Socially distanced and intricately connected: The importance of rural places for urban renewal

Last changed: 14 January 2021
Image dividing the urban and the rural to two divisions.

An urban transition towards sustainability requires mobilizing the rural as well as the urban through a common agenda. Researcher at Uppsala University, Wiebren J. Boonstra, reflects upon the connections between rural areas and cities through primary production. The contribution to urban readings raises important questions about the value and dignity of rural work that is often overlooked in development trajectories and sustainability agendas.

In this essay, I warn against a one-sided focus on the city (Pierce et al. 2009; Nature 2010; Glaeser 2011). Proposals to decrease the ecological footprint of cities and to make them more resilient can only work if primary production – such as farming, forestry, and fishing – also becomes more diverse, sustainable and locally consumed. Urban renewal thus implies a rural transformation as well. This transition needs a common agenda that mobilises city and country alike.

The lock-downs during the first and second wave of the COVID pandemic in 2020 show us how urban societies depend on extensive trade networks that connect them to rural areas worldwide. Many essential commodities – foodstuffs especially – are produced in distant rural landscapes (Clapp 2014). They reach our kitchen shelves via intricate and long transportation routes held together by pipelines, trucks, trains, and planes, financed with capital from a small number of multinationals.

COVID not only lays bare the massive amount of credit that is used to sustain these complex trade connections (van der Ploeg 2020a), it also demonstrates that overt dependence on these networks leaves cities vulnerable and unsustainable. First, the complexity of trade networks complicates effective disease control and a secure provision of basic urban needs. Second, the global urban-rural flows of goods and services contribute to high CO2 emission and fossil fuel use, highly unsustainable in light of that other emergency: global warming.

Rightly so, the pandemic reconfirms the need for urban sustainability transitions and innovation, and gives a boost to the agenda of urban renewal. Yet, what is often left implicit in these efforts is that the advocated urban transitions are bound up with people and places beyond city limits.

The urban-rural divide

Although urban and rural are tightly interdependent in a material sense, culturally they have become more and more divided. Over the previous decades, the moral and cultural ties between many rural and urban places have unravelled. The effects can be seen in the widening urban-rural divide illustrated poignantly with the US election of 2016 and 2020 (Monnat and Brown 2017), as well as a number of elections, referendums, polls, and farmers’ protests in Europe of recent years (Mamonova et al. 2020; van der Ploeg 2020b). This divide makes it harder to find the common ground that is required for a sustainability transition.

The historical divide between town and country (Tönnies 2001 [1887]; Marx 1976 [1885]; Williams 1973) only becomes more distinct with rapid urbanization. With urbanization cities expand with more people and things, whereas rural areas tend to lose more people and things. Urbanization also comes with a qualitative change in the relation between town and country. As people and things move into cities, the social network that connects the urban with the rural is changing. Nowadays many urban citizens no longer have family, colleagues or friends working and living in rural areas. Without social connections to the countryside, urban citizens lose understanding of and affinity with rural people and their livelihoods. The social distance between urban and rural grows.

Many explain the divide as an outcome of growing urban-rural inequality, i.e. rural people experiencing a loss of wealth and resources (Thiede et al. 2020). It is true that many rural places experience the demise of jobs, communities and services that used to hold them together. Only a few decades ago rural places used to have not only more inhabitants but also a greater diversity of people. People differing in age, but also in terms of capacities and skill. But the global supply chains and capital flows of today no longer demand the numbers, qualities, and self-sufficiency that rural communities once maintained.

From distributive to contributive justice

Although distributive justice (“who gets what”) is certainly an important part of an explanation for the urban-rural divide there is more to it than only a concern for material welfare. A number of social scientists are pointing out that rural people are begrudging their inability to maintain the identities, lifestyles and communities they hold dear (Hochschild 2016; Cramer 2016; Wuthnow 2018; Carolan 2020). The pain lies not only in what the rural receives, but in what it can, and is allowed to, contribute to communities and people’s lives. Key to understand the current urban-rural divide is therefore to switch attention from distributive to contributive justice.

Contributive justice is not about what we get in terms of reward or pay, but instead about what each of us is able, allowed, expected and required to contribute to the common good in proportion to the power we (can) wield (Sayer 2009). Questions about contributive justice – e.g. is everyone pulling their weight; who is freeriding? – are routine in the way work is performed with others in small groups that share a collective fate, such as households, platoons, or work teams.

What people (can) contribute to society – the common good – is intimately related to the work that they perform (Sayer 2011; Sandel 2020). Our work – not only paid work but also work for voluntary organizations, household work, helping out neighbours or friends, etc. – thus has a great effect on the quality of our own lives and that of others (Gomberg 2007). Work not only earns us an income to make ends meet, it also affects what kind of people we can be (our personalities and character), how we view ourselves (our identity), and what recognition and respect we get from others (our social esteem). Attention to contributive injustice is indispensable for an understanding of the urban-rural divide and the rural discontent that it triggers.

I argue that the changed character of rural work in primary production lies at the basis of the injustice that rural communities nowadays experience and that draws them to populist politics. The work in primary production is less and less able to contribute to lives that rural people aspire (Thiede et al. 2018). A telling illustration of this point is that many farmers and fishers nowadays find that their children are better off without a farming or fishing livelihood (Kuehne 2013). Let’s briefly consider some of the ways in which rural work has changed.

To make rural work economically rewarding, the primary sector commonly either extensifies or intensifies production. This development trajectory demands immense investments of money and time, but without significantly generating more wellbeing for rural people. Many surface improvements that are said to come with mechanisation or financialization are self-defeating:

  • With a capital-intensive production on a bigger scale, primary producers are not earning more income. They grow production simply to stay in business (to compete with others) and to pay off the increasing costs of the inputs that the growth of their companies require.

  • Due to the increase in the scale and intensity of rural work, producers are also receiving less recognition for their efforts. Rural products, such as food or fibre, are mass consumed with consumers ignorant of the effort (and hence the value) that went into making the products they buy.

  • Rural work is often, and for good reasons, blamed for declining resilience of natural environments. So, instead of recognition rural people are condemned for their efforts (Hallgren et al. 2020)

  • Primary producers are losing control over the work process to outsiders. Due to the increase in investments needed to keep companies in business and to continue rural livelihoods, absentee owners such as banks or credit lenders gain more control over the development of farming, fisheries and forestry. With this control, they dictate how work is to be performed. Various types of capital-intensive technologies regulate the work process to a much larger extent; governments regulate primary production more strictly to redress the environmental problems that follow from the modernisation of primary production. Taken together these changes make that the autonomy of primary producers diminishes (Caves et al. 2020).

For these and other reasons, rural people are less able to work in ways that earn them the identity, esteem and wellbeing they aspire. People respond differently to mismatch between the work that is available and the aspiration and capacity that people have: some resign; others resist (Boonstra et al. 2016). Elites, which can include policymakers, bureaucrats, scientists, are often held responsible for this mismatch. They, and the sustainability agenda they propose, therefore frequently meet mistrust and suspicion.

The dignity of rural work

Work can be a source of solidarity (Durkheim 2013 [1893]), provided everyone can perform work that matches with their aspirations and capacities, and that is remunerated according to its contribution to our common good. Along these lines, I argue that the key to overcoming the urban-rural divide, to build back more sustainable cities and countrysides, lies in understanding contributive injustice.

For this purpose, we need to take a hard look at the dignity of rural work, but also the work that is performed for getting primary products from the countryside into the city. What is the real value of this work? What moral purpose does it serve? How does it contribute to our common good? What sort of rural lives and places should and can such work sustain? What opportunities for dignified work does the primary sector currently provide? To what extent does the ideology of economic growth and consumption impede dignified work? How does rural work contribute to human flourishing and the best way we can live as humans, with nature, others, and ourselves?

I believe that these and other questions about the dignity of rural work deserve a place on the urban agenda that aims to build back better cities.


Wiebren J. Boonstra

December 2020


Wiebren Boonstra is a scholar of rural sociology and sustainability science. He works at the Department of Earth Sciences, Uppsala University. This essay is written for the SLU project “Governance, justice, and resistance – On the way to a fossil-free welfare society” that is funded through FORMAS. Wiebren would like to thank Sofie Joosse, Anke Fischer, Jacob Strandell, and Andrew Gallagher for reading an earlier version of this essay and suggesting useful changes.

More about the SLU project:
Governance, Justice and Resistance: On the way to a fossil-free welfare society


Boonstra, W.J., Björkvik, E., Haider, L.J., & Masterson, V. 2016. Human responses to social-ecological traps. Sustainability Science 11: 877-889.

Carolan, M. 2020. The rural problem: Justice in the countryside. Rural Sociology 85: 22-56.

Clapp, J. 2014. Financialization, distance and global food politics. Journal of Peasant Studies 41: 797–814.

Caves, S., Phelan, L., & Cameron, J. 2020. Space to tinker: From faux resilience to productive novelty in agricultural policy. Journal of Rural Studies 78: 87-95.

Cramer, K.J. 2016. The politics of resentment: Rural consciousness in Wisconsin and the rise of Scott Walker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Durkheim, E. 2013 [1893] The division of labour in society. Second edition. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Glaeser, E. 2011. Triumph of the city. How urban spaces make us human. New York: Vintage.

Gomberg, P. 2007. How to make opportunity equal: Race and contributive justice. London: Blackwell Publishing.

Hallgren, L., Bergeå, H.L., & Nordström Källström, H. 2020. Conservation hero and climate villain binary identities of Swedish farmers. Routledge handbook of ecocultural identity.

Hochschild, A.R. 2016. Strangers in their own land: Anger and mourning on the American right. New York: New Press.

Kuehne, G. 2013. My decision to sell the family farm. Agriculture and Human Values 30: 203-213.

Mamonova, N., Franquesa, J., & Brooks, S. 2020. ‘Actually existing’right-wing populism in rural Europe: insights from eastern Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom and Ukraine. The Journal of Peasant Studies, ahead-of-print, 1-29.

Marx, K. 1976 [18885]. Capital. Volume 1. New York: Vintage.

Monnat, S.M., & Brown, D.L. 2017. More than a rural revolt: Landscapes of despair and the 2016 Presidential election. Journal of Rural Studies 55: 227-236.

Peirce. N.R., Johnson, C.W., and Peters, F.M.  2009. Century of the city. New York: The Rockefeller Foundation

Nature, 2010. Century of the city. Nature 467: 900–901.

Sandel, M. J. 2020. The tyranny of merit. What’s become of the common good. New York: Vintage.

Sayer, A. 2009. Contributive justice and meaningful work. Res Publica 15: 1-16.

Sayer, A. 2011. Habitus, work and contributive justice. Sociology 45: 7-21.

Thiede, B.C., Lichter, D.T., Slack, T. 2018. Working, but poor: The good life in rural America? Journal of Rural Studies 59: 183–193.

Thiede, B.C., Butler, J.L.W., Brown, D.L., Jensen, L. 2020. Income inequality across the rural-urban continuum in the United States, 1970-2016. Rural Sociology 0: 1–39.

Tönnies, F. 2001 [1887]. Community and civil society [Gemeinschaft und gesellschaft]. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

van der Ploeg, J.D. 2020a. From biomedical to politico-economic crisis: the food system in times of Covid-19. The Journal of Peasant Studies 47: 944-972.

van der Ploeg, J.D. 2020b Farmers’ upheaval, climate crisis and populism. The Journal of Peasant Studies 47: 589-605.

Williams, R. 1973. The city and the country. London: Chatto and Windus.

United Nations. 2014. World urbanization prospects. New York: United Nations.

Wuthnow, R. 2018. The left behind: Decline and rage in small-town America. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


Related pages: