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If you are like most people, when you think about rural Ohio you might picture a big red barn encompassed by farm fields that are located just outside of a town with a couple of intersections, complete with a gas station on one corner and a coffee shop on another. A recent Ohio State University study found that there are more definitions of rural Ohio than once imagined.
“We talk a lot about people leaving the city to go to the countryside for retirement or maybe to just live a little further out, and we also think of people picking up from rural areas and moving into the city for jobs and other opportunities,” said Darla Munroe, a professor and chair of geography at Ohio State, who co-authored the study. “Our research found that there is a lot of movement from rural areas to other rural areas of the state, and we felt like that aspect wasn’t as talked about or recognized as it should be.”
Over the past several decades, urbanization has eaten up many Ohio farmland acres, but the study suggests that it is not simply a result of the cities moving out. Now, larger rural areas are incorporated into the city in new ways, causing a more dynamic connection between rural and urban areas and a blurred line between where the city ends and the country begins. That is why this study was able to identify many types of rural Ohio communities.
“These communities are differentiated by their land use patterns, including land cover like agricultural, forested or developed land,” Munroe said. “Add to that our cluster analysis using data from USDA, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the census and we were able to find five unique types of rural communities in Ohio based on migration patterns.”
Five types of rural communities
Urbanizing Rural Communities have created new households at the highest rate. This demographic consists mainly of young adults with high income who come from metro suburban areas. These small towns experienced an economic windfall from this migration, creating a new, larger core community, according to Munroe.
Suburban Middle-Income Communities have garnered young people from nearby metro areas. They are much different from the Urbanizing Rural group, as they spread out more over an area and do a lot of commuting between home, school, work and even shopping.
Rural Low-Income Communities saw the largest increase of low-income and older households. These communities brought in residents from both the nearby metro areas and other rural areas to find jobs and affordable housing.
Stable Rural Communities are farther away from cities and noticed minimal increases in residents generally associated with farming or rural industrial sectors.
The Stagnating Rural Communities also were located well outside of the city, often in forested and mining areas with little farming. According to Munroe, people typically move from this Appalachian region of the state to other rural areas to find opportunities.
“Those are places where we probably need to focus a little more on thinking about what kinds of investments might be needed to really sustain the communities and make sure that the quality of life, health care, education, etc. is reasonable,” Munroe said.
Land management and farmland preservation
Another concern for rural communities that was unveiled by this study was land management and farmland preservation, as the demographics of the agriculture spectrum continue to separate.
“Large farms are becoming larger and more specialized in growing corn, soybeans and wheat and there are small farms that are producing fruits and vegetables for farmers markets and direct-to-consumer sales and they are doing really well,” Munroe said. “Then there are areas that don’t easily fit into either category where a larger crop farm isn’t justifiable and those urban vegetable markets are outside of your reach. That is the type of farmland that we might want to target and see what opportunities may be possible there.”
Munroe hopes this study will have Ohioans thinking differently about the connections between the city and the countryside and what we think about as being rural.
“Most people truly care about these agricultural and forested landscapes,” she said. “We have a beautiful state and we want our natural scenic beauty to remain across rural Ohio. Understanding the diversity of people who are in all of these rural communities and understanding the complexities of Ohio’s rural landscape will help us in that endeavor.”
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