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Towards a New Vision for Rural Community Development

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Jonathan London and Ted Bradshaw


This essay is based on research being conducted for a book by Jonathan London, Ted Bradshaw and Ed Blakely. Ted Bradshaw passed away before this article was written but the concepts and structure were developed in conversation with Jonathan London. In honor of these intellectual influences, this article is credited as a co-authored piece.



For those who care about rural places, whether scholars or practitioners (or, in the case of these authors, both) the inadequacy of analytical frameworks for understanding and therefore intervening in rural change is troubling. Alternately framed as an immaterial anachronism in an increasingly dominant metroscape; a victim of over-determined and extractive structures of modernity, capitalism, and globalization; a romanticized lost agrarian world, or an uncritical site of local progress, the dominant rural discourses provide little basis for satisfying intellectual or political projects.

Nearly all of the available discourses locate rural in a marginal, peripheral and/or residual category of the urban, the regional, the national, or more recently, the global. The space allowed by any of these discourses is so narrow as to make rural studies, as a field, nearly as marginal as the rural places it studies. Such limitations have stunted both the field of rural studies and the practices of rural development. This is a mutually-reinforcing downward cycle and an unnecessary one. For, the possibilities for rural community change and, likewise, its scholarly analysis are profound and compelling.


Rural places and their change dynamics are important and vital subjects of study and action. Communities of practice acting in and through rural areas are themselves reframing and reshaping rural realities through innovative community and regional development strategies. Not only do rural places represent critical components of larger economic, political, cultural and social systems, but absent a critical understanding of the rural, analysis of – and action on -- these systems at other sites and scales (urban, regional national, global) are incomplete, ineffectual and even counter-productive.



To illustrate this alternative vision for rural community development, we present a rural development principle, followed by two sets of alternative manifestations of each principle: the “traditional” pattern which is dominant in the literature and often (but not always) in the field, and the “emerging” pattern that is both descriptive of at least some actual cases and normative as a preferred development path. We assert that rural development that exhibit these patterns can serve as bases of an improved rural prospect.


Rural Development Principle

Traditional Rural Pattern

Emerging Rural Pattern



Broad, equitable, justice


Isolated, parochial

Inter-connected, extroverted

Resource Flow




Physical as value-driver

Knowledge as value-driver


Simplified/singular scale

Complexity/Nested scales



Autonomy (with interconnection)

Development Models

Imposed/singular models

Self-determined/multiple model



This article has attempted to provide a corrective to depictions of rural areas and rural development as merely vestigial, anachronistic and marginal, and to propose a vision that locates the rural as a dynamic edge of broader economic, political and social transformations. It has posited rural areas as worthy of continued engagement, not only by those with a personal or professional stake in them, but also by broader communities of social theory and practice. While similar arguments have been made previously by colleagues in rural sociology and other disciplines, this article has sought to provide a comprehensive framework that integrates analyses of rural transformations with approaches for intervention within these transformative patterns. By foregrounding agency and the possibilities of collective action in rural areas, we hope to inspire new generations of rural community developers to continue to push forward with rural innovation. At the same time, we caution against a new wave of rural boosterism and propose instead that a critical perspective on equity, in both its procedural and outcome elements, ought to serve as an organizing principle for theory and practice of rural development.


To view Towards A New Rural Pattern Language, a report published by the UC Davis Center For Regional Change Visit:


          Towards A New Rural Pattern Language

UC Davis Center For Region Change:


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Jonathan K. London is an educator, researcher, and community-builder with experience in participatory research, rural community development, and community engaged planning. Jonathan holds a BA in Environmental Studies from Brown University, a Masters in City and Regional Planning and a Ph.D. in Environmental Science Policy and Management from UC Berkeley. As Assistant Professor of Human and Community Development at UC Davis, Jonathan¹s research addresses conflicts and collaboration in natural resource and environmental issues, with a particular emphasis on marginalized rural communities and environmental justice issues in the Sierra Nevada and the Central Valley. Jonathan also directs the UC Davis Center for Regional Change (CRC), which serves as a catalyst for multi-disciplinary and action-oriented research that informs efforts to build healthy, prosperous, equitable, and sustainable regions. He also is honored to serve on the board of CIRS and is the immediate past President.


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