University of Chicago professor Jean Bethke Elshtain once referred to the city as a "floating signifier." Cities have lost their classical association with place and power, becoming instead symbols and gestures that we use to convey meaning to one another. Reading this morning's Real Estate section of the New York Times, I was struck by the realization that country life is no less a floating signifier than the city.
It seems that south of Atlanta, folks are trying to fight spreading "urban sprawl" (a.k.a., suburbia, which itself has never had much meaning to convey anyway) by buying up land and building what they consider small rural townships. But these townships are not the Mayberrys or Pixleys popularized in the more pastoral television reruns; they only exhibit loose and detached agrarian molds.
Rather than residents being separated by great distances, but held together by county seats or small town squares, these new ruralities exhibit the density of classic urban neighborhoods even as they are "tucked into a wide expanse of woodland, meadows and fields, laced with trails." These new "hamlets" do not seem driven by classical agricultural economic models; instead, the Times piece indicates that the economy is almost exclusively service-based. The article also suggests that the ruralities serve primarily as weekend retreats for some of Atlanta's city dwellers. One such retreater told the Times that he enjoys "the whole idea of living on a farm without having to do farm work." Farm life has indeed become a floating signifier giving ruralities an escapist and an environmentalist meaning.
I finished the article wondering whether these small townships are actually just the next wave of sprawl; a kind of sprawl-against-sprawl; the next outermost concentric wave of development caused by the splashes of suburbia and exurbia and the logical extension of the metropolitan idea.