With the presidential election around the corner, I’ve been thinking about increasing divisions between our rural and urban populations.
One division involves so-called job-killing regulations that urban liberals like me associate with rural conservatives. I suspect that division comes from regulations that facilitate urban life, but have a misplaced and disproportionate effect on rural residents.
Having grown up on a Minnesota farm, I’m talking about basic regulations like building permits, codes, zoning – the things that affect the everyday actions of people living life on the land. If you wanted chickens, you got chickens. If you needed to build a shed, you built a shed. If you needed to add on to your house, you added on to your house. If you needed an electrical outlet somewhere, you added it. If you needed to fix your truck or tractor, you did that, too.
You didn’t ask permission from anyone, especially the “government,” to do what needed to be done.
I grew up in the 1960s and ’70s when these regulations weren’t quite as numerous, but things have changed quite dramatically since then. It’s so bad where I grew up that you now need a permit for a new roof (though Google says that’s common across the country).
I’m decades removed from the farm, but there are many regulations that exist today that would have seriously crimped the income-production and wealth-building strategies of farmers back then.
We saved money by working on our own cars (which I hated – try replacing your starter outside in -20F). Still, my first car was a hand-me-down body I put a junkyard engine into. It was when you could sit on the front fender with your feet resting in the engine compartment. Only an act of final desperation led to paying for repairs.
Emissions regulations and computer controls changed that picture for both cars and tractors.
“Affordable housing” described how big a lot and how much lumber you could afford to build your house. Neighbors pitched in with knowledge or labor, but regulations now keep people from building wealth with their hands because arcane structural, electrical and plumbing codes work against do-it-yourselfers.
Stormwater is another urban problem caused by impervious surfaces that rain can’t penetrate. Durham’s solution: Charge annual stormwater fees based on the amount of impervious surface a parcel holds. In practice it’s a solution that benefits the worst urban parcels and harms the best rural parcels.
Here’s why: Clear science shows that the streams draining watersheds with more than 10 percent impervious surface have major pollution problems. Imperviousness is bad, but consider two parcels both with 5,000 square feet of imperviousness. Let one be a 6,000 square foot urban lot and the other a 10 acre (435,600 square foot) lot with woods.
The urban lot’s impervious fraction exceeds 80 percent but the rural lot barely exceeds one percent. Yet Durham’s system charges both landowners the same stormwater fees, even though the rural lot should be congratulated with a stormwater medal of honor!
Take emissions regulations. I remember my first flights over Los Angeles in the early 1980s: A brown soup floated over the entire city. To solve the urban air quality problem we cleaned up the emissions of each and every car, a solution to a problem that didn’t exist in rural America.
Poor air quality also has two components, one of which are the emissions we’ve addressed through regulations. The other component comes from excessively high urban temperatures in summer, which take place because of the way sunshine interacts with roads and buildings.
This interaction adds another 10 degrees to city temperatures, and that heat transforms the remaining vehicle emissions into harmful compounds. Yet urban centers are loathe to address the temperature problem with the many well-understood solutions: green roofs, reflective coatings, vigorous tree plantings, and irrigation with stormwater runoff.
Why? We hear the refrain that solutions like those would harm our urban economic growth and cost us jobs, jobs, and more jobs. It’s the urban version of what city dwellers criticize as the conservative refrain.
Of course we need regulations, but nobody wants to suffer from the regulations introduced to solve someone else’s problems. The context matters, and we could work to bridge that division.
Will Wilson teaches biology at Duke University. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org