Summer 1992 // Volume 30 // Number 2 // To The Point // 2TP1

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Overcoming Rural-Urban Polarization

While Extension indeed has existed in urban locations for many years, it has for the most part been a token and fragmented existence. Urban residents have needs Extension can address, and elected officials who represent them demand we do so as an expectation for programmatic and financial support.

Dan Panshin
Urban Extension Coordinator
Minnesota Extension Service
University of Minnesota-St. Paul

As Extension moves through the '90s, a key question continues to be: "How much attention should we give urban areas?" Extension indisputably originated in rural and agricultural America, and our emphasis has remained there. While Extension indeed has existed in urban locations for many years, it has for the most part been a token and fragmented existence without significant organizational emphasis or attention.

A philosophical argument wages. Those in favor of the rural and agricultural emphasis have been passionate and tenacious. They argue increased attention to urban areas will mean abandoning rural and agricultural America. So an adversarial situation is imminent: rural vs urban. There's talk the urban environment is so totally different from the rural that two Extension Services will result.

I submit this is the wrong argument at the wrong time. Philosophically, the argument is misguided. Extension is the statewide, educational outreach arm of the land grant university, of the people's university. It's natural, proper, and necessary that Extension have a meaningful presence in our big cities. Extension is responsible for educationally serving all people of the state.

On practical, numerical terms, the argument doesn't make sense either. If there ever was room for debate, the preliminary results of the 1990 Census have laid it to rest for all time. The United States, quite simply, has become an urban and metropolitan country. It now contains 195 cities with populations of more than 100,000 people. In Minnesota, one of our more rural states, over half the state's population now lives in the seven counties (out of 87) containing and surrounding the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Urban residents have needs Extension can address, and elected officials who represent them demand we do so as an expectation for programmatic and financial support.

If Extension is to survive (and there are days when I think we have a death wish), no choice remains: we must have a viable urban presence. Rather than the divisiveness two Extension programs would represent, we can and should pursue this urban presence with a single Extension Service. It's important and right to do so.

Two events reinforced this point for me. Just over a year ago, I attended the North Central Urban Extension Conference in Chicago. As I participated in general sessions on demograpics, neighborhoods (another word for communities), and diversity, it occurred to me these are universal topics. They'd be highly appropriate for an annual Extension conference in any state. This universal dimension was reinforced through workshop sessions on waste management, youth development, natural resources, and water quality and quantity.

Then, the weekend after the conference, a headline in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, "Outstate Areas Experience Urban Woes, Report Says," caught my eye. The article describes how rural Minnesota is experiencing many of the same problems of crime, inadequate housing, discrimination, unemployment, and hunger typically associated with Minnesota's big cities of Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth.

When I look at the issues the Minnesota Extension Service has identified as organizational priorities, I come up with the same conclusion on the interconnectedness between urban and rural. Our initial statewide issues of Project Future (community vitalization), water quality, and youth and families at risk have significant urban dimensions and opportunities. So do the newer issues we're addressing-developing leadership, improving nutrition and health, protecting the environment, and sustaining agriculture. Yes, even sustaining agriculture because healthy American agriculture depends on urban consumers who understand and support our total food and fiber system and give appropriate attention to food safety questions.

In an earlier paper, Krofta and I made the case for urban Extension.1 That case omitted that a healthy Extension Service also needs a strong rural component and a commitment to an integrated approach that fully values, in a balanced way, both urban and rural components.

Urban Extension programs across the country are linked to rural programmatically. A summary of Extension programs in eight big cities across the United States2 indicates they're based on Extension's historical strengths in agriculture, home economics, and 4-H youth development. At the same time, these programs provide a uniquely urban expression of Extension's historical strengths through such efforts as the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program and environmental horticulture.

Key characteristics of Extension have been locally based educators and an Extension presence in every county. Besides being a force for rural-urban connectedness within our own organization and university, Extension is also a powerful force for connectedness in society, for one America rather than for the adversarial situation of urban America in direct competition with rural America.

Extension can help significantly in overcoming urban-rural polarization. Extension can convey the sense we share common concerns and derive mutual benefits from working together. Rural Extension strengths like the vitality of the community base and involvement, as well as early attention to youth issues, enrich urban Extension. In turn, urban Extension's strengths like understanding and valuing diversity and implementing a fully developed yard waste management educational program enrich rural Extension. Rural becomes a resource to urban; urban becomes a resource to rural.

The issues Extension addresses today aren't unique to a single location. A commitment to both rural and urban Extension will produce a stronger, more complete, more effective Extension program overall.


1. Janet Krofta and Dan Panshin, "Big-City Imperative: Agenda for Action," Journal of Extension, XXVII (Fall 1989), 7-8.

2. Dan Panshin, "Extension Programming in Minnesota's Big Cities" (St. Paul: Minnesota Extension Service Report, University of Minnesota, October 1990), p. 26.