Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Heritage-Based Rural Development 

12-09-2015 17:35

A recent New York Times article reported that some 62 million people across the country are currently trying to earn money by running a farm. And the numbers are increasing rapidly, up by more than 18 million in a recent month. What is going on? Is this the biggest “back to the farm” movement we have ever seen? Not exactly. The article is reporting on the number of people playing “FarmVille,” currently the most popular game on Facebook.1 Players decide what virtual crops to plant, when to harvest and sell, and how to work with their internet neighbors. (You can tell that FarmVille is a game because every farm makes a profit. In reality, fewer than a million people in the United States claim farming as their principle occupation and more than 80 percent of farm families rely on outside income to make ends meet.)2

As the online popularity of FarmVille suggests, Americans remain interested in rural life. Earlier this year the Pew Research Center conducted a survey that asked respondents to identify what kind of place they would most like to live in: a city, suburb, small town, or rural area. Small towns and rural areas were the top choice of more than 50 percent of the respondents, despite the fact that only about 17 percent of the nation’s population currently lives in a rural area, as defined by the census bureau.3

Building on Rural Assets

But rural communities require more than sentiment to survive and prosper. They need a sustainable economic base and the regular investment of human and financial capital. In many rural regions, these items are in short supply. Across the country, the traditional rural economic sectors—agriculture, forestry, mining, and manufacturing—now employ far fewer people than they did just a decade ago. In response, many rural economic development and community leaders are seeking fresh ideas. This hunger for new rural development strategies presents an opportunity for historic preservation.

Most rural development experts now recommend a diversified approach to economic development, encouraging communities to move away from a reliance on a single economic sector, such as agriculture. In addition, there is an increasing interest in looking at ways to create regional rural development strategies, with an emphasis on the unique characteristics and assets of rural places. These assets might include natural and scenic amenities, recreational opportunities, civic and educational institutions, social networks, food traditions, and culture and heritage.

Of course historic preservationists have been practicing exactly this kind of economic development for decades. In hundreds of small towns around the country, local Main Street programs are connecting unique rural assets (historic architecture, attractive pedestrian environments, independent local businesses) to sustainable economic development. Heritage tourism is bringing attention to historic rural communities in every corner of the nation. Preservation groups are rescuing vacant or underused rural assets of all kinds and bringing them back to life, using classic preservation toolsfrom tax incentives to loan programs and easements.

Heritage-Based Rural Development

In recent years, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has begun thinking about how to bring together all of this experience and apply it comprehensively in specific rural regions. The W. K. Kellogg Foundation was intrigued by this idea as well, and in 2005 it awarded the National Trust a grant to test the idea of “heritage-based rural development.” A national selection process generated proposals from statewide and regional organizations across the country, each describing the different ways that grant funds could help preserve their rural heritage and enhance economic andcommunity development.

Two regions were selected to receive four years of grant support and technical assistance from the National Trust: an economically distressed 15-county corridor along the Mississippi River in Arkansas and an eight-county region in central Kentucky affected by sprawl and major changes in the agricultural economy. These two Kellogg-funded initiatives followed another rural project that was already underway in southern Virginia. With grants from the Harvest Foundation and the Public Welfare Foundation, the National Trust worked intensively in Martinsville, Va., and surrounding Henry County to assist a rural area hard hit by job losses in textile and furniture manufacturing.

Lessons from the Pilot Regions

Based on the experience to date in these rural regions, interviews with stakeholders, and discussions among project partners, the National Trust has developed an initial set of recommendations for heritage-based rural development. Organized as a set of principles and strategies, these recommendations are intended to provide guidance to other rural regions that may be considering similar heritage-based initiatives.

Each of the principles and strategies (see sidebars) is familiar and well-tested, from education to heritage tourism to branding and marketing. The key insight from the pilot regions is that it is the combined and sustained application of these principles and strategies in a defined geographic area that makes the difference. The principles and strategies amplify and reinforce each other, leveraging far greater benefit than would occur if they were pursued independently. For example:

  • A marketing program for small businesses in a rural community may be a good idea. But it will be better if it includes the surrounding region as well, and promotes authentic regional products and services that might interest potential travelers to the region. And it will have even more positive impact if the marketing focuses on businesses that are located in historic buildings along traditional Main Streets.
  • Similarly, a farmers’ market can support area agricultural producers by providing them with a direct link to consumers. The same market can help local Main Street businesses as well if it is located downtown. And if some of those Main Street businesses are restaurants and food vendors, they can in turn support the farmers by featuring locally grown products.
  • An interpretive museum celebrating area music heritage creates a new draw for visitors and helps tell an important story. If it is located in a rehabilitated, formerly vacant historic structure on Main Street it will provide a boost for downtown as well, supporting local businesses and restaurants and spurring similar rehabilitations of nearby structures.

As these examples indicate, heritage-based rural development is grounded on the commonsense notion that conserving and using existing assets—our shared heritage—is a smart way to support sustainable rural development. Each of the articles in this Forum Journal provides a perspective on current practices and trends related to the strategies of heritage-based rural development. The authors remind us that there is much effective and creative work going on around the country that is helping to conserve our rural heritage and strengthen rural economies. May it continue!

Six principles of heritage-based rural development

1. Use a regional approach.Rural heritage development efforts will have more impact when several communities and counties pool their resources and work together. Regional boundaries should recognize common cultural, geographic, economic, governmental, and historical characteristics. The region should be large enough to encompass a “critical mass” of diverse assets and participants, but not so large that its distinctive character is blurred or interaction among stakeholders becomes impractical. In some areas, existing regional boundaries may be appropriate, while in other cases new boundaries will need to be drawn.

2. Protect historic authenticity.Rural heritage development efforts are based on the authentic historic and cultural assets that define the character of a rural region. The character and condition of the historic and cultural assets in each rural region will vary greatly. Some may be well protected and in good condition. Others may be abandoned, in need of repair, or threatened by development. Additional heritage assets may be largely undiscovered. It is essential to protect the tangible connections between heritage assets and the diverse history of the region, recognizing that some aspects of heritage may be particularly fragile, hidden, or complex.

3. Nurture grassrootsinvolvement and leadership. A broad spectrum of diverse stakeholders should be involved in the development of a shared regional vision and a plan for heritage-based rural development. The leadership for this effort should be drawn from grassroots participants as well as established community organizations and government entities. It is important to provide a range of opportunities for diverse opinions to be voiced and heard, and to create effective communication tools to build and maintain interest.
4. Forge strong partnerships. Regional heritage development requires a range of existing organizations to work together, creating new networks for communication and collaborative effort. These regional initiatives provide an opportunity to collaborate with traditional and nontraditional partners at the local, regional, state, and national level to accomplish mutual goals.

5. Be flexible. One of key lessons of the rural pilot projects is that changes and shifts in priorities will likely occur. In fact, adjusting course along the way should be expected. By maintaining a flexible approach, it becomes possible to seize opportunities when they arise. Funding, time, and energy will always be limited, making it necessary to focus on the areas where willing partners and resources are available to move projects forward. Other projects can be put aside for a time if they do not have the support that is needed.

6. Make a long-term commitment. Complex regional projects like these are time-consuming. Progress will often be slow and incremental. As the Main Street program has shown over the past three decades, tangible and measurable results often take several years to manifest. Achieving success will therefore require a compelling, realistic vision as well as adequate human and financial resources to sustain work over many years.

Six strategies for heritage-based rural development

1. Educate about the valueof rural heritage. Learn more about the depth and diversity of heritage assets that exist in the region. Inventory known assets and initiate surveys to uncover additional resources. Conduct oral history research and other interviews to gain historical perspective and understanding. Share the results with the public. Provide opportunities to learn about preservation tools and the connections between preservation and sustainable development.

2. Conserve heritage assets. Save vacant and/or deteriorating structures by finding creative new uses for them. Conserve historic landscapes by supporting the economic viability oftraditional uses. Protect historic sites and districts through designations,planning and zoning tools, and financial incentive programs.

3. Encourage local entrepreneurship and the use of historic structures. Create new business opportunities around regional foods, arts, music, and crafts. Provide training, technical assistance, and marketing support to strengthen existing businesses and create new ones. Locate new enterprises in existing historic structures whenever possible. Work with local Main Street programs to help retain and attract businesses in established, historic commercial districts. Seek alternatives to formulaic big-box and chain retail development. Support or initiate “buy local” campaigns.
4. Develop heritage tourism potential. Find ways to enhance the authentic experiences at existing heritage tourism attractions and create exciting new experiences that will keep visitors in your region longer and give them reasons to plan a return visit. Look for opportunities to link tourism attractions thematically and geographically, through scenic byways and recreational trails. Work with partners to increase awareness of your region’s attractions among residents of nearby metropolitan areas. .

5. Brand and market your regional identiTy. Develop a regional brand to increase awareness of regional assets and the connections between them. Market your region to increase community pride, support local businesses, and promote your attractions to potential heritage travelers.

6. Advocate for public policies that support heritage-based rural development. Work with partners to establish and promote statewide incentives, such as tax credits for the rehabilitation of historic structures and funding for farmland and landscape conservation. Implement better planning and zoning to encourage investment in existing communities, discourage sprawl, and remove barriers to downtown rehabilitation. Work to establish or strengthen historic preservation ordinances and design guidelines for historic districts.

For additional information, see the forthcoming Preservation Book Heritage-Based Rural Development:
Principles, Strategies and Steps, available from


1To Harvest Squash, Click Here,” New York Times, October 28, 2009.
2U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.
3Pew Research Center Social & Demographic Trends Survey report, February 26, 2009.

Publication Date: Winter 2010


Author(s):James Lindberg