Opinion Columns & Blogs

Navigating the urban/rural divide in Wichita

Chase M. Billingham

What type of place is Wichita? Is it a big, bustling metropolis competing on a global stage with other major cities for talent, investment and growth? Or is it a small, isolated region that values a slower pace of life and the camaraderie that can be found in a tight-knit community? Is Wichita a smaller version of Kansas City and Omaha, or a larger version of Salina and Hutchinson?

When I ask my students questions like these, they often struggle to answer. Heated debates over issues like downtown development, tax incentives and infrastructure investments suggest that the region’s leaders don’t have a uniform view of the region’s identity, either. These are important questions to think about, though, because our perceptions of the type of community we inhabit can influence the types of public policies we are likely to endorse.

In recently published research, Shelley Kimelberg and I explored these questions of community identity. Using data from eight metro areas (including Wichita) we examined how people think about the places they call home. The results were surprising, and they may have important implications for urban and regional governance.

The data that we used allowed us to see where within their regions people lived (either in the central city or in the outlying suburbs), as well as how they described the places they inhabited (as either “urban,” “suburban” or “rural”). We were intrigued when we found a substantial amount of contradiction between these two measures of place — many city dwellers labeled their homes “suburban” or even “rural,” while many suburbanites called their neighborhoods “urban.” These disconnects were particularly noticeable among respondents from the Wichita region.

By themselves, these findings are not terribly surprising. It’s clear that municipal borders alone do not determine the boundary between “urban,” “suburban,” and “rural” life. Certainly, Main Street in Newton feels more “urban” in many ways than areas of Wichita lying near the city limits.

But what do we mean, exactly, when we say that a place “feels” urban? To an extent, our experience of place is affected by our perceptions of the built environment — dense, active, developed streetscapes on the one hand, wide open spaces on the other. At the same time, though, important social, demographic and economic factors come into play when we think about and label places. In particular, over the past half century the term “urban” has come to be laden with stigmatizing overtones related to race, class and culture.

Why does all of this matter? More than most metro areas in the U.S., the Wichita region features vast rural areas directly adjacent to the built-up urban core. This presents unique challenges for regional governance. The Sedgwick County Commission divides up the county like slices of a pie, with each district including a piece of the dense city along with much larger areas of rural and unincorporated territory. Within nearly every district, most of the people live in relatively dense urban or suburban communities, but most of the land area is rural and sparsely populated.

In situations like that, it can be difficult to determine whose interests are being served by our elected leaders. While the interests of inner-city residents sometimes align with those of rural county residents, they often do not. Therefore, as voters head to the polls soon to elect County Commissioners, we should consider whether the candidates are committed to policies that will help to build and support the types of community that we inhabit and want to preserve and improve. That requires, first of all, thinking hard about what type of place Wichita is — or should be.

Chase M. Billingham is an assistant professor of sociology at Wichita State University.