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Volume 4, Number 2
Fall 2006

The Poor Rural Areas
That Must Support the
"Cities of the Future"


Ronald C. Wimberley
North Carolina State University


Libby V. Morris
The University of Georgia

Sometime in the next decade, the world will pass a historic milestone.  For the first time in human history, a majority of the world's people will live in cities.  The future of humanity is fundamentally urban, and modes of social organization and settlement that have characterized human existence for millenia (sic) will gradually disappear over the course of the next century.  To a large extent, this has already happened in the developed world, but the process is already well-advanced in many corners of the developing world as well.  Even the least developed portions of the globe are now rapidly and relentlessly urbanizing (as cited from the American Sociological Association, Final Program, Cities of the Future, 96th Annual Meeting, 2000: 1).
   The American Sociological Association's 96th annual meeting theme of "Cities of the Future" implicitly assumes the primacy of cities over what is not cities.   Indeed, our technologies and advanced forms of organization do enable more and more of the global population to live in densely concentrated urban areas.  But does that mean that the "cities of the future" will contain nearly  everyone, that urbanization will be complete, or that rural social life will disappear?  For some simple reasons, probably not. 

The Changing Rural-Urban Population Balance

    Nearly a century ahead of what has been predicted by the ASA's 2000 annual program,  the U.S. urban population passed the size of the rural population by 1920.  The proportion of the U.S. population that is rural, of course, continues to decline.  Still, in the high-tech, advanced U.S. civilization of the early twenty-first century, about one of every four or five Americans lives in rural areas, depending upon how rural or nonmetropolitan is defined.  In fact, and as measured by the official rural definition used by the Bureau of the Census across recent decades and as calculated from data on rural definitions provided by Cromartie (2003), the number of rural people in the United States today is at an all-time high at 64 million, although the new U.S. rural definition yields only 59 million (U.S. Census Bureau 2003, 34). 

    Globally, the population in year 2000 was about 6.079 billion as estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau (2003, 841) and about 6.086 billion according to United Nations Population (2005) data.  By 2005, the estimates reach 6.449 billion by the U.S. Census and 6.465 billion by the United Nations.  By 2010, the respective estimates are 6.812 billion and 6.843 billion.   That the population is still booming is not news.  But with 7 billion fast approaching, that’s a lot of people, and the earth's surface is not expanding to accommodate them.  They will have to fit in somewhere, and many will concentrate in cities while others remain dispersed across rural areas and communities.

    Of these increasing human masses, the United Nations (2005) judges from the varying urban and rural definitions used by the world's nations and by medium variant projections for fertility, mortality, and migration, that there were some 3.222 billion rural people in year 2000 who represented 52.9 percent of the earth's population.  These figures are shown in Table 1.  Similarly, the Population Reference Bureau (2004) used the United Nation’s earlier data to set the world’s mid-2004 urban population at 48 percent and, by default, the rural population at 52 percent.  Overall, as seen in Table 1 and Figure 1, the proportionate drop in the rural population has been about 3 or 4 percentage points per decade since 1950.

Table 1
World, Urban and Rural Populations,
and Urban Dependency Ratio

*Calculated by R. Wimberley and L. Morris by dividing the urban population (in 1,000s) by the rural population (in 1,000s) and multiplying the result by 100. The result shows how many urban people there are per 100 rural people. 
Source:  For U.S., world, urban, and rural populations and percent rural:  United Nations Population Division, World Population Prospects:  The 2004 Revision, Population Database. Medium variant.  Also at:

Figure 1
World, Urban, and Rural Population
Change (Billions)

Bring up Large Image in New Window

    By 2010, and again provided in Table 1, the United Nations’ (2005) projection rises to 3.325 billion rural people who will comprise only 48.7 percent—less than half—of the global population.  Such proportionate data appear to be the basis for the ASA's (2000) Final Program claim that, during this decade, the majority world’s population will be urban.   In fact, the latest United Nations' analysis concludes that the world’s urban population, "  projected to exceed 50 percent by 2007, thus marking the first time in history that the world will have more urban residents than rural residents (United Nations 2004)."

    Then, in another couple of decades by 2030, the rural percentage is expected to drop by about another 10 points to 39.2 percent.  Not only is the global population that lives in rural places expected to continue to decrease proportionately, the absolute number of rural people is expected to begin declining as well as noted in Table 1.  By 2020—and, we might also add, for the first time in known history—the world’s rural population is anticipated to decline numerically while the total global population continues to rise.  In fact, the rural numbers of the global total are projected to fall back from a peak of 3.352 billion in 2015 to 3.341 billion in 2020 and continue to decline (United Nations 2005). 

    Yes, for another hundred years or so into our future, domestically and globally, the portion of rural people will probably decrease.  Perhaps of greater social importance, the absolute number of rural people is expected to stop increasing and, historically, finally begin to decrease as well.  But not to zero.  For as long as cities exist, they will need rural resources including the rural people and communities that help to provide those urban necessities.

    Again, yes, emerging technologies for producing food, fiber, minerals, clean air, and clean water can be expected to further reduce the numbers of people and communities needed in rural areas.  And like the technological and social changes that have affected rural areas in past centuries, these changes will, no doubt, continue to displace rural people many of whom will move to urban places.  At the extreme and at least in early twenty-first century science fiction, it is conceivable that our technology may someday produce robots that can be programmed and remotely controlled from urban centers to do all the work that needs to be done in order to extract the natural resources cities require from rural areas.  But that appears to be beyond our foreseeable future, and it does not mean that people would stop living in rural areas.   Why?

    Because historically and in the present scientific reality that forms our empirical basis for predicting the future, technologies also make it easier for more people to live in rural areas.  Rural North America was settled by people who had the advantages of technology for personal protection and tools with which to produce a sustainable living from the rural natural environment.  No doubt, due in large part to these technologies, settlement patterns in the new world, unlike the walled communities in the old countries of Europe and other established regions, were quite dispersed with many rural households located apart from rural villages and towns.

    Today, technologies continue to enable many people to live across the countryside.  Electricity, solar energy, telecommunications, automobiles, good roads, heating and air conditioning, emergency healthcare, deep water wells, security, recreation, and other technologies increase the convenience and decrease the risks of living in challenging environments away from urban areas and apart from other rural neighbors.

    Indeed, many people just prefer to live in less densely populated rural areas and smaller communities away from urban population concentrations (Zuiches 1981, 1982; Fuguitt and Brown 1990; Brown et al. 1997; Johnson 2003: 23; Tigges and Fuguit 2003: 168; Falk 2004).  Some of these people work in the rural areas where they prefer to live; others commute to work in urban areas or, in many instances, are retired or unemployed and are no longer gainfully employed anywhere.  Technology, therefore, can serve to both decrease and increase rural populations.  It does not simply eliminate rural living.

Who Is Necessary for Whose Future?

    Cities do not exist in nature.  Sociologists and others often seem to forget that.  Cities are a product of social behavior. 

    Neither do cities exist in self-sustained vacuums unto themselves.  Cities are dependent and interdependent with rural areas and through forms of social interaction that link people living in urban and rural areas.  While cities are a product of social behavior, they are dependent upon natural resources.  It is from rural areas that the natural resources which sustain cities are produced and extracted.  Air, water, food, fiber, wood products, and minerals all have their sources in rural areas.  Hardly any of these natural resources are generated in cities, and certainly not at levels that would enable cities to survive.  And although the sunlight that shines on the cities does not originate from the rural areas of the globe, neither is it produced within the cities.

    Therefore, because cities do not contain the natural resources needed to keep themselves going, cities must depend upon the natural—and social—resources of rural areas.  These rural resources—both natural and social—must not be taken for granted by cities, just as the communities living in rural areas must acknowledge their modern interdependence with cities.  For it is typically within cities where many, although not all, of the rural natural resources are processed or reconstructed into products consumed by rural and urban people alike.

    Interestingly, sociologist Charles Horton Cooley is best known as one of the original theorists of how people interact symbolically.  However, he also laid out a sociological theory of social interaction through physical transportation.  In his dissertation—and, no doubt, in his early career as a city planner and with the Interstate Commerce Commission—Cooley (1930, 75-88) described cities as breaks in the transportation system where goods are transferred from one type of transportation to others.  He proposed that transportation acts to determine the location of cities, and he offered what he regarded as a general statement of law that, "Population and wealth tend to collect wherever there is a break in transportation. (Cooley 1930, 76, italics in original)."

    At these "breaks," of course, is physically where transportation via roads meet rails, land meets water, ground meets air, or in general anywhere that shipping or passengers change carriers.  These transportation breaks are likewise socially and commercially when and where goods are processed, refined, or held as raw products before being delivered from their producers or processors to wholesalers and retail consumers.

    If cities are breaks in the transportation system, then rural areas must be the beginnings and ends of the transportation system (Wimberley 1991, 209).  While information and certain services can now be communicated symbolically and instantaneously across distances through electronic means, goods and many services must still be physically transported and delivered.

    Of these two dominant forms of social interaction—symbolic interaction and physical transportation—sociologists have concentrated primarily upon the former.  Likewise, sociologists have focused more upon the internal systems of cities than upon the interdependence of cities and rural areas.  Both social interaction in the form of actual physical transportation and the other connections of cities with rural areas should be given due attention if sociology is to be the study of the whole of what is to be social. 

    In addition to the distinctions between symbolic and physical interaction and between urban and rural, there is still another matter that demands our social scientific attention as we look toward the future.  This is a matter of the dependence of cities upon rural areas and the interdependence of rural and urban.

    If either the cities or the rural areas had to sustain themselves without the other, few would bet on the cities.  Surely, life would be a lot different in rural places if there were no cities to provide the processing and refinement of consumer goods and the specialized range of services to which rural and urban people alike have become accustomed.  But, there could still be rural life.  The same cannot be said for the cities.  For without the basic necessities of life that originate in rural areas—pure air, clean water, food products, natural fiber, and minerals including petroleum—life in cities would not exist for long.  Even given air, water, food, solar radiation, and the amount of rain that falls within city limits, life in cities would be short without the supplies of other rural resources.

    In brief, we may say that rural areas are necessary for the people in cities.  But while desirable, cities are neither absolutely necessary nor sufficient for people living in rural areas around the globe.  Therefore, our future global society will probably hold rural people as well as urban people.

    But as the proportion and numbers of rural people decline, there are more and more urban people who depend upon the well-being and productivity of each rural person.  Bearing in mind the urban dependence on rural natural resources, this means that the ratio of urban dependence on rural people and their communities is increasing.  As shown in the last column of Table 1, there were only 41 urban dwellers per 100 rural people in 1950.  In the next 50 years, the urban dependence ratio more than doubled to 89 by year 2000.  As noted earlier, parity of rural to urban people is expected to occur soon after the 2005 data point when there are estimated to be about 97 urban inhabitants per 100 rural.  But by 2030, the last year for which the United Nations (2005) projects urban and rural populations, the ratio of urban population dependence upon the rural is about 155 to 100.  That is nearly four times more urban people than 100 rural people’s production and services supported less than a century ago in 1950.

    Furthermore, the inverse ratio of rural dependence upon the urban population is decreasing.  This means that there are more urban people who can potentially help provide for the reciprocal social and economic needs of the fewer who live in rural areas.  But do they?  No.  Despite the growing numbers of urban people who could help reduce the urban-rural disparities in socioeconomic well being, the lack of such equality between rural and urban areas persists to the disadvantage of the rural. 

The Inequality of Rural Life

    Although rural natural and social resources are necessary for the "cities of the future," rural people and places are not doing well relative to their counterparts in the cities.  While the study of social inequalities is quite popular in contemporary sociology, one of the least recognized forms of social inequality is the spatial inequality between rural and urban.

    In our studies of poor, inequality-of-life conditions in the Black Belt of the U.S. South (Wimberley and Morris 1996; 1997; Wimberley, Morris, and Woolley 2001), we are constantly reminded that the inequalities extend beyond race and region.  Rurality also factors strongly into the equation for inequality. 

    Using the metropolitan and nonmetropolitan area data from the 2000 U.S. Census as a basis for measuring the urban and rural populations, we find, for example, that our country's rural areas contain 20 percent of the population but 23 percent of the poverty and 23 percent of adults of ages 25 and older who have not graduated from high school.  These disproportions indicate socially significant disparities between our rural and urban populations.

    Even more impressive are the overlays of maps showing the locations of the worst levels of poverty and high school graduation rates across metro-nonmetro locations.  The counties that are in the worst quartile of poverty rarely include the nation's metro areas but almost entirely fill in the nonmetropolitan gaps among the metro areas of the South and Southwest as well as across much of the Northwest quadrant of the country.  And these are the areas where the bulk of our nation's food, fiber, forest, water, and other natural resources are derived.

    Of course, this pattern of rural natural resources and rural poverty holds globally as well as in the highly developed United States.  Among the 40 nations listed by the World Bank (2000, 236) that report rural and urban populations in poverty, 36 have greater shares of rural poverty than urban poverty.  These range from reported rural poverty rates of 11 percent in China to 88 percent in Zambia.  In the same countries, urban poverty is said to range from less than 2 percent in China to 63 percent in the Central African Republic. 

   As reported by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD 2001, 15), "Some 1.2 billion people worldwide consume less than a [standardized] dollar a day...." and that, "Seventy-five per cent of the dollar-poor work and live in rural areas."  Furthermore, the report (IFAD 2001, 15) summarizes that,

The majority of the world’s poor are rural, and will remain so for several decades.  Poverty reduction programmes must therefore be refocused on rural people if they are to succeed (italics in original). 
Not only are many of the world’s population poor, they are predominately the rural poor. 

    In addition to getting a highly disproportionate share of the world’s poverty, rural areas also get the urban garbage.  In exchange for the useable natural resources that are produced in rural areas by rural people and also consumed by people living in cities, rural areas receive the waste products—the polluted air, the contaminated water, and the solid and hazardous wastes—discharged by the cities.  Indeed, tired and stressed urban dwellers, themselves, often go to rural destinations for their own recreation (Krannich and Petrzelka 2003). 

Sustainability and Policy

    In the society of the future, cities will only be one part.  If cities are to be sustainable, they must be sustained by the total society including the rural.  And cities, in turn, must help to sustain the rural areas.

    An earlier analysis of social and natural resource sustainability by Wimberley (1993, 1) suggested that, "To be sustainable is to provide for food, fiber, and other natural and social resources needed for the survival of a group—such as a national or international society, an economic sector, or residential category—and to provide in a manner that maintains the essential resources for present and future generations." 

    For policy purposes, several types of sustainability were conceptualized in that study.  First, social sustainability includes us all.  It deals with the broader issues of food and fiber as well as population.  Second, rural sustainability involves the well-being—education, employment, health, social services, and infrastructure—of the people and communities that exist in rural areas where rural goods and services are extracted or produced.  Third, the sustainability of the agricultural sector is largely a part of the broader rural sustainability. 

    We add here that urban sustainability is similarly a component of the larger social sustainability.  And, we emphasize, the sustainability of cities depends upon rural areas that typically lag behind urban areas in important socioeconomic conditions. 

    So far, urban people and their cities are getting whatever needs that can be had from rural people and places.  If cities are to continue, this process must continue.  The question is, are the rural people and places getting what they need from the cities.  Judging from the rural-urban disparities in socioeconomic quality of life, they are not.

    The various policy interests often conflict with each other, and this is certainly the case for many city and rural interests.  But if the "cities of the future" are to flourish, they cannot stand alone.  Out of necessity, cities must stand upon the resources of the rural areas that sustain them.  However, those living in the cities—including sociologists, other social scientists, environmentalists, humanists, and policymakers—must become more responsive to the socioeconomic inequality of life of rural people and communities.  Urban interests must support policies and actions that will reduce these rural inequalities.  Both cities as well as rural areas have places in the society of the future.

    The "Call for Papers" of the 96th annual meeting of the ASA (2000, 3) asked, "And what does the urban future imply for the countryside...?"  Hopefully, it implies more than the benign dependence of cities upon rural areas.  There has to be more in it for the poor rural places that must necessarily support the "cities of the future."  Perhaps the question should be, what does the rural future, domestically and globally, imply for the cities of the future?


American Sociological Association.  2000.  Final Program: Cities of the Future, 96th Annual Meeting.  Washington, DC:  American Sociological Association.

Brown, David L., Glenn V. Fuguitt, Tim B. Heaton, and Saba Waseem.  1997.  "Continuities in Size of Place Preferences in the United States, 1972-1992."  Rural Sociology.  62:408-428.

Cooley, Charles Horton.  1930.  Sociological Theory and Social Research.  New York:  Henry Holt and Company.

Cromartie, John.  2003.  Measuring Rurality:  New Definitions in 2003.  Washington, DC:  U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service.  Accessed 19 January 2005, 

Falk, William W.  2004.  Rooted in Place.  New Brunswick, NJ:  Rutgers University Press.

Fuguitt, Glenn V., and David L. Brown.  1990.  "Residential Preferences and Population Redistribution: 1972-1988." Demography 27:589-600.

IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development).  2001.  Rural Poverty Report 2001: The Challenge of Ending Rural Poverty.  New York:  Oxford.

Johnson, Kenneth M.  2003.  "Unpredictable Directions of Rural Population Growth and Migration." Pp. 19-31 in Challenges for Rural America in the Twenty-First Century. David L. Brown and Louis E. Swanson, Eds.  University Park, PA:  The Pennsylvania State University Press. 

Krannich, Richard S., and Peggy Petrzelka.  2003.  "Tourism and Natural Amenity Development: Real Opportunities?"  Pp. 190-199 in Challenges for Rural America in the Twenty-First Century.  David L. Brown and Louis E. Swanson, Eds.  University Park, PA:  The Pennsylvania State University Press. 

Population Reference Bureau.  2004.  2004 world Population Data Sheet.  Washington, DC:  Population Reference Bureau.   Accessed 10 January 2005,

Tigges, Leann M., and Glenn V. Fuguitt.  "Commuting:  A Good Job Nearby?"  Pp. 166-177 in Challenges for Rural America in the Twenty-First Century.  David L. Brown and Louis E. Swanson, Eds. University Park, PA:  The Pennsylvania State University Press. 

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U.S. Census Bureau.  2004.  Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2003.  123rd ed.  Washington, D.C.:  U.S. Department of Commerce. 

Wimberley, Ronald C.  1991.  "Rural Transportation."  Pp. 209-221 in Rural Policies for the 1990s, ed. Cornelia B. Flora and James A. Christenson, Eds.  Boulder, CO:  Westview Press. 

Wimberley, Ronald C.  1993. "Policy Perspectives on Social, Agricultural, and Rural Sustainability."  Rural Sociology 58:1-29.

Wimberley, Ronald C., and Libby V. Morris.  1996. The Reference Book on Regional Well-Being: U.S. Regions, the Black Belt, Appalachia.  Mississippi State, MS:  Southern Rural Development Center.

Wimberley, Ronald C., and Libby V. Morris.  1997. The Southern Black Belt:  A National Perspective.  Lexington, KY:  TVA Rural Studies.

Wimberley, Ronald C., Libby V. Morris, and Donald P. Woolley.  2001.  The Black Belt Databook.
Lexington, KY:  TVA Rural Studies. 

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Zuiches, James J.  1981.  "Residential Preferences in the United States."  Pp. 72-115 in Nonmetropolitan America in Transition, Amos H. Hawley and Sara Mills Mazie, Eds. Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press. 

Zuiches, James  J.  1982.  "Residential Preferences."  Pp. 247-255 in Rural Society in the U.S.: Issues for the 1980s.  Don A. Dillman and Daryl J. Hobbs, Eds.   Boulder, CO:  Westview. 

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