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Rural Infrastructure

Posted Thursday, January 18, 2018 at 11:43 AM

"Meeting the challenges of rural infrastructure requires both public support and engineering."

Rural Infrastructure

PostedThursday, January 18, 2018 at 11:54 AM

Kate Gramling
Kate Gramling
Rural Infrastructure

In 2010, according to the US Census Bureau, just over 20% of Americans lived in rural areas or in small towns with fewer than 5000 residents. That’s over 64 million people. Providing public infrastructure in these areas presents some unique challenges.

Some challenges are economic. Because there are fewer people to share the cost, each person in a rural area has to pay more than a city-dweller for the same service. In some cases, the cost is simply unaffordable.

Because of the risk of too few customers, many companies are not even willing to offer services in these areas. This is one of the reasons why people in rural areas often have to travel further and wait longer to receive health care than people in urban areas.

Other challenges are technical. For example, electricity distribution originally designed for cities, didn’t work in rural areas. In a city, power only has to travel a few miles from a high voltage station to a home. But in a rural area, it may have to travel 20-30 miles.

In 1935, almost all residents in US cities had access to low-cost electricity, but only about 10% of farms had access to electricity - at all - and many of those were generating their own with small wind-powered plants. The Rural Electrification Administration, originally created as part of President Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” established government-funded loans to organizations setting up rural power systems.

As a result, hundreds of new companies and cooperatives were established. Innovation flourished and engineers developed new systems that could move electricity further and more efficiently than previously considered feasible. As a result, by 1952 – just 18 years later – nearly all US farms had electricity.

Rural electrification was a big part of the greatest engineering achievement of the 20th century. It did more than help the country out of the Great Depression, it was the first step in a remarkable transformation of farming methods in the US.

That may not seem like a big deal to most of us in 2018. But consider this: it is almost certain that some of the food you ate today originated on one of those farms.

People living in rural areas and small communities still need roads, water, and water treatment. They need health care, public safety services, and they need access to information and recreation through communication networks. Helping to provide that infrastructure can be a benefit to others as well.  When public policy provides the objective, engineers will meet the challenges.


What technology do you think could transform rural communities in the next 20 years?


Photo courtesy of Allison Choppick, available on

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