Infrastructure can help unite urban and rural frontline communities

Underserved residents, whether in cities or remote regions, should build bridges and stand together

Wheat fields and rain clouds are seen at the Marc Arnusch Farms, in Keenesburg, on June 19, 2020. (Lance Cheung/USDA/Public Domain Mark 1.0)

A column recently ran in the Daily Yonder, an online newspaper covering rural issues, piqued my interest. The premise was that struggling rural places should find common cause with other disaffected communities. With the challenges we face, rural Americans should see value connecting with others who are also often marginalized.

Rather than separated by a “rural-urban divide” left-behind rural places and in cities — often majority communities of color that may look very different, one from the other — have reason to work together. The column notes: “For too many rural Americans, the term diversity is synonymous with otherness because residents of remote regions don’t realize that we, too, are underrepresented and misunderstood. Policies and structures strand and marginalize us.”

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Much has been made of the disproportionate representation more rural and less populated states have in federal politics, in the Senate and Electoral College, for example. But even in these states residents are more likely to live in the more urban areas. In my district, mostly sprawling and rural, it is cities like Pueblo and Grand Junction that house most of the population.

Like in many marginalized urban neighborhoods that do not receive the investments and attention of the wealthier communities nearby, so too can the economic disparity between rural and urban places be stark. A 2018 Denver Post article found that 85% of Colorado’s 2015 economic activity came from just 10 (of 64) counties, all on the Front Range. With that disparity comes a gap in investment: in health care, schools, extension services, and in water systems, roads, bridges, transit and broadband. As the Daily Yonder column notes: “Rural Americans served in wars and farmed and mined coal and built the manufacturing base, and increasingly there is little, if any, role for them in the new economy.”

The column concludes that frontline, impacted and economically-disadvantaged communities, whether those in rural places with industries they built up around them that are now disappearing, or those in cities, including those suffering from environmental injustice and chronic neglect, should seek common cause in having needs met. I agree.

Frontline rural communities, like those in western Colorado facing the loss of coal jobs, have a lot to gain in a thoughtful, equitable federal infrastructure plan. As do frontline urban communities like those that surround the Suncor refinery. While residents of Globeville and Craig may seem a world apart — and they do face different challenges, are burdened by different inequities, and often come from different cultural histories — they share interests too.

A robust infrastructure investment in rural America can create jobs and rebuild the grid for new, homegrown and clean power supplies, to fix broken water systems and restore damaged and polluted lands, and to install broadband that can connect people to work opportunities anywhere, to education and professional services, and remote or isolated residents to the world. Of course many communities in cities would benefit in these same ways from these investments, too.

The stakes of the infrastructure debate that has landed in Congress are enormous. We cannot forget the places that have been most impacted by the policies of the past and present, whether they are facing a collapsing coal industry or a polluting refinery. And to ensure investment is made where it is most needed, frontline communities need to stand up and stand together.

By prioritizing frontline, underserved and disproportionately impacted communities including those in cities facing the most severe impacts from environmental degradation, Tribal nations, and places in rural America that have been too often the source from which to take wealth and resources away, and less as a place to invest for the long-term, President Biden’s infrastructure plan can support a more secure economy, a more equitable Colorado, and a more ecologically resilient future. We would do well to recognize a common purpose in seeing that come to be.

Colorado’s U.S. senators and representatives should likewise see the benefit that smart infrastructure investment can bring to all Coloradans. They should work together in support of these efforts, and to build bridges that connect rural and urban Colorado, across the divide.

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