The Journal of Extension -

October 2017 // Volume 55 // Number 5 // Feature // v55-5a2

A National Framework for Urban Extension

To help ensure Extension's relevance and accessibility to an increasingly diverse population, the National Urban Extension Leaders group created a framework based on historical and emerging developments. Themes focus on programs, personnel, partnership, and the positioning of Extension at local, state, and national levels. For Extension to be a vibrant and resilient 21st-century system, it must build on best practices, leverage regional and national networks, and invest in innovative strategies that engage people living and working in metropolitan communities. A robust urban Extension presence contributes to building strong connectivity among urban, suburban, and rural communities.

Julie M. Fox
Associate Professor
Ohio State University Extension
Columbus, Ohio

Marie A. Ruemenapp
Extension Educator, Urban Initiatives
Michigan State University Extension
Novi, Michigan

Patrick Proden
Metro Regional Administrator
Division of Outreach and Engagement
Oregon State University
Portland, Oregon

Brad Gaolach
Director, Metropolitan Center for Applied Research and Extension
Washington State University Extension
Everett, Washington


In an effort to reinvigorate a national discussion and move toward a more sustainable and integrated approach to urban Extension, a group of mid-level administrators working in metropolitan areas across the United States began meeting in late 2013. This group is called the National Urban Extension Leaders (NUEL). NUEL's steering committee prepared A National Framework for Urban Extension, a report for the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy (ECOP). In October 2015, ECOP approved NUEL as a director/administrator-approved group of Extension employees who cooperate in advancing the strategic importance and long-term value of urban Extension activities by being relevant locally, responsive statewide, and recognized nationally. Advancing urban Extension is now one of ECOP's top priorities (Extension Committee on Organizational Policy, 2015; National Urban Extension Leaders, 2015).

Although there are many similarities in Extension's work across all geographic settings, dynamic situations in cities and large metropolitan areas present unique challenges and opportunities as Extension extends a history of innovation. Rural and urban communities are interdependent (Dabson, 2007; Davoudi & Stead, 2002; Lichter & Brown, 2014), necessitating a synchronized flow of Extension's work along the urban–rural continuum. To embrace effective urban Extension models and approaches, the Cooperative Extension System need not abandon its historic rural agendas.

Capitalizing on the extensive resource network of the nationwide land-grant university system, Extension must become better equipped to efficiently and effectively address complex urban priorities. In this article, we summarize relevant national trends and their overarching implications; suggest, against a backdrop of historical context, emerging opportunities and recommendations related to urban Extension; and issue a call to action. For the purpose of this article, the terms urban, metropolitan, and city are used interchangeably to refer to densely populated areas; no consistent parameters for population density have been established with regard to urban Extension.

Assessment of National Trends and Their Overarching Implications

Through an informal review of diverse resources from academia, industry, and government, the NUEL steering committee, of which we are part, assessed national trends and identified three primary shifts influencing Extension's work in urban communities. These are shifts in demographic characteristics, community conditions, and urban-suburban-rural interdependencies.

Demographics—America's Urbanization

In the 100 years since the passage of the Smith-Lever Act, the distribution of the U.S. population has dramatically changed, with an overwhelming majority of the population now living in and around metropolitan centers. Today, more than 80% of the country's population lives in urban or metropolitan areas, and projections indicate that this percentage will continue to grow (U.S. Census, 2016a, 2016c, 2016d; U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA] Economic Research Service [ERS], 2015). If Extension is to achieve a level of success in the 21st century similar to its 20th-century accomplishments, it must have an impactful presence in cities and metropolitan areas.

This shift in the physical location of the United States' population has been accompanied by a change in demographics of the population. In 2012 the U.S. Census Bureau announced that the national demographic projections for the coming few decades indicated that the United States will have an older and more diverse population (U.S. Census Bureau Public Information Office, 2012). A high degree of ethnic and racial diversity enriches and challenges metropolitan communities (Farrell & Lee, 2011; Graham, Munniksma, & Juvonen, 2014; Meissner & Vertovec, 2015). Extension can view both the benefits and difficulties of this circumstance as opportunities for engagement.

Community Conditions—What Is Unique About Cities?

As the population of the United States moved to metropolitan areas, so did many of the most pressing national societal challenges. Cities and metropolitan areas are a mixture of cultures, attitudes, norms, and beliefs that have woven together to create a distinctive culture for each city or metropolitan area. Urban challenges are enormously complex with no simple solutions (Beaulieu & Cordes, 2014; Boyer, 1996; Harriman & Daugherty, 1992; National Extension Urban Task Force, 1996). The complexities of metropolitan issues usually affect multiple entities, are multijurisdictional, and are often politically influenced. Additionally, residents in these areas often elect the bulk of the state and federal legislators. Metropolitan areas frequently have multiple governmental service providers and a large number of nonprofit organizations providing information and services. These groups can act as partners with or competitors to Extension. The complex sociopolitical landscape, intensity of issues, and competition from other service providers necessitate a more relevant Extension engagement model in metropolitan areas (Reed, Swanson, & Schlutt, 2015).

Urban-Suburban-Rural Interdependencies

Urban and rural populations in the United States are connected and interdependent. Complex issues do not stop at rural county lines or city boundaries (Henning, Buchholz, Steele, & Ramaswamy, 2014; USDA ERS, 2015). Metropolitan and rural areas share common social issues such as poverty and hunger, housing and homelessness, migration and population shifts, and public safety and health (U.S. Census Bureau, 2016b). Well-functioning cities and suburbs and a healthy and sustainable rural economy are needed for shared success in the United States (Schwartz, 2015). A robust urban Extension presence should contribute to building strong connectivity among urban, suburban, and rural communities.

Four Areas of Historical Development and Opportunity for Urban Extension

In addition to examining external trends, the NUEL steering committee analyzed urban Extension by conducting a review of historical documents and literature. Details about the resultant literature database for metropolitan Extension are available at, and a collection of historical urban Extension documents is archived at On the basis of this analysis, we detail in the subsections herein historical contexts, emerging opportunities, and recommendations related to the following four themes:

  • positioning—how Extension is communicated and where it is situated at the national, state, regional, county, and city levels;
  • programs—how Extension addresses the multitude of issues and priorities in cities;
  • personnel—how Extension attracts, develops, retains, and structures competent talent; and
  • partnerships—how Extension collaborates to leverage resources for collective impact.


Positioning the role and value of Extension is critical for communicating at the national, state, regional, county, and city levels (Ruemenapp, 2017).

  • Extension in densely populated areas is referred to as urban, metropolitan, or city Extension. With urban Extension, there is no consistent term or designation of the size of a city or region. Consistent terminology can be complicated by regional contexts.
  • Extension operates in city or regional centers through traditional county operations or through shared partnered offices in diverse city neighborhoods.
  • Several studies have indicated that urban populations traditionally have low awareness of Extension, use of Extension resources, and participation in Extension programs. Historically, Extension has been perceived as rural, with an agrarian focus that has consequently left many urbanites unaware of Extension's existence. Urbanites with some knowledge of Extension are often skeptical that Extension has the expertise or commitment to apply its resources toward playing important roles in cities (Christenson & Warner, 1985; Jacob, Willtis, & Crider, 1991; Warner, Christenson, Dillman, & Salant, 1996).
  • The disparity in awareness of and support for Extension in cities affects funding streams (Henning et al., 2014; Raison, 2014).


As communities have changed due to expansion and shifts in populations, so has Extension programming. In the last half century, Extension has diversified its educational programming portfolio in many ways to respond to the needs of people living in urban areas (Beaulieu & Cordes, 2014; Christenson & Warner, 1985; Gould, Steele, & Woodrum, 2014; Schaefer, Huegel, & Mazzotti, 1992; Webster & Ingram, 2007).

  • Program delivery methods and techniques must vary widely to account for the rich urban tapestry of diversity and commonalities found in metropolitan centers (Fehlis, 1992). The ability to effectively make adjustments to ensure programmatic relevancy and effective delivery will determine the future of Extension. Programs need to be targeted to key issues and audiences and planned for visible impact (Rasmussen, 1989).
  • Extension programming needs to continue to be grounded in research-based resources as well as community and resident needs. The adoption of emerging technologies offers opportunities for Extension to educate and connect with broader audiences (Dromgoole & Boleman, 2006; Mastel, 2014; Robideau & Santl, 2011).
  • Applied research and engaged scholarship are integral to urban Extension. Engaged scholarship has been defined by a number of groups and individuals. A group of research universities gathered to renew the civic mission of higher education and produced the report New Times Demand New Scholarship II. The report describes engaged scholarship as research that partners university scholarly resources with those in the public and private sectors to enrich knowledge, address and help solve critical societal issues, and contribute to the public good (Stanton, 2012).
  • Serving the needs of large metropolitan areas requires an approach to content and delivery that differs from the approach required for more rural communities. Currently, the majority of the curricula, delivery methods, and programming offered in cities and metropolitan areas is adapted from rural experiences and not uniquely developed for an urban audience (Western Extension Directors Association Urban Task Force, 2010). Although some materials and delivery methods adapt well, others do not. Urban audiences may have difficulty relating in meaningful ways to examples in teaching materials that were not designed from an urban perspective (Argabright, McGuire, & King, 2012; Borich, 2001; Gould et al., 2014; Krofta & Panshin, 1989; Webster & Ingram, 2007).
  • In the metropolitan policy arena, there is demand for access to university-based engaged scholarship and applied research to inform decision making. In the absence of university engagement, metropolitan areas must rely on private sector consultancies for input into policy processes.
  • As Extension explores program, project, and product solutions, subject-matter centers can add capacity to traditional Extension offices (Gaolach, Kern, & Sanders, 2017).
  • Although there are promising practices with urban Extension work, best practices are not yet identified. More research and scholarly activity is required to build on programs documented through decades of national urban Extension conference publications, Journal of Extension articles, special reports on urban Extension, and urban Extension abstracts in proceedings from conferences of Joint Council of Extension Professionals organizations.


Extension faculty and staff working in metropolitan areas need the same set of core competencies as Extension professionals in other geographic settings. However, because of the unique community conditions previously described, these individuals and teams must have additional skills and attributes to effectively address the needs of metropolitan constituents (Fehlis, 1992; Fox, 2017; National Extension Urban Task Force, 1996; Webster & Ingram, 2007; Western Extension Directors Association Urban Task Force, 2010).

  • Due to the magnitude of diversity in metropolitan areas, cultural competence is essential for all personnel. Although this is an expectation throughout Extension, the scope in urban areas intensifies the degree to which personnel must apply related competencies (Krofta & Panshin, 1989; Webster & Ingram, 2007).
  • With more diversified funding portfolios, personnel must invest more time and expertise in sourcing and managing multiple resources on various timelines beyond county, state, and federal fiscal cycles (Krofta & Panshin, 1989). Although many Extension professionals are content experts first and program managers second, in the city, the need for Extension is so vast that many become more engaged in capacity building and management.
  • In the city, numerous public and private organizations compete for resources and audiences. This situation often creates an environment in which Extension competes with organizations that invest in talent specifically for developing social media programs, managing grants and contracts, and conducting other specialized activities. This competitive environment requires Extension to align human resource expertise to operate in a more specialized and complex environment.
  • To effectively work in metropolitan communities, Extension needs to develop the capability of staff at all levels to work in a highly complex and integrated nature. The ability to work in transdisciplinary teams of experts while documenting both the Extension impact and community change will be paramount (National Extension Urban Task Force, 1996; Western Extension Directors Association Urban Task Force, 2010; Young & Vavrina, 2014).
  • Recruiting and hiring practices need to be developed to attract a next generation of Extension professionals who have the skill set and passion to work on the complex issues found in urban areas, against a backdrop of diversity. Hiring procedures need to be streamlined and improved to match staff and consultant skill sets appropriately to roles (Harriman & Daugherty, 1992). Mentoring and intentional retention systems will be critical to ensuring that the next generation stays engaged with Extension.
  • Extension needs to embrace a flexible staffing model that incorporates a varied set of positions.
    • At times it will be necessary to use a project-driven hiring model that allows for a greater mix of core personnel and additional professionals who have the specific expertise needed to address the broad array of metropolitan issues.
    • Unpaid staff or volunteers can serve as essential resources in urban Extension staffing models. These human resources often differ from those Extension historically has used in rural communities (National Urban Extension Leaders, 2015). They are more diverse and often are looking to engage in specific projects or short-term commitments. Extension needs to develop models that are effective in recruiting unpaid or volunteer staff, training them to effectively work with Extension urban audiences, placing or engaging them in appropriate roles, and providing them with recognition and rewards (Fehlis, 1992).
    • In many urban Extension offices, the emphasis is on a few long-term programs supplemented by short-term, grant-funded projects. Going forward, urban Extension should be tailored to more applied research activities, engaged scholarship, and nonformal education for the staffs of public and community organizations (Gaolach et al., 2017; Western Extension Directors Association Urban Task Force, 2010).
  • County Extension directors serving in urban communities need specific knowledge, skills, attitudes, and beliefs that are both similar to and different from such attributes as they are traditionally identified through Extension competency studies. Competencies include resource attraction and management, advocacy and impact accountability with multiple stakeholders, and others (Fox, 2017).
  • Extension personnel need to be embedded in communities as trusted resources and should serve in the unique position of functioning as neutral, trusted facilitators who bring people together to deliberate and deal with local issues (Fox, 2017; Kellogg Commission, 1999).

Because neither a simple retrofitting of traditional strategies nor a one-size-fits-all approach is adequate, the processes of hiring and retaining urban personnel present challenges in the areas of human resources and professional development. Only through regular and consistent communication with one another can urban leaders across the country develop the support networks needed to advance Extension's approach to urban talent. Work is currently being done through NUEL to identify associated best management practices.


For urban Extension to thrive, leaders must accept that the most effective way to operate is in partnership with a well-developed group of organizations, where roles are distinct yet missions are aligned and where visibility, credit, and resources are shared.

  • Metropolitan areas have more complex networks of governmental organizations and for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. Therefore, different ways of thinking are needed to determine how the resources of the land-grant university system can be accessed to help address the complex issues that exist in such areas.
  • Multijurisdictional and multidisciplinary collaborations provide new opportunities. Extension needs to expand beyond traditional constituencies and foster multidisciplinary partnerships to maintain its relevance and meet changing needs.
  • Extension must form program and funding alliances with cities, government agencies, colleges and universities, foundations and nongovernmental organizations, corporations and private businesses, and other organizations that share common goals.
  • Key partnerships in metropolitan areas include state and federal legislators who drive and approve funding for Extension. With current voting and governmental structures, Extension needs to address the urban influence while maintaining Extension's strength in rural America.
  • Local Extension initiatives benefit from the development of strong metropolitan advisory councils that can help build partnerships. Building strong relationships with key community decision makers and political leaders is an effective strategy for Extension to use when navigating a robust set of partnerships engaged in making short-term and long-term impacts (Henning et al., 2014).

In the age of shifting populations and political redistricting efforts, an alignment of resources must be considered within current and future funding structures. U.S. Department of Agriculture funding is not the singular problem; additional resources must be leveraged both inside and outside the current structure to significantly enhance urban initiatives.

National Framework—A Call to Action

A national urban Extension initiative emphasizing a heightened awareness of and priority on Extension in cities requires innovation in the core areas of positioning, programs, personnel, and partnerships. In the preceding section, we identified opportunities and provided recommendations related to such innovation. Now is the time for Extension to more fully incorporate the needs of urban and metropolitan audiences. To be successful in urban areas, Extension must be viewed as a credible source of applied research, culturally appropriate education, and community leadership. Extension needs to offer community-centered programs with community co-designed solutions to address the multitude and complexity of issues facing urban communities.


Throughout its 100-year history, Extension has remained a trusted and relevant source of science-based university outreach, developing many assets that position it to effectively embrace and work in metropolitan communities. Extension is respected for its objectivity and neutrality and ability to connect people to research-based resources (Beaulieu & Cordes, 2014; Henning et al., 2014; National Extension Urban Task Force, 1996). To embrace an effective urban Extension model, Extension need not abandon its historic rural agendas. The best way to honor and celebrate the past 100 years of Extension is to ensure its future. Ensuring the future requires that Extension enhance its response to the demographic trend of urbanization. It is imperative that Extension create a modified paradigm of learning innovations and a vibrant and resilient 21st-century Extension system that more fully serves urban populations. In expanding its services to reach all U.S. populations, Extension can continue improving the vitality of all communities.


The work that provided the basis for this article was sourced from A National Framework for Urban Extension, which was published by NUEL Steering Committee members Deno De Ciantis, Julie Fox, Brad Gaolach, Joan Jacobsen, Chris Obropta, Patrick Proden, Marie Ruemenapp, Jody Squires, Charles Vavrina, Steve Wagoner, Mary Jane Willis, and Jeff Young.

We acknowledge the significant contribution of former associate director of Rutgers Cooperative Extension Mary Jane Willis (1948–2015). Mary Jane tirelessly advocated for urban Extension. She devoted much of her professional life to serving as a champion for the establishment and development of the national urban Extension framework. Mary Jane's legacy will live on through the Urban Extension Initiative. Throughout the years, Extension professionals and others who influence Extension impacts have contributed to progress in urban communities.


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