Blog Post #2: Assessing Rural-Urban Linkages
In our last blog post we covered the basics of rural-urban linkages—what they are and why they matter. This week’s post takes a closer look at linkages in the Hilltowns and Albany County. We will discuss how we ‘assessed’ linkages, and based on what we found, what we can say (and not say) about them.
The purpose of this project was to identify needs and opportunities for improving linkages between the rural Hilltowns and nearby urban areas. But, there is no widely recognized approach to assess or measure linkages. There are no data sources or baseline indicators we can use to find linkages in need of improvement. There are guidance documents like this one from UN-Habitat that offer ‘entry points’ for strengthening urban-rural linkages. It is helpful in imagining what could be achieved through linkages, but it does not provide a methodology to determine where we should start.
We also wanted our approach to be replicable and accessible, i.e. not requiring original research, specialized knowledge or technology. With that, we focused on three questions:
1) Where can we look for evidence of rural-urban linkages?
2) What do the available sources say (or not say) about rural-urban linkages?
3) How can we present our findings in a meaningful way?
Step 1 started with a long list of general categories of linkages, e.g. economic, environmental, food and agriculture, recreation, human and professional services. Within each category, we listed structures, organizations, policies, and activities that would likely support or create rural-urban linkages. Then, specific sources of evidence about those features in the Capital Region were identified.
For example, within the general category of environmental linkages, we identified the following features as potentially creating linkages: watersheds, streams, greenways, habitat corridors, water and air quality. We then identified real examples of these features in Albany County and the Capital Region and where we might learn about them, such as:
- Basic Creek & Watershed
- Catskill Creek & Watershed
- Normanskill Creek & Watershed
- Foxenkill and Schoharie Creek & Watershed
- Albany County Soil & Water District/NRCS
- NYS Department of Environmental Conservation
- Hudsonia, Inc.
- Cornell Cooperative Extension
- CDRPC Water Quality Program
- Open Space Conservation Plans/Organizations (e.g. Open Space Institute, Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy)
In Step 2 we reviewed a selection of these resources, looking for evidence of rural-urban linkages and the inclusion of rural areas more generally. Using the example from above, we found a watershed map of Albany County and noted how water features connect Rensselaerville and the Hilltowns to several urban areas including the City of Watervliet through the Normanskill Watershed and Watervliet Reservoir, the City of Albany through the Basic Creek and Hannacroix Creek Watershed, feeding the Basic and Alcove Reservoirs respectively, and even the Village of Catskill through the Catskill Creek Watershed.
We then read several watershed plans and found that they focus on the natural resources and the land base; they do not directly acknowledge the rural communities that exist within these watersheds.
Step 3 required several iterations. It was is tempting to try to categorize linkages as ‘strong’ and ‘weak,’ or compare them to one another. But there are no comparable sources of information across all types of linkages to support this. There were two consistent variables: the availability of evidence, and whether or not different sources told the same story. Using these factors as a guide, we organized linkages into three categories: well-documented linkages, linkages lacking evidence, and untapped linkages.
Back to the watershed example: we’re calling this an untapped linkage. We can look at a watershed map and see the connections; we can find water quality data showing how upstream land use in rural areas affects downstream water quality in urban areas. But the idea that water resources create a material connection between rural and urban communities is poorly represented in written documents and in practice. For example, the City of Albany Water Board recently joined The Nature Conservancy’s Working Woodlands Program, a forest conservation program that protects water quality and generates revenue through carbon tax credits. This is the first agreement of its kind in New York State and is an innovative partnership project strengthening the city’s connection to its rural water resources. Yet, there is no mention of the rural communities where the reservoirs and watersheds are located.
Well-documented linkages—we know the most about these linkages; quantitative and qualitative data indicates there is a linkage:
- Employment and commuting
- Albany County Government and Services
- Roadway and highway Infrastructure
Linkages lacking data—we assume these linkages are ‘true’ because of how we talk and write about them, but there is limited, readily available data to demonstrate their impact on rural-urban connectivity:
- Agriculture and food
- Economic development
- Consumer goods
- Professional and human services: health care, affordable transportation
Incomplete or untapped linkages—quantitative data and resources indicate a basis for connection exists but there is a lack of qualitative strategy or narrative to complete the linkage or fully engage communities
- Outdoor recreation and tourism
- Drinking water and watersheds
- Electoral districts
This is not a perfect process and can be improved upon. The results may change as new sources of information are considered. But it is replicable and accessible, and it offers a basis for finding opportunities for improved linkages.To add a second layer of analysis to assessment, interviews were conducted with residents, elected officials, community leaders and representatives from county and regional agencies. The goal was to learn what people think about rural-urban linkages. The findings, and how they compare with what was presented here, will be shared in our next blog post. Additionally, the full assessment is documented in the final project report, which will be made available at the end of the blog series.
This article was adapted from “Needs and Opportunities for Rural-Urban Linkages in Albany County, New York” prepared by Rebecca Platel, Sustainable Communities Program Manager at the Carey Institute for Global Good, in partnership with the Town of Rensselaerville, Albany County, NY with support from the Hudson River Valley Greenway.