Dollar Generalized Anxiety and a Case for Rural Planning
The urban-rural divide has historically been one of radical cultural, economic, and lifestyle differences. But the mechanization of farming in the first half of the 20th century, the advent of mass media, and the consumerification of rural America has blurred and bridged this divide in unexpected ways. I think of how the “rural” has shifted under the feet of people like my grandmother: she grew up on a subsistence vegetable farm in Alaska, West Virginia; today, most of her food and necessities come from chains like Chick-fil-A and Dollar General.
Dollar General, the chain store that sells processed foods, clothes, laundry detergent, and other cheap necessities, feels representative of the state of our country now: both rural and urban. 17,000 stores pepper the continent, some only miles apart even on country roads, a trend that has led multiple news outlets (NPR, The Guardian, Vice, ABC News, the Wall Street Journal) to declare Dollar General’s “take over” of rural america. These claims have real authority: often the only store for miles, Dollar General now has more locations than Walmart. The proliferation of Dollar General, though, is only one symptom of the greater “take over” of rural land through consolidation by corporate interests.
The U.S. Census Bureau defines rural as what is not urban—that is, after defining individual urban areas, rural is what is left.1 With its cultural legacy stripped, “rural” is defined simply as the lack of development (or space on the map yet to be developed). Policies reflect this sentiment, either ignoring “rural” areas entirely or investing in infrastructure to develop them. As such, the cultural particularities of rural America are mostly fictions of nostalgia. This begs the question: what spatial and economic models might yield a new definition, specific to the countryside, for a more sustainable future, one beyond the current one being written by the growth-based market?
As precision robotic farming, server farms, Amazon deliveries, and Dollar Generals continue to spread, the countryside might quickly become a post-human landscape of e-monitoring and drone operations, sprinkled with Marie-Antoinette-style play-farms of the wealthy. In short, as the agricultural economy continues towards high-tech, low-labor solutions, we may well be in danger of losing traditional understandings of “rural” altogether. As such, rural land has perhaps become the single most important place to gain a foothold on curbing the radical privatization of space, and a preview into coming problems of automation and job loss— the singular battlefield for economic degrowth and ecological well-being.
Policies such as the Green New Deal draw from our agrarian history (the Farm Security Administration, CCC, and WPA all worked to improve rural infrastructure). But this focus seems lost in the contemporary socialist visions of urban luxury. Dappled with buzzwords like “green jobs,” this dream is enticing for city-dwelling leftists, but will require far more fleshing out to not feel tone deaf or fall on deaf ears of GOP-claimed rural conservatives. And if, like me, you’re skeptical of the power of policy to enact any change which might actually support and elevate workers, then the case for investing our labor into rural design is all the more potent. Over the past century, black agricultural landowners have lost over 12 million acres, most of that ending up as investments on Wall St.2 Rural places have always been contested, and often violent: slavery, corporate oppression, child labor, ecological destruction—all perpatrated in the name of capital. If policy has failed to regulate the market time and again, then communities must work at the grassroots to plan a different path.
I gently posit that, as designers, we must support a move towards thoughtful rural planning. Through collaborative planning, the Dollar General could be replaced with its predecessor, the General Store, and the private industrial farm could fall to communal ownership and cooperative profit-sharing. As a largely unexplored field, many questions arise. How does one practice rural planning? What scale might it operate at? And how can rural planning be guided at the grassroots, by self-sufficient and self-governing rural communities rather than extractive financial groups? How are we to preserve the countryside without luddism? And how can we value our farmers rightfully (historically wildly exploited and undervalued laborers)? I’m not sure where answering these questions might lead, but I know if we are to begin to try, we must first recognize rural space as more than what’s “not urban.” Rural communities are not voids waiting for development, but rich spaces worthy of study and protection.
Perhaps it’s the very idea of a “rural-urban divide” that’s our biggest enemy. The challenges of the rural poor are not so different from the communities of the inner-city: lack of access to healthy food, a collapsed economy, and years of disinvestment by the government plague the urban-rural spectrum. I can’t help but think about my grandmother again, who moved to my hometown, a small city, when she married my grandfather. He opened his own convenience store in the early ‘70s, a precursor to Dollar General in many ways. By ‘93, it had been pushed out of business by chain stores. The storefront has since sat vacant, the brick facade slowly crumbling, while new Dollar Generals continue to go up nearby. Is the fate of Derlan’s so different from that of the rural general store or the metropolis’ corner deli?
Wherever we end up practicing architecture—the city, the country, or somewhere in between—there will be real estate speculation, ugly developments, and Dollar Generals. If we hope to fight these interests, we must zoom out and unite regionally, nationally, and globally to design systems that challenge the market, or exist completely outside of it; systems that will necessarily stretch the length of the rural-urban spectrum. We’ve seen generations of architects’ confused attempts to engage the rural, from Broadacre City to the back-to-the-land movement of the 60s and 70s. Having traversed these flawed attempts, now is our chance to reclaim the land, labor, and politics of the countryside, not as an escapist utopia but as a grasp for survival.