Urban vs. Rural

Urban: Pertaining to or characteristic of, occurring or taking place in, a city or town. (OED)

Rural: Of persons: Living in the country; having the standing, qualities, or manners of peasants or country-folk; engaged in country occupations; agricultural or pastoral. (OED)

This debate – regardless of the semantic aspects of it – always reminds me of grade 8 social studies class and an exercise we had to do about rural and urban environments.  It seems pretty simple right; a city or town with significant infrastructure and the correct population mass is urban, and people living on farms or in the small towns in farming areas where people interact with nature more than with a built infrastructure are rural.  Pretty basic, until our class was asked to decide if Canmore was urban or rural.  Most said rural but with some hesitation.  Rural is associated with agriculture and there are, and never were, farms in the eastern slopes of the Rockies.  But in the late 90s Canmore’s population was still less than Banff’s, the weekender building boom was still in its infancy, and it seemed wrong to put Canmore in the same category as Calgary or Edmonton.  How could Canmore be a urban place when it didn’t even have a movie theatre!?  (It still doesn’t have a movie theatre, the nearest one is in Banff).  Whether the teacher asked us the question to make us think hard about the terms or was just throwing pre-determined questions from Alberta Learning at us doesn’t matter now – the grey area this question pointed to has always bothered me.

As I read more and more environmental history these two terms, rural and urban, continue to haunt me.  The discipline uses them as if there is nothing that exists in between.  The urban environment is the city, and the rural is the farm, or range, or train station where the farmers bring their crops.  If pushed there is the problematic term wilderness for the places where there is no farming but is important because the weary urbanites like to visit it.  There is no term for those places that are not cities and not agricultural but have a sizeable permanent human population that uses the land in other ways.  Think of all the small mining communities that do not have the population under 6 000 and are a couple hundred kilometres from the nearest settlement with all the amenities of modern life.  Is it rural or urban?  Pick any town in the Crowsnest Pass or Elk Valley – Fernie, Blairmore, Elko, Bellview – are those urban? What about Tofino?  It is a good sized town sustained mostly by eco-tourism now.  Is it rural? Or does calling a place like Tofino rural give a mental image of tractors that doesn’t seem appropriate?  Are you now at a loss as to what these places should be called?  Join the club because they are not urban and they are not rural and they are not wilderness.  And how do you adequately discuss spaces and how people relate to the environment in those spaces when no term exists to classify or describe them?

This conundrum makes me think of  a continuing debate with another environmental historian at the UofA about the meaning and use of the terms “front country” and “back country.”  They hate both with a passion because of the elitist, and pretensions, connotations of dividing a natural space in that way.  The best examples of this comes from the mountain parks; ie. the Banff town site, anywhere paved or with significant built infrastructure for large numbers of people is front country, and as soon as you step off that trail, forego hotels for a tent (not in a campground) or ski out of bounds (or to Skoki or Assiniboine) you can claim to have been in the backcountry.  While I agree the connotations are problematic what else can you call these two distinct spaces?  And is there a middle ground of sorts between them?

What do we call the not-rural-not-urban spaces people live?  What do we call the various levels of interaction with nature?

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About Lauren Wheeler

Just a reformed history phd student working as a public historian and staying connected with the environmental history world from remote Edmonton. Requires coffee, music, laughter, and regular escapes to less Edmonton-like places.
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2 Responses to Urban vs. Rural

  1. seankheraj says:

    You’re blog is looking great, Lauren. Glad to see you got the CV tab up so quickly. It makes it easier to learn more about you.

    As far as the disciplinary space between urban and rural, I think you’re correct when you write that “the discipline uses them as if there is nothing that exists in between.” I hope Ruth Sandwell’s book, Contesting Rural Spaces, is on your reading list (not that you need more books on your list at this point). Ruth tackles precisely this question of how we define spaces in Western Canada that cannot be adequately described as rural or urban.

    • Thanks Sean.
      Sandwell’s book is definitely on my list and is a work I’ve first came across in my MA research while trying to figure out how best to tackle understanding Banff (the town) as a space of residence rather than tourism. I like what she is attempts to do by complicating and problematizing land use and settlement politic and policy on Salt Spring. Yet, the nature of the area forces her to equate rural to agricultural (or resource extraction for the limited forestry) in the process of unpacking the resistance to land use policy by residents. No part of her island micro-history allows the entrance of the most problematic environmental classification, wilderness, and because of this her rural remains defined in terms of agriculture – however complicated the negotiation of what form that agriculture takes is.
      I feel like we need a totally new and altermodern term to overcome the post-modern project of blurring binaries and give life to all that grey area. Or to at least recognize and investigate where the triangle of rural-urban-wilderness comes into play in how space is defined – so creating an even bigger grey area.

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