest-growing cities are in the West — dedication to sustaining the well-being of rural Western communities is even more important than it was in Roosevelt’s day. 

Taking into account the changing demographics of the rural West, the Rural West Initiative highlights the important role of rural communities in the region. Often overlooked in broader regional discussions, rural communities offer an important glimpse into the economics, environment, and health of the West. The Initiative’s goals are to:

  • identify and nurture a satellite network of universities, governmental agencies, nonprofits and community organizations interested in rural issues; and to develop best practices that can be shared across the Rural West;
  • engage key actors at Stanford and other Western universities to collaboratively problem-solve through scholarship and research; 
  • focus Stanford’s academic and clinical resources on policies and research that improve the quality of life for rural communities in the American West. 

Defining the rural West

What do we mean when we refer to “the rural West?” Both “rural” and “West” are slippery terms, each with many definitions from different sources. The Center operates on a clear, but broad definition of the West as the region extending from the San Francisco Bay to the fabled 100th Meridian, from western Canada to all of Mexico, and outward to the Pacific world. How might we define rurality? 

Policy-oriented definitions tend to appear most often in discussions of rurality. These definitions are typically assembled by government or nonprofit entities who intend them as a basis for policies, programs, and the distribution of funding to benefit rural areas. They are necessarily quite rigid and rely heavily upon statistics, usually data sets related to population and population density. The U.S. Census Bureau’s definition of rural as anything outside their definition of the urban — incorporated cities and towns with at least 2,500 residents — is perhaps the most commonly cited. The US Department of Agriculture has at least eleven different definitions, each developed to serve the parameters of a particular program. Other policy-oriented definitions delineate a continuum between urban and rural. For example, the Wisconsin Department of Public Health sorts municipalities into six categories ranging from most to least rural, defined by distance from a “population center” (city with a population over 50,000). These definitions, while indispensable in shaping policy, can lack flexibility when applied in other contexts. Because they are based on population statistics, they often define the rural as anything excluded from the category of urban, in a sense marginalizing rurality. Policy-oriented definitions serve as useful starting points, but in interdisciplinary or other realms, may need to be modified or supplemented. 

Rurality can also be defined by its relationship to certain types of land use. Agricultural uses, such as farming and, especially in the West, ranching, are strongly associated with rural areas. The prominence of public lands — again, especially in the West — also factors into land-use-based definitions of rurality. Lands managed by agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service serve various purposes in recreation, conservation, grazing, and more, forming an important piece of the rural Western landscape. The National Parks Service’s bulletin "Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Rural Historic Landscapes" provides examples of land-use-based definitions of rurality, which range from patterns of engagement with the surrounding natural environment to the distances and networks involved in rural spatial organization. 

The above bulletin also lists “cultural traditions” as one of the factors that affects how land is used and occupied. The most flexible definitions of rurality have to do with its cultural or imagined aspects. What does it mean to consider rurality through a humanistic rather than spatial or statistical lens? Cultural definitions of rurality can come from qualitative observations of life in rural areas or analysis of art, literature, or other writing. A combination of these methods allows us to consider both the lived experiences of rural Westerners and imagined ideals of the rural West (the latter recalls Michael Bell’s “rural of associations”). We might ask, for example, how communities conceptualize their relationship to the rural West’s vast public lands. By taking into account cultural aspects of rurality, we can both consider the effects of overarching perceptions of the rural West that rise above and color more rigidly defined ideas of rurality, as well as excavate more diverse narratives of the rural West that are often obscured by the same definitions— for example, the experiences of indigenous rural Westerners and migrant laborers. 

Different definitions of rurality serve different purposes. As an interdisciplinary project, we do not prioritize one definition over another, but advocate for using several definitions, often in combination. The Rural West Initiative brings together scholars and practitioners from different disciplines, organizations, and contexts, and therefore embraces multiple definitions of the Rural West. 

Common issues of the rural West

Revisiting the 1909 Report of the Country Life Commission reveals that many of the same issues that were present in the rural American West over 100 years ago still haven’t been resolved today. Although times and technology have changed, concerns over health access, transportation, education, communications, environment, economies, and representation remain as common threads that weave rural Western communities together. 

Building partnerships across the West

Although these shared values and concerns define rural communities of the American West, finding collaborative solutions remains the lasting challenge. But just as there is no single answer as to how to improve the quality of life in the rural American West, there is no single actor or agency or organization that can do the job on its own. As such, a primary goal of the Rural West Initiative is to identify and nurture a satellite network of universities, governmental agencies, nonprofits and community organizations interested in rural issues and to develop best practices that can be shared across the American West.  

Specifically with our Rural West Conference, the Bill Lane Center has partnered with numerous universities and organizations to jointly host our annual gathering. Most recently, we’ve collaborated with the following institutions: Political Science at the University of Montana in Missoula on the topic of public opinion in rural communities, the School of Advanced Research in Santa Fe on rural health, the Ruckelshaus Center at the University of Washington on collaborative governance, and the University of Utah on amenity tourism. The Bill Lane Center has also collaborated with the School of Medicine at Stanford University to explore possibilities of telemedicine in rural communities. 

Bridging the Distance: Common Issues of the Rural West

The Rural West Initiative has also published a book, "Bridging the Difference: Common Issues of the Rural West" (University of Utah Press, 2015). Edited by David B. Danbom and with a foreword by the Bill Lane Center’s Director Emeritus, David Kennedy, this volume of essays explores themes of community, economy, and land use, and builds on work that was presented at the first Rural West Conference, held in Ogden, Utah in 2012. 

Moving forward

The Bill Lane Center remains committed to ongoing research and dialogues on issues facing rural communities in the American West. We acknowledge the necessity of this important work and continue to help provide solutions to the most pressing issues in the region.