Fall 1989 // Volume 27 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA1

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Big-City Imperative: Agenda for Action


Janet Krofta
Assistant to the Assistant Director
Extension Home Economics
Minnesota Extension Service
University of Minnesota-St. Paul

Dan Panshin
Associate Director-Operations
Minnesota Extension Service
University of Minnesota-St. Paul

What is Extension's role in big cities today? What should it become by the year 2001? As an opening premise, we assert that Extension does belong in our big cities.

Our land-grant universities were established at public institutions to provide liberal and practical education for all people. Our Extension Services were then created as the statewide educational outreach arms of these people's universities. Even though Extension started in rural and agricultural America, and is still strongest there, a clear mandate exists in our land-grant and Extension charters to serve all people, including those living in big cities.

In the United States, there are 182 cities with populations of 100,000 or more, ranging from New York City at 7.3 million to Springfield, Illinois, at just 33 people more than 100,000. In sum, more than 61 million people live in these 182 cities, about one-quarter of the population of the United States.1

These cities have great needs Extension can respond well to. Besides the programmatic and philosophical imperative, we would be naive not to acknowledge the political imperative for Extension to work in big cities. Increasing numbers of legislators represent urban residents, and the key question they ask is: "What does this program do for my constituents?" The redistricting that will follow the 1990 census will see a further shift in the legislative balance of power toward big cities.

Alternative Extension Roles in Big Cities

What will the Cooperative Extension Service in big cities look like in the year 2001? Here are three future alternative Extension scenarios in big cities:

  1. Minimal Extension Presence, Traditional Roles. Extension can maintain its rural orientation. Small Extension staffs in the counties that include cities can serve the decreasing audiences who once knew Extension in rural settings. Staffs can base programs on rural values and models. Issues programming can give focus and visibility to the limited impact of proportionally tiny Extension staffs.

  2. Extension as a "Wholesale" Source. Extension can deal with vast needs and limited staff by working primarily through other agencies. It can train other agency personnel with programs based on land-grant university research. These personnel can then use Extension information, program materials, and curricula to meet their goals more effectively.

  3. Extension as a Problem-Solving Link. Extension can be proactive in adapting its research link and process skills to work with cities, neighborhoods, agencies, and individuals to define problems and develop options. Programs would be targeted to key issues and audiences and planned for visible impact. To be an effective link, Extension staffs would need to be highly sensitive to cultural diversity, use research from many disciplines, and be well-connected to political structures and agency staffs.

We strongly prefer this last role. It describes the kind of strategic, interdisciplinary, holistic systems perspective characteristic of information-age organizations Extension needs.2 It allows the flexibility to do programming based on the real needs of the people it serves. This role would position Extension as an active player in the contemporary and future environment; it doesn't put Extension in an expendable, secondary position. It's consistent with recommendations of the ECOP Home Economics Subcommittee in 1986.3

Issues and Opportunities

The national Futures Task Force, in its 1987 report, stated,

    The compelling issues facing people must drive the system. These issues must constitute the basis upon which all decisions regarding programs, training, delivery methods, funding, and audience selection are made.4

Extension's role in all settings is educational. Its competitive advantage is the link with land-grant and other university research. The high value that Extension places on involving people in program development and Extension's skill in working with people make it an ideal organization to work with people in big cities to solve their own problems.

The following issues are likely to face cities in the next century and provide an opportunity for Extension educational programs.

  • Urban youth are at high risk from poverty, teen pregnancy, dropping out of school, and lack of positive role models. Urban programs must develop options for youth including career choices, health choices, and positive leadership opportunities.
  • Families at risk from financial instability, poverty, and disruption, and the fragile elderly are present in high concentrations in cities. Extension programs can help them learn nurturing and coping skills. For those in or near poverty, education can stretch family resources and prevent expensive, nutrition-related health problems, especially for infants and the elderly. People will need to learn strategies for preventive health care and securing access to treatment.
  • Environmental quality is especially critical to city dwellers. Public policy education can focus on issues such as solid waste, air and water quality, and the development of parks. Natural resources in cities will need to be preserved or enhanced. Extension education can help people choose cost-effective responses to landscaping, which is a valuable amenity that requires major investment by homeowners, government, and the commercial sector.
  • Many urban communities need revitalizing, just as rural communities do. Neighborhoods that have become gathering places for the disadvantaged need self-help strategies. They must adapt to America's move from an industrial society to the service and information age. Leadership skills are needed, especially among the traditionally underrepresented.

A response to these needs and opportunities calls for Extension to adopt a big-city agenda for action. We advocate the following elements:

  • Achieve a big-city commitment from university and Extension administration.
  • Broaden the knowledge and research base from which Extension draws to better address urban issues.
  • Create targeted urban plans and programs.
  • Hire culturally diverse Extension faculty who understand urban areas and people, and who represent an expanded range of disciplines. Provide relevant staff training.
  • Pursue a visibly active Extension presence in big cities.

Extension needs to find its future niche in the urban area where the people now are with the same success that it currently enjoys in rural areas. This is the big-city imperative.


1. U.S., Bureau of the Census, Public Information Office, press release, "San Diego and Dallas Join Ranks of Cities Over 1 Million Population," October 16,1987 (CB 87-165).

2. Michael Quinn Patton, "The Extension Organization of the Future," Journal of Extension, XXV (Spring 1987), 22-24.

3. ECOP, Home Economics Subcommittee, "Some Considerations for Extension Home Economics Programming in Metropolitan Environments" (Ames: Iowa State University, December 1986), pp. 22-24.

4. Extension Committee on Organization and Policy, Extension in Transition: Bridging the Gap Between Vision and Reality (Blacksburg: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 1987), Recommendation #4, p. 6.