The photo album that is the once-a-decade U.S. Census report is a rich source of information about ourselves as a state and nation. The lastest headline to come from the 2010 census is that Maine is the most rural state in the union.
This nugget of information can inspire all sorts of observations, most of which have value. The far-flung nature of our communities certainly puts great strain on municipal, educational and a host of state services. The sprawling housing development pattern identified over the last three decades has diminished the economic vitality of many Maine downtowns, as people build homes on the outskirts.
Yet the rural nature also is part of our state’s quality of life lure, tantalizing those who live in densely populated states where traffic jams and crime are daily facts of life to consider relocating to Maine.
The rural designation is but one snapshot from the latest census, and considering the definitions used in the ranking, may not mean much. The longer view will be more telling. This most-rural rank could be the nadir for Maine, marking the beginning of a trend in which more and more people move to what the census calls urban clusters or urban areas.
Urbanized areas, in census terms, are those with 50,000 or more residents. Those areas may stretch beyond municipal boundaries, such as in the Greater Bangor area. Urban clusters are those with populations more than 2,500 but less than 50,000. Maine is the most rural state with 61.3 percent of its population living in places other than urbanized areas and urban clusters.
Vermont is the second most rural state, though it was tops in the 2000 census, while Maine held second place in the list that year.
Setting aside for a moment the question of whether Maine should encourage people to move to urban clusters and areas, consider some factors that might influence what actually happens. Roads in Maine have been vastly improved in the last 25 years. In the mid-1980s, it wasn’t easy to commute 25 or more miles to jobs in service centers like Bangor, Ellsworth, Newport, Belfast, Rockland and Augusta. But if (when?) gasoline prices top $5, those commutes will become less feasible.
The rise of the Internet has made it possible for many people to live in remote places and still be connected to a job. But many of those who are able to work that way also want to be connected to people in a more personal sense. They want to patronize coffee shops, restaurants and bars and enjoy cultural amenities like live music, so they may prefer to live close to or in service centers.
But the most important factor in how our population is dispersed is the economy. Service centers, particularly those in the southern third of the state, are where the jobs are. If this does not change, more and more people will move closer to these centers.
So should state policy encourage such moves? This is a sensitive question, but one that carries with it huge tax implications. Many of Maine’s cities and towns exist only because of their proximity to rivers and ports, when access was essential. Choices must be made between devoting state resources to sustaining such struggling areas or boosting those centers that are actually growing and luring business development.
The 2020 census may reveal a very different picture. If far fewer Mainers are living in those rural areas, we must ensure that the service centers (and, especially, the state’s urban areas, Portland, Bangor and Lewiston-Auburn) are thriving.