While there has been a slight population uptick in recent years, rural America is dwindling. About 46.1 million people, or roughly 14 percent of U.S. residents, called rural and non-metro areas home as of July 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Further, 462,000 more people have moved out of rural areas since 2010 than have moved in.
This downward population trend has small-town communities and rural cities scrambling for ways to attract new residents and reduce migration numbers. And sustainability is at the forefront of revitalization efforts in a number of those communities. Adopting sustainable practices is a greater challenge in rural America than it is in big cities, as rural communities have less money to spend on large-scale sustainability efforts. These areas also generally have a smaller population of environmental advocates.
But progress can be made, and some communities are finding support at the federal level. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency’s smart growth strategies focus on rural and non-metropolitan areas and have three primary aims:
- Supporting the rural landscape by conserving natural lands
- Creating enduring neighborhoods where people want to live
- Helping existing businesses and public spaces thrive and become more sustainable
Smart growth initiatives and similar efforts have proven successful in many communities. But where did such movements spring from? Where are they going in the future?
The Past and Future of Sustainability
The idea of sustainability has roots in England’s Industrial Revolution, but the term became widely used as early as 1970. That year, the world celebrated its first Earth Day, in which people gathered together in support of environmental protection. Today, more than 193 countries hold Earth Day events on April 22. Also in 1970, the U.S. government implemented the Clean Air Act, which authorized the development of regulations that limit emissions from industrial and mobile sources at both the state and federal level. The EPA was created as a result of the Clean Air Act of 1970.
Sustainability is even more relevant today, as humans better understand the impact we have on the environment and the need to conserve natural resources for future generations. Farming communities in particular are keenly aware of the need for sustainable practices, both to protect the environment and support the local economy.
For example, in Greensburg, Kansas, farmers are experimenting with techniques to conserve and protect water supplies and use fertilizer more efficiently. Greensburg has embraced wide-scale sustainability following a devastating 2007 tornado that left 13 dead and 95 percent of the town’s buildings destroyed.
After the tornado, about half of the town’s population fled the area, but those who stayed chose to work together to turn Greensburg into a model of sustainability. The town was connected to a wind farm in 2009, from which it draws most of its energy. Public buildings were rebuilt in accordance with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certifications. Greensburg was the first American city to use 100% LED for its street lighting needs.
Building Sustainable Communities
In the instance above, a farming community banded together to turn tragedy into eco-friendly opportunity, but their story is unique among rural cities. In some cases, community concerns aren’t enough to change existing policies or spur the adoption of sustainable practices. In the U.K. in 2014, 99 percent of public respondents as well as the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) opposed fracking on private rural and farming land, citing the possible negative impact on both the environment and land value. The government, however, allowed fracking to continue, despite opposition.
In small towns and rural communities, implementing sustainable practices takes group effort. Sustainability must also come at the local business level, as these businesses are the lifeblood of rural cities. Consumers and employment seekers alike are increasingly attracted to companies that demonstrate corporate social responsibility (CSR), from encouraging volunteerism to adopting environmentally friendly practices.
Giving back to communities is an important aspect of CSR, and in rural areas, there is plenty of opportunity to give back. A food-based business can contribute to food pantries or host free community dinners, for example. By doing so, unsellable food products are kept out of landfills, and the community as a whole becomes stronger. Small-scale grocery stores can also invest in more locally produced, sustainable products — which is an urgent need in modern times.
Small Steps to Help the Environment
Local businesses can also encourage town-wide sustainability efforts by leading by example. Implementing a recycling program at a place of business can help encourage employees to do the same at home. Investing in alternative energy can reduce operating costs and the amount of harmful emissions in the air, and it’s a smart way to introduce employees and the community at large to green technology they may not have been aware of.
Conserving paper is another practice that’s easy to implement in rural cities and makes a large impact in regards to sustainability. A major disadvantage of relying on paper is the negative effect it can have on the environment. Nearly one-third of all the waste in landfills consists of paper products, and between 12 to 17 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions result from the forest cover lost due to the consumption of paper. By utilizing digital technologies in place of paper correspondence, rural-based businesses of all sizes can significantly improve their carbon footprint.
Sustainability comes in many forms. And while rural cities have more work ahead of them than major metropolitan areas when it comes to cultivating wide-scale sustainable efforts, it can be done. Rural communities can start small, and local businesses can lead by example, in order to attract more residents committed to sustainable living and boost local economies.