While working from home during the pandemic has made many consider a move to the countryside, it has also brought the digital divide into sharp focus: for many children in rural areas, remote learning has not been an option. COVID-19 has created new opportunities for combining the perks of urban and rural lifestyles while highlighting the urgent need to overcome the traditional division between urban and rural spaces. There is huge potential for improving quality of life across rural communities, towns and cities and their peripheries by exploring the multiple connections between them. The EU-funded ROBUST (Rural-Urban Outlooks: Unlocking Synergies) project mapped out pathways towards this objective by identifying key areas in which these relationships can be given a boost. “We advanced our understanding of the interactions between rural, peri-urban and urban areas and identified practices that foster mutually beneficial relations,” explains Han Wiskerke, professor and chair of Rural Sociology at Wageningen University and ROBUST project coordinator.
As a first step, the project team developed a framework for conceptualising these interactions. Challenging the assumption that rural and urban areas have inherent boundaries and characteristics, the document sets out three key concepts for thinking and working outside these boxes: new localities, meaning real areas in which people live, work and collaborate, which can span urban-rural territories; network governance, meaning joint decision-making by local actors at various scales and partnerships between sectors; and smart development, essentially focusing on what each area can do best. The framework was then translated into a guide for practitioners, which provides advice on how to apply these concepts on the ground.
Communities of practice
The project works with partners in regions across Europe where these linkages are studied in action. These ROBUST Living Labs, 11 in total and representing a range of rural-urban settings throughout Europe, develop and test new ways to solve problems in a specific geographic region. Their findings are shared in so-called Communities of Practice which are organised around rural-urban key themes such as public infrastructure, sustainable food and cultural connections. “The project delivered a vast number of very practical examples, such as 20 types of rural-urban business models,” says Wiskerke. The project also compiled over 20 good practice examples of how public infrastructure and services can be delivered equitably for both urban and rural citizens. These include for instance cooperative housing, smart ride sharing and local food hubs.
A situation in flux
The impact of the pandemic has fed directly into the project’s outcomes. “Whilst the project’s schedule was heavily impacted by COVID-19, we quickly managed to study the effect of the pandemic on rural-urban relations,” Wiskerke notes. The project’s study on multilocality in Finland is a case in point. Multilocality, which refers to people living temporarily in different places, is a common phenomenon in the country: an estimated 2.4 million Finns are seasonal rural residents. The pandemic has further driven this trend, shining a spotlight on the importance of adapting governance to these lifestyles, for instance by adjusting taxation. To help turn the field studies and data collected into replicable use cases, the project team is now working on models of successful governance applicable in various local settings. “Many of the examples and lessons learnt could feed into the long-term vision for rural areas that is currently being developed. This means that ROBUST can positively contribute to EU policymaking,” Wiskerke concludes.
ROBUST, rural, urban, peri-urban, living labs, framework, good practice, business models, community of practice, multilocality