The Rise of New America: A Move Towards Rural America

Land economist Jack Lessinger predicts that the dominant lifestyle and economy of the 21st Century will spring from certain rural America areas.

| March/April 1988

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    Land economist Lessinger says that modern homesteaders and urban- to-rural migrants form the vanguard of the future.
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    US counties classified by population growth rate relative to the national growth rate 1950-1980.

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The dominant lifestyle and economy of the 21st century will spring from certain rural America areas. So predicts Jack Lessinger. 

The Rise of New Rural America

Once a week in his house in Seattle, land economist Jack Lessinger, a serious amateur musician, cranks up his violin and, with three cohorts, embarks on an evening of chamber music. Professor emeritus of real estate and urban development at the University of Washington, Lessinger is almost the epitome of the dedicated city-dweller. Smart and cosmopolitan, he enjoys sophisticated restaurants, live opera, art exhibits, the well-stocked libraries, amenities that abound in this vigorous, often rain-swept city on the Sound.

At the same time, however, another part of him—the academic, theoretical part; the prophetic part, one might even add-sees Seattle and, for that matter, most major U.S. cities as dinosaurs caught in the grip of turbulent change. They are, he senses, less and less able to provide enough jobs, decent housing and basic services, let alone an uncongested, healthy living environment. Not only that, the suburbs—for decades now the embodiment of the middle-class American dream of security and contentment—are becoming equally outmoded as they fall victim to similar blights: heavy traffic, blue air, breaking and entering, the numbing sameness of nearby shopping malls and fast-food chains.

But these debilities are only symptoms. What caused them is a national economy dangerously out of kilter with its resources. As a result, says Lessinger, we are even now in the throes of discarding our current economic structure and defining its replacement. Put another way, we are at a crossroads. Not only that, the direction signs he sees posted there point quite specifically to America's more rural America areas. How he came to read those signs involves our comings and goings—our migrations as a people—over the span of our history.

What is distinct about Lessinger's conclusions is that they are not based on philosophic or subjective analyses, valid though these might coincidentally prove. Rather, he claims, they are based on objective criteria, on pure data, on unmistakable messages contained in the unfolding record of changing property values in America over the last 200 years. Moreover, those messages describe more than the face value of real estate. Indeed, they reflect not only the successes and failures of the economies in which that value arose and fluctuated, but also the assumptions, tastes and goals of the society itself.

In short, in a book published in 1986 (Regions of Opportunity, Times Books) Lessinger states he has detected the first signs of a major shift in current U.S. demographic patterns. Within the next decade or two, he foresees not only that certain of the most rural counties will experience the greatest growth in population and, consequently, in real estate value, but that they will also become the furnace in which the dominant lifestyle and economy of the twenty-first century will be forged. In other words, the back-to-the-land movement that spiked up in the '70s (and that to some degree typifies the MOTHER EARTH NEWS reader even today), rather than being an ephemeral, anomaly, represents instead the leading edge of a vast new migratory wave. Though still a mere ripple generated by back-to-the-landers, urban dropouts and even city and suburban residents who maintain a weekend house "in the country," it will soon be followed by a massive relocation in the same direction—from obsolescing urban arid suburban clusters to the more remote and spacious rural counties. Equally significant in his judgment, this coming migration will signal the failure and imminent demise of our current economic structure, while at the same time pointing the way to the emergence of a more appropriate successor. He has even given this vision toward which today's pioneers are drawn a name of its own, Penturbia. "The new migrants," he advises, "are already studying their maps."

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