The landscape of the Eastern Shore is changing, not just from massive investments in industrial agriculture, but also in more subtle ways. A term we used a few years ago “New Urbanist” is quietly becoming entrenched in the Shore landscape. There are communities all over the country dedicated to reincarnating the feel of a traditional neighborhood with mixed-used development, transit-served town centers and pedestrian-oriented infrastructure. The problem is that, to be economically viable, New Urbanist developments typically require an unhealthy dose of urbanism. This poses a problem for rural towns where farmland still prevails over parking lots, and greenspace is not a luxury but a necessity. These rural lands, like ours are most at risk for the type of suburban sprawl that New Urbanism was meant to combat, but they don’t have the density required for a large, mixed-use development.
Another term that has been used to shift the narrative and which may be a viable alternative for these rural communities is New Ruralism. The basic idea behind the movement is to combine sustainable agricultural with the principles of smart growth, forging an integral connection with the land. It’s about incorporating farmland into urban planning, preserving rural life, and concentrating growth in designated areas (we’ve all heard this too many times, and have read it in most Comp Plans).
The controversial aspect is the nascent urbanization that surrounds New Ruralism. As urbanites flee the city, and settle in rural areas like the Eastern Shore, the question is how much of that aesthetic do they bring with them? New Ruralism states, “You should be able to look out the north window of your house and see a vibrant town center, while out the south window are crops that don’t require chemicals and extensive watering to survive. Homes are within walking-distance of retail shops and offices, but the paths connecting the two cut through natural landscapes and fields rat her than manicured parks or neighborhoods.”
The issue with terms like “New Ruralism” is that most, especially in towns like Cape Charles, have used it without embracing its fundamental meaning; the movement is supposed to be about rebuilding a relationship with the earth. These communities instead cash in on the current “green” trend by emphasizing an eco-friendliness that includes luxury homes on secluded lots in gated communities that are connected with roads meant to be driven, not walked.
There has been only a marginal, boutique attempt to create a direct link between people and their food sources, whether through farmers markets, organic community gardens or personal vegetable plots—in the end modern amenities take precedent over sustainable living. The land becomes an accessory, rather than a valued asset to be protected.
What we tend to see relative to rural development are attempts to leverage, and propagate the buzzwords “smart growth” and “sustainable agriculture.” The former involves organizing towns around compact neighborhoods with a lively array of residential, retail, and leisure-time choices. The latter refers to cultivating food in a way that, without sacrificing profitability, promotes environmental health and socio- economic equity.
As more and more urbanites move to the shore, bringing their urban lifestyles with them and thus transforming the rural landscape and culture by imposing their dominant urban/suburban values, can a more “Radical Ruralism” offer an alternative that retains an authentic ruralism as well as maintaining a historical connection with rural sensibilities? Can it use this sensibility as a roadmap to the future?
-How can the concept of New Ruralism be most useful for advancing the common goals of sustainable agriculture/local food systems movement and the new urbanism/smart growth movement?
-Does New Ruralism provide a meaningful framework for analyzing past models and present initiatives for harmonizing city and countryside?
-Can New Ruralism be applied as a construct in actual planning projects and be advanced into governmental regulations?
-Can a New Ruralist vision, illuminated by key models, help galvanize the public support and private investment necessary to create urban edge agricultural preserves?
The push for economic development, tourism and other modes development is changing the landscape of the Eastern Shore. While oyster and artisan trails may provide bumper sticker recognition, the worry is that these endeavors are organically disconnected from rural and natural surroundings that further recede and decline with increasing development and urbanization.