Taking depopulation seriously: a pioneering law from Spain

Thomas Fisher reports from the EU’s Rural Pact Conference in Brussels

So often rural areas lament their depopulation, but seem unable to do anything about it.  We know from CoDeL research in Uist, across the Scottish islands (see the many casestudies in www.islandsrevival.org), and across the Northern Periphery and Arctic (e.g. in Atlantic Canada and the Faroe Islands) (see here, here and here) that the over-arching narrative that all so-called ‘remote’ areas suffer from depopulation is not the case.  There are plenty of areas where younger people with new perspectives and aspirations are returning, settling or staying, where the local population is stable or growing, and where these trends accelerated during the pandemic.

However, there is no denying the depopulation in some areas in almost all countries, including in central Spain.  The Region of Castilla-La Mancha is just a little larger than Scotland, but with a population of only two million.  Over a quarter of the region’s municipalities have less than 100 residents, over two thirds of municipalities less than 1000 inhabitants.

But as I discovered at the EU Rural Pact Conference in Brussels last week, the region is not sitting idle at all.  It has introduced a pioneering Law on Economic, Social and Tax Measures against Depopulation which came into force in June 2021.

The law aims to overcome the traditional agri-centred approach for rural development. It is based on the assumption that the cohesion of rural territories affected by depopulation requires interaction among diverse activities and sectors (tourism, trade, industry, green, digital, silver and social economy, etc.). This exercise stems from a 360º analysis of the problems affecting rural areas and incorporates cross-cutting measures to be implemented by all departments of the regional government. Specifically, it promotes actions aimed at guaranteeing equal access to basic services: education, health and social services. It also places special emphasis on ‘connecting’ rural areas, both digitally and through new transport alternatives. Finally, it supports and encourages the development of economic activity, with specific incentives for the different areas, taking into account their degree of depopulation.

European Network for Rural Development casestudy (here)

Measures for municipalities that have a population density of less than 12.5 inhabitants/km2 (two thirds of the total), as well as additional municipalities at risk of depopulation, include:

1) a guaranteed access to public services:

  • opening rural schools with a minimum of 4 students
  • a contract Programme (“Contrato Programa“) that funds higher education for young people who decide to study out of their hometown while their family continues living in the municipality, and if the young student comes back or goes to another sparsely populated area when concluding their studies
  • access to health emergency services in less than 30 minutes.
  • boosting homecare services for the elderly and access to residential resources at a distance of less than 40 km
  • introducing demand-sensitive transport

2) Investment incentives for businesses, including:

  • public aid of up to 40% more than in other areas of the region, for companies and self-employed workers who decide to establish themselves in sparsely populated areas
  • a €10 million fund to provide financial support for business projects in sparsely populated areas or areas at risk of depopulation
  • a Talent Recruitment Programme with incentives to return to work in rural areas.

3) a plan to guarantee access to optic fibre and 5G in all towns in the region.  By 2023 there will be optic fibre in every municipality.  There is also aid for delivering optic fibre to industrial sites and business areas, most of them in depopulated areas, and a social voucher on connectivity (“Bono Social de Conectividad”) to guarantee internet access to 5,600 vulnerable families at risk of digital exclusion.

4) tax incentives, e.g. deduction of up to 25% on personal income tax for residents  in areas of extreme depopulation,  a 15 % income tax relief for the purchase or renovation of a home, and a reduction of more than 50% in taxation on capital transfers and legal acts for acquiring a primary residence in these areas, or business premises.

5) rural proofing as a compulsory measure in the law to identify and assess the impacts on rural areas of new regulations, plans or programmes – through ’demographic impact reports’ – and define measures to correct potential imbalances.

6) a Regional Strategy against Depopulation, designed for a period of 10 years, with 210 concrete actions.  These include measures to develop cultural resources and activities, and access to these in villages.  The overall strategy mobilises EUR 3 322 million from regional, national and EU funds.

This “comprehensive, multi-sectoral and integrated” approach, enshrined in law, is striking, and other regions such as the neighbouring region of Extremadura are taking up similar actions.  Will other countries follow with the same political will and allocation of resources?

For the presentation at the Rural Pact Conference, on Castilla-La Mancha’s Law on Economic, Social and Tax Measures against Depopulation, see here.  For a casestudy on the law see here, including analysis of the critical role of pre-zoning (different responses to different starting situations, based on a detailed zoning exercise that classifies rural territories in clusters of areas, not just in terms of population, but with similar levels of socio-economic development and quality of public services), the integrated approach to rural development, the strong political leadership and coordination of actors with a long-term vision.

Lessons from Seed

Blogpost by Col Gordon, which appeared in The Learned Pig, 5Apr21.

“Open world begins with place, not with simple piety of place, but with knowledge (informed, sentient, intelligent) of place. Thoroughly known, every place is open. From the smallest rivulet, via a network of rivers, one arrives at the ocean. A little geology allows one to know that not all the stones on the local beach are necessarily of local origin, that glaciers may have brought them in from elsewhere. Likewise, from a layer of local rock one can move across nation and continents. An informed look at the sky will see mot only wind-driven cloud, but the tracks of migratory birds. To all of which must be added the movements of population and language.”

Kenneth White, The Wanderer and His Charts, 2004

“How many individuals, cultures, and histories are behind every seed sown? This vastness is important, for it is inseparable from the seeds. They must go together. They should all be on the seed packet, or handed to us by the last person to grow the plants who should know the names of these individuals, cultures, and histories. The people just by growing these plants are participating in all of this. They are doing a hell of a lot to keep the world alive. But do they know what they need to know to be actually keeping the seeds of culture alive along with the seeds that represent them?”

Martín Prechtel, The Unlikely Peace at Cuchumaquic, 2012

I’m a seed collector. Grains tend to be my thing. I see them as a vital component to envisioning a healthier farming system than the dominant one of industrialised monoculture we have today. Today fewer and fewer varieties of cereal are available to us, and those that are don’t tend to be fit for the healthier system we may wish to create. Over the past few years, I’ve written to a number of gene banks around the world requesting seed samples of different “accessions” of cereals. I’m then sent are little packets generally containing 5g of each different type of grain. I’ve received a great many seeds from places as varied as Georgia, France, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Armenia, Switzerland, Azerbaijan, Iran, Germany, Morocco, Belgium, Tajikistan, and Spain.

Learning from seeds

These grains had all been deposited and maintained in centralised gene banks, often over a number of decades. In a sense, despite having originally come from very specific places, which you can often trace back to, they are often many generations removed from the parts of the world they developed and were originally from.

The purpose of me collecting all of these different seeds, is not to grow them out as a museum of the world’s grains with individual lines kept separate. What I’m doing with them is attempting to work out which seeds thrive on this farm, which happens to be in the Scottish Highlands. Far from everything grows and works well here, but a surprising amount shows great signs of potential. What I aim to do with this, is select all the seeds that look as though they have interesting characteristics and are able to express them well in this particular part of the world and then grow them all together in the field. Over a process of time these mixtures will develop into a more coherent “population”. Eventually these populations will be perfectly suited and adapted to this specific farm’s unique characteristics, challenges and conditions. Eventually this mixture of seed will become a “landrace” which can be defined as something that has “developed over time, through adaptation to its natural and cultural environment”. They will “belong” to this place.

Another angle of the seed work that I do is to track down and grow the last remaining landraces which have been grown, saved and passed on in an unbroken line for an unknown number of generations here in the north of Scotland. In today’s world, the fact that these still exist at all is very special. Seen by most modern farming standards, these landraces of small oats and bere barley, could be dismissed as agronomically unviable genetic throwbacks that can have no part to play in farming today. Keeping them going on marginal lands in the Western Hebridean Islands and the Northern archipelagos of Orkney and Shetland, is all fine and well, but these have no place in “modern” farming or agriculture. We can’t expect to “feed the world” with these. There may be some truth in this but, these were the crops that sustained the people who lived in this very marginal part of the world for hundreds if not thousands of years. Most of the terrain in the Highlands and Islands is not prime arable land, but yet these grains thrived in these conditions and supported high numbers of very active people. These are not inferior foods but forgotten foods, and we need to reimagine how to use them.

When I have these different seeds in my hands, I often think about all the history and culture that is embedded into them both from all different parts of the world. I don’t see these two different approaches to collecting grains as being in any way mutually exclusive. I am in no way held back from preserving and reimagining uses for the local landraces just because I’m also bringing in grains from all manners of different places and cultures. After these grains all get a chance to settle into being grown on this farm, they will hopefully complement each other to make a more beautiful, resilient and relevant arable system to the one we are currently working with or ones that have existed in the past.

Recently though, I’ve realised that I have missed a number of tricks with the seeds I collect from gene banks. In many ways, seeds are embodiments of the cultures from which they have come from. The two are intertwined. By losing track of or not giving due attention to where these seeds have come from and what meaning they have to these cultures, I’m guilty of colonial appropriation and an extractive attitude. These seeds belong to certain cultures and by being grown out by me in a different context, they have been decoupled and severed from their links to the customs and cultural traditions that go with them. These seeds have become displaced from these cultures and have been scattered across the world. If I wish to integrate them into my practice, they deserve to be repaired with some cultural context about where they have come from. If I wish to use them, I have a responsibility to attempt to understand, at least on a basic level, the stories and cultures that come with them.

“The historic role of capitalism itself is to destroy history, to sever any link with the past and to orientate all effort and imagination to what is about to occur.”

John Berger, Landscapes: John Berger on Art, 2016

Understanding our own histories

If we zoom out for a moment, we can see that, in many ways, we humans are facing very similar situations to these seeds. There is a dominant and ever encroaching capitalist monoculture which many believe is not giving us an option of a safe and healthy future. A great many of us today, like these genebank seeds, find ourselves scattered, displaced, cut off from our ancestral roots and without a sense of truly belonging to a place. If we do belong to an indigenous culture that, against all the odds, has managed to retain a sense of distinctiveness and autonomy, just like the landraces, they are looked upon by the rest of society as hangers-on from a by-gone day without any relevance to the modern world. Possibly we also feel that there is a tension and conflict between these two situations and, in a way, these can be seen as opposite ends of a spectrum.

Just as we need to create coherent new ways in which these seeds from all over the world belong to new places in a deeper way, we need to collectively learn how to feel sense of belonging to place in a deep way.

One common thread I see reoccurring through a great many indigenous cultures I’ve looked into is reverence for and veneration of ancestors. This is apparent in many different parts of the world and different cultures. Maybe it’s a case of seeing ourselves as a part within a continuum. We can hear values such as “borrowing the land from future generations”, sentiments which have an inherent idea of ‘sustainability’. But as well as that, knowing who your ancestors are and knowing their history give you a greater sense of who you are.

According to Amílcar Cabral, the great anti-colonialist, cultural autonomy and liberation is based on “the inalienable right of every people to have their own history; and the aim of national liberation is to regain this right (which has been) usurped by imperialism”. We need to understand our history. Our collective history and our own family histories. This is going to involve a lot of work. It’s going to be scary and daunting. Sometimes it may involve significant grief and/or shame. But we need to know our history and this needs to be an honest view of history, warts and all. In Scotland, we are prone to buying into a narrative of being the historical victim, editing out our very significant roles in various imperial and colonial projects. We are choosing to remember a half history. Scots-Jamaican councillor Graham Campbell refers to this as “organised forgetting“. Our historic past needs to be known to give us an idea of where we are and who we are in the historical present.

Many folks will find that various lines of their ancestry can be traced to specific cultures and places, some of which may be very different to where they are situated today and call home. This process may involve an investigation into these specific cultures and places. Beginning to get a fuller understanding of who we are and where we have come from can give you a sense of positioning and orientation to move through the world with. Start to learn about these places’ unique histories and cultures: their stories and songs, their festivals and celebrations, their foods and foodways, and the spiritualities and rituals traditions of these places. All these different things can begin to give you a grounding in where you have come from individually. If you find that much of your ancestry points to the place you find yourself still in, do exactly the same, start digging a little to uncover and understand what this particular place’s history and culture is.

“We can think of place-making as something that happens through movement: significance, memories and relationships are created by patterns of walking, approaching, branching away, visiting, gathering.”

Michael Given, Attending to place and time, 2020

Understanding “this place”

To feel that you “belong to a place” is to have a deep and thorough knowledge of that specific place. Starting to “belong” could be seen as being much less about belonging to an existing culture, but instead being deeply connected to a certain place through a thorough understanding of it: of that specific place’s terrains, weather patterns, flora, fauna, fungi, as well as an understanding of this place’s place name’s, stories and folklore, and histories from what has come before. It’s about knowledge of specifics. Specifics to that place. This knowledge needs to be accumulated, over time, through observation and interaction with that place, but can also be informed by knowing about what has come before in this place. There might well be a minority language that is still spoken in here, which, if learnt, can offer a lens through which to gain deeper and richer understandings of the human observations and interactions which have already taken place here. To start to belong to a certain place will involve gaining a thorough knowledge of and reverence for it.

Archaeologist Michael Given uses the term “conviviality” to describe an ongoing conversation and interactive, working relationship with a place’s natural rhythms, seasonal changes, ecological processes and the movement of other species through it. “Seasonality demands a close awareness of, response to, and negotiation with the changing attributes and affordances of plants, weather, soil, water, animals and of course, those other animals called humans. This attentiveness enables a recognition of interdependence.”

It’s important to say here, that the knowledge and learning required here is not just intellectual, but just as much sensory and bodily. It involves physically moving through spaces, smelling different seasons, feeling the cold, or the heat, or the dampness or the wind, tasting your way through it. Movement and seasonality are in fact key to gaining this understanding. As Given says:

“for humans, mobility is the key to navigating and negotiating these complex rhythms and patterns. It acts as a bridge between different areas, opportunities and meaningful places. It is mobility that enables the circulation of practice, social connection, meaning and interaction with the environment, thus generating families and communities with a sense of cohesion and meaning.”

To know and understand spaces we belong to, we must constantly move through them and interact with them. We must learn to understand their unique rhythms of how they change with the seasons, the tides, winds.

So where to begin? If coming at it from somewhat of a standing start this will seem daunting. Are there any practical, structured ways that you can begin to go about this? Luckily, an ever increasingly popular activity – foraging – is something that can offer ways to begin this process in a way that is both very practical and structured. It is also an activity that is accessible to anyone, anywhere. There are foraging groups emerging everywhere and a great deal of resources available specific to most places. In The Forager Handbook (2009), professional forager Miles Irving writes that “gathering wild food in our own locality creates a rich and ongoing relationship with the land. When we start digging around for this forgotten knowledge, we are getting into the ground of our heritage. Our ancestors knew the places where they lived: every inch of land, every kind of plant, every sign of life. They made use of everything. They were intimately involved with their surroundings, immersed in the ebb and flow of the seasons. Their attention was anchored to the here and now as they watched with anticipation the gradual emergence of shoots and stems, flowers and fruits, waiting patiently for the time to gather and make used of them. Signs indicating the presence of plants, animals, birds, and fish consumed their consciousness. With senses sharpened to the immediacy of instinct they discerned the presence of every animate or inanimate object. In doing so they were themselves powerfully present.”

Foraging offers a powerful and practical structure through which to practice this movement and attentiveness to place and through this begin to understand its own particular natural rhythms and seasonality. This understanding of place could be the first step needed to begin to belong to it.

“To restore any place, we must also begin to re-story it, to make it the lesson of our legends, festivals, and seasonal rites. Story is the way we encode deep-seated values within our culture. Ritual is the way we enact them. We must ritually plant the cottonwood and willow poles in winter in order to share the sounds of the vermillion flycatcher during the rites of spring. By replenishing the land with our stories, we let the wild voices around us guide the restoration we do. The stories will outlast us.”

Gary Paul Nabhan, Cultures of Habitat, 1997

Repurposing Ritual

Of course, awareness and understanding of seasonal rhythms is not something that is restricted to gathering wild foods. The farming calendar is made up of tasks that are performed at certain times of year and often happen on certain dates. There are set times of year when tasks are performed, which are in response to the natural opportunities and limitations of the seasonal changes. Planting cereals will happen at particular times of years either in the Autumn after harvest or in the Spring; Lambing and calving will, generally speaking, happen early in the year; the shearing or clipping of the sheep fleece will happen in the summer; livestock sales tend to be towards the end of the year once the growing season has fattened up the animals; pruning and planting of trees will happen early in the year before the sap starts rising up into the trees. The farming year is very much shaped by seasonality.

Historically in Highland Scotland, these seasonal shifts and their associated agricultural tasks were often marked by specific festivals, customs and rituals. The two most significant seasonal of these were Beltane (1st May) and Samhain (31st October). These were this region’s marker points to signify the beginning and the end of the growth season. As F. Marion McNeill writes in The Silver Bough: Vol. III (1961): “whilst Beltane celebrated the renewal of vegetation, Samhuinn solemnised its decay”. By Beltane, all the cereal should have been sown in the low lying and more fertile glens (in-bye) and the livestock would be herded up into the upland hills (out-bye) to spend the long, summer months up in the shielings or summer pastures. By Samhain all the crops should be harvested and the livestock would have returned back down the hills to spend the winter low in-bye.

The other two major festivals were Imbolc (1st February) and Lughnasa (1st August), which both were centred around the seasonality of milk and grains: Imbolc signified the beginning of the lambing and with it the year’s return of milk. Anecdotally I have also heard that Imbolc was the traditional date that the grain from the previous year’s harvest had finished “curing” and was ready for grinding. Lughnasa marked the beginning of the year’s grain harvest but also was the marker for when the sheep milk would begin to dry up for the year. All of these festivals would involve all manners of elaborate rituals and rites. For the most part these agricultural rituals are no longer celebrated.

To many modern people “ritual” is an uncomfortable and somewhat alien word. It’s not the type of thing we are accustomed to thinking or talking about, much less practicing. Even the mention of it can put us on edge and immediately bring to mind images from films like “The Wicker Man”. This needs to be kept in the back of our minds, but at the same time we need to recognise that even in modern, secular society rituals are things we still, often practice. This can be day to day things such as making the bed, drinking coffee or tea in the morning, laying the table and eating together, opening and shutting the curtains, etc. It can also be things we do on specific calendar dates. For instance, my own year might involve: guising (trick or treating) and bobbing for apples on Halloween; bonfires, fireworks and burning effigies on Guy Fawkes Night; hanging wreaths and decorating evergreen trees in the run up to Christmas; staying up late and seeing in the bells on Hogmanay; first footing on New Year’s Day; candlelit dinners on Valentine’s Day; eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday; practical jokes on the morning of April Fool’s day; and painted and chocolate Eggs at Easter. Rituals are still being practiced and carried out and remain important to us, whether we think about them as rituals or not. These are all things that need to happen at specific times in a year to retain any semblance of meaning that might be left in them. If they stray from these dates, they make less sense to us.

But yet, despite still being observed in today’s modern, largely secular society, much of the meaning these rituals are supposed to hold is no longer there. Do many of us still know why we eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday or hang wreaths around Christmas? Do many of us care? This loss of meaning should not go unnoticed, as without this sense of meaning these processes seem neutered. Do most of us really feel that burning an effigy of Guy Fawkes is necessary today? Probably not. But the process of this ritual is something that still draws us together to participate in. Interestingly, in the town of Lewes in the South East of England, this ritual has regained its potency, by updating the effigy from that of Guy Fawkes to a caricature of a leading political “villain” from that year. This simple change has made it an event that draws folks from all over the country to come take part in. It’s been re-given meaning.

Just like the ritual festivals of Beltane and Samhain in Highland society, in traditional societies across the world, we find similar ritual festivals built into their particular calendars, which reflect the seasonal and agricultural changes of these places. The timing of these seasonal changes are things that we have no real control over nor can be deviated from in any significant way.

On the other hand, the specific traditions, rituals, customs and festivals that are used to mark these seasonal points need not be set in stone at all. Whilst there may be existing cultural traditions and practices, these can be melded and meshed with traditions and customs from elsewhere or invented afresh. There is opportunity here to create new culture together in an inclusive way, informed and inspired by ancestral traditions of anywhere in the world, but made specific to this place.

In The Future of Ritual: Writings on Culture and Performance (1993), theatre writer Richard Schechner points out:

“human ritual, too, might be said to short-circuit thinking, providing ready-made answers to deal with crisis. Individual and collective anxieties are relieved by rituals whose qualities of repetition, rhythmicity, exaggeration, condensation, and simplification stimulate the brain into releasing endorphins directly into the bloodstream yielding ritual’s second benefit, a relief from pain, a surfeit of pleasure.”

The possibilities implied here are exciting. As mentioned earlier, in uncovering our own personal and collective histories, we are going to be faced with dealing a potentially overwhelming amount of trauma. Some of us will need to have ways to deal with ancestral grief; some of us will need to have ways to deal with ancestral shame; many of us will have to deal with both.

These traumas are incredibly complex and deep and we need ways to process them. In so many ways, we need to work out how to do this collectively, as well as individually, so we can heal, reconcile and understand each other. Perhaps creating new rituals could be one way to do this. The poet Kenneth White writes that the great work needed of us at this time “is to integrate aspects of many cultures into a new coherence”. Ritual could be a means through which to imagine new cultures, to understand belonging and to discover shared values. This can happen both individually and collectively as communities, dwelling in these specific places.

“By the time a century or two of exploitation has passed there comes about a veritable emaciation of the stock of national culture. It becomes a set of automatic habits, some traditions of dress and a few broken-down institutions. Little movement can be discerned in such remnants of culture; there is no real creativity and no overflowing life.”

Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 1961

Cultural Coherence

At the 2021 Oxford Real Farming Conference, seed keeper Rowen White made a compelling case that “we are in a crisis of culture”. Knowing our own history and culture, according to Amílcar Cabral, does not mean that these have to be static or fixed. Far from it. “Culture, like history, is necessarily an expanding and developing phenomenon”. Cultures are constantly morphing and shifting. In a healthy culture elements other outside cultures are adopted whilst other are ignored, just as elements of their own cultures are retained whilst others are dropped.

At this point it might be useful to go back to the seeds which I started with. “Find your people’s seeds,” writes Martín Prechtel. “Lacking those, find seeds of the edible plants you love the most. Then find their stories. Then go further; find their scientifically explained origins, then find their real mythological origins.” Just like these seeds, not everything we bring to the field is necessarily going to work well. Over time, with a lot of trial and error, we will find that some seeds work really well in this place where as others are not as well suited and disappear.

But with those that work well, we need to go back and find out more about them. These seeds will grow together and mix together; learn how to navigate the specific characteristics of the fields together; and they will begin to thrive together. Over time these dispersed seeds will become what we now call a “landrace”. These fields will not only be filled with beautiful, diverse seeds of all tonalities, shapes and colours, but also filled with beautiful meanings, stories and histories, somehow brought together in a coherent, unified way.

We need to find our own stories, we as humans need to learn to understand this place we find ourselves situated in, and we need to work out how to bring our stories together in a way that works in this specific place. As Rowen White says, “we need to be culture makers”. Quietly, these tasks of belonging and culture making may well be some of the most pressing and urgent that we are faced with at this moment.

What rural healthcare delivers for rural communities

by Prof. Liam Glynn, a general practitioner in Ballyvaughan, Co. Clare, Ireland and Prof. of General Practice at the School of Medicine, University of Limerick, which is hosting this year’s World Rural Health Conference in June.

Ireland has one of the highest rural-based populations in Europe. The figure appears to be on the increase as the new working arrangements triggered by the pandemic have given many people new opportunities to live outside major urban centres. This reverse of the depopulation of rural communities has also been triggered by their resilience seen during the challenges of Covid-19.

Recent research conducted in collaboration with the School of Medicine at the University of Limerick, CoDeL and others across the Northern Periphery has demonstrated that rural areas ere advanced in terms of their sustainability, and were organised and effective in responding to challenges with positive health and economic outcomes during lockdowns. The pandemic has generated renewed vigour in re-imagining life on the periphery as an attractive place for people and businesses to work and live.

Rural communities have been served very successfully in Ireland by often small GP-led primary care teams, which research demonstrates can deliver both cost-effective and high quality care to these populations.  The continuity of care created by such a system is associated with reduced need for out-of-hours services, reduced acute hospital admissions, reduced emergency department attendance and is also associated with decreased mortality.

“We saw during the Covid-19 pandemic how central and significant the role of general practice is in Irish healthcare.”

Dr. Diarmuid Quinlan, medical director of the Irish College of General Practitioners

WONCA’s 2022 World Rural Health Conference in Limerick will be a showcase for all that is best about Irish, and world, rural practice.  The conference theme, ‘Improving Health, Empowering Communities’ will explore how communities can be empowered to improve their health and the health of those around them. We will hear from 1,000+ participants from across the world in sectors including health, science, engineering, the arts, and NGOs.

The chief challenge of delivering healthcare in rural Ireland is the recruitment and retention of a healthcare workforce.  The practice I work in employs seven staff directly and two indirectly in a village with a census population of 250.  So practices are valuable economic units and investment in a transformed healthcare workforce has the potential to create the conditions for inclusive economic growth and job creation, thereby promoting greater economic stability and security, itself a key factor in better health outcomes – so thus, a virtuous circle is created

Investment in rural health can play a transformative role in expanding and financing decent work opportunities. Equally, the removal of such a workforce has a disproportionately negative effect on small communities demonstrating the truth of the axiom no doctor, no village.

The ‘corporate knowledge’, to use a business phrase, of individual and family health profiles that each of these multi-disciplinary, community-based healthcare teams possess in relation to the population they serve and the therapeutic relationships on which these are based, are an enormous health asset in our healthcare system which we should make every effort to maintain, sustain and develop.  Once these are lost, they are lost forever, and their ability to reduce the need for out-of-hours services, acute hospital admission and emergency department attendance is also lost.

Over 90% of healthcare contacts happen in the community and any healthcare system that has primary care as its foundation is more cost-effective, and delivers better health outcomes for people.

To maintain, sustain and develop our rural healthcare system, we need:

  • targeted admission policies to enrol students with a rural background in health worker education programmes
  • to connect and embed health education institutions closer to rural communities and ensure they are community facing and have a curriculum which is dominated by community-based teaching programmes.

The Scottish Graduate Entry Medical Programme (ScotGEM) is Scotland’s first graduate entry, undergraduate medical programme.  ScotGEM, tailored to meet the contemporary and future needs of the NHS in Scotland, focuses on rural medicine and healthcare improvement and is designed to develop interest in a generalist career within NHS Scotland.  Building on the existing strengths of medical teaching in the Universities of Dundee and St Andrews and health boards in Fife and Tayside, collaboration with NHS Highland, NHS Dumfries and Galloway, and the University of Highlands and Islands enable a truly distinctive programme which includes extended opportunities to train in remote and rural areas.

  • to expose healthcare students to rural and remote communities and rural clinical practices and rural health topics throughout the educational continuum.
  • to design and facilitate access to continuing education, professional development programmes and career development that meet the needs of rural health workers to support their retention in rural areas.

There is a need to switch the current focus on large urban-based healthcare infrastructure development and invest in rural healthcare infrastructure to ensure decent working conditions for rural health workers.

  • to develop different types of health workers for rural practice, such as expanded paramedic roles and advanced nurse practitioner roles to meet the needs of communities based on people-centred service delivery models.
  • to employ a package of fiscally sustainable, financial and non-financial incentives for health workers practising in rural and remote areas. The rural practice allowance is one such key support in Ireland, but access to it needs to be widened and it needs to be increased.

How to ‘rethink remote’ and put resources at the centre

by Magnus Davidson, UHI researcher, Thurso, Caithness, Scotland

We are grateful to Magnus for allowing us to feature this article which first appeared on 6 April 2022 in the John O’Groat Journal and Caithness Courier.

In the last few years there’s been growing momentum around ‘rethinking remote’. There are various definitions of remote but the most common currently suggests that remote communities are those furthest away from population centres.

It should come as no surprise why this definition is most frequently used – most people these days live in these centres.

With this definition, Caithness is remote from much of the Scottish population.

The lesser used definition can be summarised as ‘far away’. So, it’s equally as appropriate to describe Edinburgh, or London, and arguably their parliaments, as remote to those of us in the far north. Inverness, at 110 miles from my home here in Thurso, and for some could also fall within this definition of remote being far away.

‘Rethinking remote’ blends these two definitions into something that works better for those of us away from population centres, as opposed to the half of Scotland that live within 10 miles of the M8 motorway. ‘Rethinking remote’ highlights that actually ‘far away’ is a legitimate definition for remoteness when it comes to subjects like seats of power.

However, it also adopts the former definition of being far from centres but looks to challenge the assertion that these centres should only be centres of population.

If we consider the biggest challenge facing humanity in the 21st century, climate change, we can consider that urban places, which hold a large share of our country’s population, are remote from the resources they need to combat it.

In 2020, the Highland region generated 552 per cent of electricity consumption from renewable sources, up from 418 per cent in the previous year. Whilst Dounreay may, in part, have been built because it was in a remote location, Glasgow’s aspiration to have net-zero emissions by 2030 suffers because of its remote location from renewable resources.

Renewable energy is only one aspect of achieving net-zero, carbon capture and storage is also mandatory. Remote Glasgow hasn’t a carbon storing peatbog in sight, but in Caithness we have a few. We need to support our remote communities, but looking forward to 2045, the Scottish Government’s target for net zero, we’ve rethought who our remote communities are and what that support looks like.

Climate change hasn’t suddenly flipped our priorities, areas like Caithness have always supported urban populations with products such as those from the agricultural sector. Natural capital has now become the topic of conversation, but human capital shouldn’t be forgotten, many people went south throughout history to support these urban centres and industries.

It then begs the question, if we’re vital to national food, energy, and climate security, why are we not seeing the benefits? We pay the highest price in the country for electricity. Well, this comes back to the origins of our existing, non-rethought definition of remote, we lack the people to count for power. One can hope that our changing world and priorities rework benefit into our favour. I’m more convinced by hard work than hope.

There’s a role for everyone in rethinking and reworking remote. We can all work towards achieving this goal, and whilst holding those in greater positions to account by highlighting inequality, we shouldn’t forget the power of positive action. We’re here to help support our remotest communities in Morningside and Kelvinside but we need to see it done in an equitable way that benefits our communities centred in the resource.

As we look to a bonanza of offshore wind around the north Highland coast, a potentially long coming realisation of Caithness tidal power, and the inevitable repowering of older onshore wind farms, we can take inspiration from those further north. The Zetland County Council Act in 1974 led to unique, still to this day, local power in achieving benefit from Shetland’s oil and gas resources and can offer some inspiration to those of us in energy communities.

It’s time to get creative with how we approach the question of natural resources and local benefit.

This may read as a populist manifesto, but I would ask that it’s seen as a catalyst for community, county, and regional action. Our winds, tides, and peatbogs aren’t going anywhere, but the very real requirement from Scotland’s remote urban communities has come quickly.

Let’s ‘rethink remote’ and ask what we can do to support communities in our remotest cities and capture our equitable share of benefit from our local natural resources.

Communities and Tourism

A new report (in Danish) for NORA argues for a shift in the focus for tourism in rural and island communities by generating ideas for a new form of tourism – a more resilient, regenerative model. 

“Rather than focusing on a classic growth consideration, the purpose of this project became rather to map, explore and develop a tourism model that goes beyond being ‘sustainable’ and instead focusing on being resilient. Resilient in this context means that the tourism model seeks to take the sustainable development of the local community as the most important starting point.”

The Social Enterprise Academy is offering communities in Scotland and Wales a new programme “Imagining New Futures Together” which puts the sustainability and resilience of local communities first when it comes to developing tourism.

You will:

  • share your dreams for the future of your community and the role of tourism in it
  • Turn your visions into actions
  • Connect with other rural communities across Scotland and Wales
  • Develop key leadership skills to effect change and bring people with you
  • Enhance your community networks, toolkits and resources

For more informatuion, see the programme Imagining New Futures Together Leaflet-2 and Imagining New Futures Together FAQs.

If you, or your community or community organisation, are interested in this programme, please register your interest here.  There is also an information session about the programme at 9:30 to 10:30 on April 27th.  Use the same link here to register.

For those interested in another new Nordic approach to tourism see here: wonderful-copenhagen-strategy-2020.

Note: NORA is Nordic Atlantic Cooperation,  an intergovernmental organisation that brings together Greenland, Iceland, Faroe Islands and coastal Norway.

Stop the Same!

by Mads Randbøll Wolff, Denmark

It is all coming together! And it’s not simple, it’s not even “just” complex. It is complicated!

What seems to be more and more clear to me is that we have reached a point in history where the sum of all our challenges tells us that we need to do something completely different. The old answers to the old questions do not take us in the right direction anymore.

Just look at the global situation regarding sustainable development, the climate crisis, the biodiversity crisis the constant and growing pressure on human rights and democracy, the increased divide between urban and rural communities, between … you continue! Maybe it’s time to start thinking in a different way. Maybe it’s not enough to make new agreements or legislative changes on the global, national, or local level if it does not bring about real changes, changes in our culture? Don’t get me wrong, we need the agreements, we need the SDGs, the Paris Agreement, and the upcoming new global frame for biodiversity and so on. But not a single problem will be solved if those agreements do not lead to actions and not least to a cultural change. If we just continue with business as usual and think that the politicians will solve these challenges in combination with technological development, like an invisible hand, then we will do nothing but conserve the present culture, and the level of problems will increase.

This year 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the first UN Conference on the Environment that took place in Stockholm in 1972. Since then, we have seen the 1987 report from the Brundtland Commission “Our Common Future”, the 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro that delivered the UNFCCC (climate change convention), the CBD (biodiversity convention) and the UNCCD (desertification convention). We have the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris climate agreement both from 2016, and soon hopefully a new global framework for biodiversity.  For many people in western European countries, it’s not difficult to understand these problems and to try to act accordingly, but most of us do not feel it strongly enough, and so maybe we do not have a sufficient level of alertness?  

But it can’t be ignored anymore, the situation is serious, and we need to be very careful when responding to the challenges of our time. We are all starting to feel it on a community level and on a personal level. We’re facing increased energy prices, increased food prices and increased prices on a number of important raw materials. Our resources are not endless, and we need to stop misusing our common resources.

Having said all that, there is a risk of just becoming disillusioned; what does it matter at all and what can I do? Personally, I’m an optimist, and it is the optimistic perspective that gives me the energy to act. But I do not want to suggest that we all just need a scoop of optimism, that would be naive. Each of us needs to find our own source for energy as individuals and as citizens in our communities.

There are many reasons why I believe that a change for the better can be realized. I will try to list three of them here that I believe bring about transformative power on different levels:  

The relation between mankind and nature. The philosophic reason.

For centuries society and mankind has moved towards separating itself from nature and ecosystems. We are not part of the ecosystems anymore, not even on top of them. We have separated ourselves from the ecosystems, we control nature, and we change it when necessary, if it can bring about benefits. Humanity has always had impacts on nature, and nature is dynamic. Don’t get me wrong. But what seems to be a growing acknowledgement is that we have reached a dead end with this thinking, we have reached the limit in the way we extract resources and exploit nature. Humanity is about to redefine its relation to nature – as part of nature, not as an outside spectator and exploiter of nature. Maybe that will be one of the important steps in teaching us how to use without misusing! 

The desire and will to stop doing the same. The cultural level.

We do know it: that the way we live, the way we extract resources, the way we produce and consume has a limit. We can’t continue this way. Most people acknowledge this. Fewer also feel it. But it is there, the evidence that something is wrong! For many years we – collectively – have been addressing the problems by adjusting practices. And basically, we have continued to use the same kind of solutions that have proved not to change the root causes. Maybe it’s time to stop doing the same. If we want real change we need to do something new. After many years where discussions and political attention has been on fighting what we dislike, I see more and more signs of people starting to do something new, and as Buckminster Fuller said: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete. We are running out of time if we continue to fight, instead of visioning and building a better society. And It’s time to talk about a change of culture, a change of the culture that has put us in this situation.

The small but important steps taken by millions of people in doing changes in their own community. The local level.  

You don’t have a chance – take it! That seems to be the “parole” that more and more people are acting on. They don’t have a chance. At least if we look at the way society has developed for decades, emptying the local economy of agency, while at the same time promoting an on-going process of centralisation of our economy. It does not pay off to be small.  Small units, multifunctionality, etc. that have been an important part of local economies for centuries hardly exist anymore because it does not pay off. Gone is the vivid life in rural communities, the economic diversity and the diversity of how people live their lives. But how fortunate it is that many people ignored that and just did it. Took the chance that was taken away from them. We see it all over in small remote communities. People are innovating, developing, re-building the local economy. In spite of the overall structural policies.

Last week I attended the UN CBD (Convention on Biological Diversity) negotiations for a new global framework for biodiversity, the so-called post 2020 process. A very important meeting addressing a challenge that for many years has been living a silent life amongst experts. However, things are changing, the biodiversity crisis is becoming real, and it can be felt by people.

In many ways the meeting was delivered in a very classical way, just as was the case with the climate meetings at COP26 in Glasgow last year. But we still need them, we need the international cooperation, we need the international frameworks that guide us and set goals for what needs to be done. But we do also need to stop thinking that just because we get an agreement we are all safe. We need the agreements, but the actual work only starts after the agreements. We need therefore to use the agreements as the signal for actions.

And we do not need simple implementation of the agreements on a national legislative level. Ministries of environment cannot solve the problems regarding biodiversity alone, ministries of climate cannot solve the problems regarding the climate alone.  It’s an all-calling, all people on deck, … we need to start the cultural change now.

One thing that I was especially impressed by was the participation of the youth constituency at the CBD meeting. Young people have been organised in the Global Youth Biodiversity Network for more than a decade. They have been pushing for changes, to involve youth and civil society in addressing the problems.

For this meeting they presented a campaign based on three words, that I will adopt and use as the final words in this post:

#StopTheSame!

(#StopTheSame! for youth, biodiversity and our future | POST2020 (4post2020bd.net))

Soil

The Food and Global Security Network have reported that soil should be politically recognised as a strategic asset, as its ability to produce food underpins peace and civil stability. The #SaveSoil movement is backed by global agencies such as the UN Convention to Combat Desertification and the World Food Programme which works to enable farmers to decide themselves how best to bring back more organic content into the soil. At the Oxford Real Farming Conference in January (see our blog post on 21Jan22), it was said that an organic carrot may have as much as six times more nutrient value than a mass produced carrot.

In the midst of serious turmoil in the world both from conflict in Europe and soaring Arctic and Antarctic temperatures, being some 30 and 40 degrees warmer than they should be this time of year, now, more than ever we should look for some of the answers no further than ‘under our feet’.

It has suddenly become very important to reconsider soil from which intensive extraction has been practiced for the last two or three generations, compensated by massive inputs of fertilisers and pesticides.  In the UK alone, around 43cms/17inches of soil has been lost in the last 18 years.

Jaggi Vasudev, an Indian spiritual leader has become so concerned about the loss of the world’s soil he is travelling from London to India through Europe and the Middle East, by motorcycle, to spread his message as a contribution to waking up the world to what is happening to the one thing that physically nourishes us – the soil beneath our feet. He says:

“Soil can be enriched by introducing cover crops and more vegetation or adding plant litter and animal waste. Increasing organic matter improves soil structure, aids water retention, reduces erosion and boosts biodiversity. A teaspoon of healthy soil contains more microbes than there are people on the planet. Healthier soils provide more nutritious food and more climate-resilient landscapes that are better able to cope with extreme weather events, such as floods.”  (For more on microbes, including a cross section through a landscape in the Arctic and Taiga/Boreal forest, see here.)

It has suddenly become very important to reconsider soil, where intensive extraction has often decimated ecosystems, had enormous environmental impacts and is part of a GDP commoditised market which means that today the viability and productivity of monoculture farming is looking less viable than ever (the loss of soil in the UK in the last 18 years is truly staggering).

In addition, much land is being lost to sustainable food production, across England, Scotland and Wales, where vast tracks of land are being bought on the open market, an unregulated ‘free’ market. The drive by corporate business is to ‘off-set’ carbon by ‘abandoning’ the land to nature, or by planting trees. Such land purchases are to offset their actions, that may be as far away as the other side of the world, on a financial balance sheet of carbon credits.  This is increasingly referred to as ‘greenwashing’, as it does little to improve our soil or feed our nations at a time when Britain imports 42% of its food.

As we quoted in our blog post on 10 March, “This doesn’t stop [companies] polluting, just helps them to shift the blame and to let them off the hook.(Gareth Wyn Jones, Sheep and beef farmer, TV Presenter)

As the statement from Jaggi Vasudev said, soil can be enriched by the introduction of crops, vegetation or by adding animal waste. We need to look in completely new ways at nurturing soil and producing food locally and sustainably.  As an example relevant to my own islands, grass that is not grazed, fades.  In hay meadows that are not grazed, dominant species thrive, diminishing biodiversity. We need to look again at large herbivores who contribute to the soil by their very action of grazing, walking and ‘feeding’ the land.

Whatever solutions are put forward, they need to be considered not only in terms of the demands of the climate emergency, but also in the context of what the land in a country is for.  Surely feeding its people, and sustainably, should be top of the list?

“To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

The concept of Redefining Peripherality embraces the feelings, rooted in lived experience, of those who live in so-called peripheral areas, as we saw in our last post from Matthias in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

We have an international and vibrant community with inspiring individuals from all over the world, international and innovative companies, a rich cultural life and awesome festivals. Priceless. And not part of any measurement. Having lived in many urban centers before deciding to move to the edge of the Arctic Circle, I have never experienced such an inspiring and international environment anywhere else before. If this is what peripheral means, I certainly embrace it.

Matthias Kokorsch

Sometimes Redefining Peripherality lies in the detail of complex legislation and regulation, such as the Fourth National Planning Framework (NPF4) in Scotland which is currently out for consultation.  This is an important document that will affect planning decisions and local plans for the next 10 years in Scotland.  This is how Planning Democracy sets out its importance:

Getting the wording right for future planning policies is crucial in ensuring decision makers, including local authority planners, councillors and Scottish Government Reporters are given a clear steer to make the best decisions. 

Tackling key issues such as climate change and biodiversity loss are aspirations clearly voiced in this document, but which are not necessarily going to be achieved unless we strengthen some of the policies to make requirements more robust and reduce the number of get out clauses. 

Continuous economic growth is not possible, we live on a planet with finite limited resources. We don’t want developments to be given permission just because development itself stimulates the economy.

We have to start to limit development so that we don’t continue to use up the Earth’s precious resources. We need to learn to do more with less and consider reusing and refurbishing buildings, whilst conserving precious land and consuming less.

A transformative planning system shifts from the belief in continuous economic growth to acknowledging that growth of itself is not necessary for well-being. This means NPF4 needs to balance ‘enabling’ good development, with the prevention of unsustainable developments. 

Currently the focus is on the former, the latter needs a lot more work.  In essence we are urging the government to use NPF4 to enable planning to act as a regulator, as well as an enabler of public interest development.

The Scottish Government consultation is open until 31st March (see here), and this is Planning Democracy’s guide to the consultation.

The invasion of Ukraine has led to soul searching among so many in Europe and across the world.  As Russian novelist Mikhail Shishkin wrote recently, “What can a writer do? The only thing he can: speak out clearly. Silence means support for the aggressor.”

Likewise, the climate emergency, the Covid pandemic and the increased wealth disparities in our country and across the globe, already obscene before the pandemic, no longer allow us to remain ‘neutral’, to tinker at the margins.  The emergencies are having direct impacts on our daily lives, whether it is extreme weather events or the rise in living costs that are forcing many to choose between being warm or putting food on the table for their children.

As are the impacts of detailed and apparently progressive green legislation and regulation, such as the booming market for carbon offsetting.  As major companies buy up more and more land in Scotland and Wales to offset their carbon emissions, agricultural and other land prices are rocketing, taking it far out of the reach of farmers and communities (see Community Land Scotland’s latest report here), while the companies have a legal excuse to avoid reducing any pollution from their core business.

This is the shocking amount of land that the Foresight Group is using to offset carbon for the world’s worst polluters. 8,117 ha is a lot of trees and a lot of land that could be producing food.  This doesn’t stop them polluting, just helps them to shift the blame and to let them off the hook.

Gareth Wyn Jones, Sheep and beef farmer, TV Presenter

This means that more and more land is given over to tree planting and taken out of food production just at a time when food security and the urgent need to produce more food locally, organically and sustainably is coming to a head. 

In the face of such challenges, it sometimes feels as though all we have time and energy for is to fight against what is not working.  However, maybe we misplace our time and energy in doing so.  Our Danish colleague Mads Randbøll Wolff introduced us to this quotation from Buckminster Fuller, an American architect, systems theorist, author, designer, inventor and futurist.

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

So individually and collectively, as communities and societies, we can embrace the positive challenge of building new models that honour people and planet.

CoDeL’s research on Covid economic impacts across the Northern Periphery discovered some positive initiatives relating to local food supply chains (see report here, p.20), in which legislation and practices relating to health and safety, which are often determined by an economic system geared to urban realities, were relaxed.

The Faroe Islands support Heimablídni, a local concept that allows family businesses to start serving food in their own home without the prior sanitary approvals normally required when starting a cafe or restaurant. And addressing the obstacles to more localised and home slaughtering, Greenland has a concept called “Kalaaliaraq”, establishing designated local slaughtering and trading areas where farmers themselves can use the facility to slaughter and process their meat in a food and safety-approved environment.

Is Redefining Peripherality an impossible task?  A view from Iceland

by Matthias Kokorsch, University Centre of the Westfords

Words are powerful and they can determine our consciousness. There are many terms which we have a vague idea of, or words we might use carelessly, and in most cases this does no real harm.  Many terms do not provide a universal definition and yet carry specific connotations.

There are also terms that we can define mainly through their opposites or through their absence. Justice, for example, is surely an important virtue and principle for society. Despite its importance, or perhaps because of it, a universal definition cannot be found. On the other hand, most people can easily identify the absence of justice and it might thus be easier to define this very value by its opposite. Something I would certainly not suggest for the words I want to highlight now.

‘Rural’, ‘remote’, and ‘peripheral’ are other terms that lack a universal definition. Unfortunately, they are too often defined merely by their counterpart: the urban. ‘Urban’ is a term that in a way serves as the reference point or benchmark. As a thought experiment, I wonder which image comes into peoples’ mind, when they close their eyes and hear the words rural or peripheral. Do people from Orkney, Klaksvík or Grimsey have the same image in mind as those living in Edinburgh, Copenhagen, or Reykjavík?

Should rural, peripheral and remote be rethought and redefined? Should they be classes of their own? Remote and peripheral in relation to what? And why do rural, peripheral and remote often come with rather problematic connotations, even stigmatisation? This definition dilemma is something I am confronted with on a daily basis – both on a personal and professional level. And what to do when you keep on thinking inconclusively, getting lost in one of the many rabbit holes the rural-urban discourse has to offer? Well, you make others think and get some fresh perspectives. This is what I do frequently.

I teach a course at the University Centre of the Westfjords, located in the town of Ísafjörður. A place that is almost impossible to define. Some people – mainly those that have never been here – refer to it as peripheral, rural and remote. Maybe it is. But then let’s be consistent and at least call it ‘double-peripheral’: a peripheral community on a very peripheral island. A peculiarity that some people in the capital region of Iceland tend to forget.

One of the first tasks I set for the students in my class is to define some key words, such as rural, community, and peripheral. Not surprisingly this task is much more complex than it seems. And even less surprising, after a few rounds of racking their brains, most students provide definitions that are based on quantitative assessments and derive from an urban-centred viewpoint. In short, rural and peripheral are mainly what urban is not. The old paradigm, the old rural-urban divide, hardens.

But how to change this thinking, when even allegedly ‘new paradigms’ still have “functional urban areas” as their origin or reference point (like some textbooks offered for classes on regional development). When I shift the task by setting the rule to find qualitative approaches and assess the topic more critically, blank papers and silence are the result.

And even though this is neither the students’ fault, who just started our programme, nor a problem per se, I hope that the students – and thus community developers of the future – will develop a critical mindset and use qualitative and innovative measurements in their future careers. Changing not only mindsets, but also advocating shifts regarding the toolbox to use is something a small but incredibly inspiring group of practitioners and researchers is doing. Some of them teach at our University Center. Changing paradigms, however, has taken, and will take, decades. We at the University Center have one year to work with very sharp individuals and we just welcomed our third cohort. After three years, I am optimistic that we have some excellent critical thinkers and promising young scholars who will discover the many facets of community development.

But why is it so important to question traditional and current narratives?

Peripherality and distance are factors that can be measured, at least to some extent. But more importantly, it is something that can be felt. Getting back to Ísafjörður, we might wonder: are we peripheral? are we rural? According to classic definitions and the quantitative lens, we most likely are. And we are certainly rural in terms of population figures or when we apply classic key economic variables, as useless as they may be.

But I do not tire of my mantra: stop counting heads. We might have just some 2,500 people. But what does this number say? Absolutely nothing. It is individuals that make a difference and turn space into meaningful place. We have an international and vibrant community with inspiring individuals from all over the world, international and innovative companies, a rich cultural life and awesome festivals. Priceless. And not part of any measurement. Having lived in many urban centers before deciding to move to the edge of the Arctic Circle, I have never experienced such an inspiring and international environment anywhere else before. If this is what peripheral means, I certainly embrace it.

Being peripheral or remote is, from my perspective, mainly about a mindset. Returning to the beginning of this post, words are powerful, and they can accelerate stigma. And I think we can talk about some sort of semantic lock-in that the rural, remote and peripheral discourse is located in. How do we talk about ourselves and comparable places? Which narrative and which adjectives will we add to the notion of peripheral? Will we be apologetic – “we are remote but…”?

This semantic lock-in might however be one of the easier lock-ins to unlock or resolve. We can start with ourselves. Functional lock-ins (hierarchical networks and ossified leaders), cognitive lock-ins (antiquated world views and strategies that hinder innovative imagination), organisational lock-ins (institutional inertia and overreliance on existing local networks and ties) and political lock-ins (thick institutional tissues that seek to preserve existing and traditional industrial structures, hampering the development of indigenous potential and creativity) are most likely to stay with us a bit longer. But that is another story.

Redefining peripherality might not be impossible, but it is meaningless without changing mindsets, without rethinking.

Rural geography of hope: the power of visual narratives

by Anna Karlsdóttir, Nordregio and University of Iceland

Once upon a time, more precisely in the 1970s, the Nordic countries experienced an untypical demographic trend compared to the decades pre and post World War 1 and 2.  A movement of people were driven by their desire to settle in less densely populated areas.

Let’s look to Sweden where it was called the “Green Wave”. The reason was lifestyle choices that led to an exodus from larger urban areas to smaller villages in rural areas or the countryside. This put a halt to depopulation of smaller villages, villages that had until then in the 20th century been gradually depopulated, with an increasing number of people moving for a variety of work opportunities to larger urban areas and cities.

Today many countries are experiencing a renewed interest in rural living in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.  Since the start of the pandemic, anecdotes have been shared across countries of people from cities ‘escaping’ to rural areas, to access rural assets like affordability, space and natural amenities. In some instances individuals have relocated to a seasonal residence during lockdowns and stay-at-home orders. In other cases, highly educated ‘knowledge workers’ who have shifted to remote work during Covid-19 are moving to rural areas, again driven by the search for more space, greater affordability, natural amenities, and a different lifestyle.

This “retreat to rural” can certainly bring opportunities, including demographic and economic growth, diversity, new ideas, and new networks.  Some rural communities and provinces are even looking to attract so-called “digital nomads” to work from rural areas. However, not all rural communities can capitalise on this ‘retreat to rural’. Access to high quality, reliable broadband is essential for working from home and this is a significant challenge for many rural communities, for example across Atlantic Canada, Scotland and parts of Nordic countries.

Swedish media is demonstrating the emerging trend that Covid-19 has directly enhanced. One of the largest newspapers in Sweden (DN) has reported on young families moving from Stockholm to smaller more peripheral places. Young families are looking for more spacious facilities outside of cities where they can combine work and family life, after almost 40% of working age professionals were sent home to work. Persistently booming urban house prices, expensive flats with smaller living areas in dense urban settings and the move to home for work have created a push to rural areas.

In the peripheral region of East Iceland, no house or apartment is available for sale.  If any is put on the market in the area of Egilstaðir, Fellabær or Fljótsdalur, it is sold within the hour. And there are reports of people normally working in Norway and Denmark who have moved to the Faroe Islands with much fewer Covid-19 restrictions because they can work remotely.

In the Highlands and Islands of Scotland a significant trend of “moving house from urban to attractive rural areas is being identified – in part due to the increased need or scope for home working” (see here, p.9 and here, p.7). There is significant evidence from both Scotland and Ireland that house prices in some rural areas are rising sharply as urban residents seek to shift to rural areas.

The main contours for this change emerging in the Nordic countries are twofold. People are moving out of the large cities to the edge of the city, or frontier to the countryside. And people are moving to a greater extent to municipalities in rural areas that have an attraction value. However, it is probably premature to see how and if this will be a dominant or persistent trend in counter-urbanisation.

The important attraction values are natural environment, affordable housing, doing more flexible work and achieving greater work-life balance. All over Sweden there are abandoned farmhouses, often called ‘torp’ (e.g. here and here). In the South of Sweden they have been popular for decades among Danish families who acquire a renovation project and a second home, all at once. Now it seems that Swedes are starting to love to buy into some kind of rural dream or attraction value.

One manifestation of this shift is narratives of rural living through social media exposure that counteract the very well rooted and at times tiresome idea that rural areas, however diverse, are just places of population decline and meager opportunities. The other new element is that these narratives are projected with visual images, photography and video clips, especially on Instagram. Narratives in text are not as influential as pictures or other visualisations. This can be identified as a shift in the way narratives are mediated in favor of rural living.

What is interesting here is that myriad different groups have emerged.  Conscious of the multiple different groups on Instagram, here I will take my point of departure in a Swedish Instagram account/group called “Landsbygdsdröm”. The word in Swedish refers to a dream, but it does not fully translate into English, because it can also imply an aspiration that has come true. The stories are often told by young families who have chosen a lifestyle shift where tradition and innovation mix. They are making their mark by taking care of dilapidated houses or abandoned farmhouses. What the narratives focus on is the look after renovation, which is an outcome of nurturing craftmanship and their role as custodians of heritage value within the rural environment. Their currency is creativity and a longing to make the countryside their new home.

But what does this really mean? Is it an indication that values of life, a sharper sense of the climate emergency, a need for a slower pace of life, and a sense of needing to live on the land are on the increase?  Many of these families talk about how they not only manage to make their new homes more habitable but how they long for and realise their aspirations for growing more of their own food, how they can combine work and family life better, and how they can shape and rule their own life to a larger extent than earlier by venturing into new horizons for work and living.

It is an exciting time from so many perspectives. These settlers and change-makers contribute to increasing the attraction value of  heritage houses, to beautifying the countryside and revitalising the social environment.  And the benefit to them may be leaving behind a stressful life, unsubscribing from the culture of pervasive urgency.

Are the twenties of the 21st century the new 70s of the 20th century?  In what sense does this address the need to redefine peripheralities? There is definitely more to this than the houses available.  See more at https://www.instagram.com/landsbygdsdrom/, and a myriad of other Instagram narratives supporting these rural lifestyles.

One recent post from Terese, who is not among the newcomers, though expresses this clearly (first in English translation; the Swedish original text follows below; see @terese_bengard)

To me, at least, it was love at first sight. I fell for this incredibly beautiful place. I also fell for the feeling of security, to be seen but also needed. The year was 1999. The place is Ragunda municipality. And I have had the privilege of being able to live there ever since.

Ragunda kommun

The paradox was that I left a place that was ranked as “best to live” to go to a place that was worst on that list. My opinion was the opposite. And so began the “struggle” to change the notion that only urban places are the ones that count.

Today I have the opportunity to work with what I am passionate about. Just so that places like these will get what they deserve. A road that can be ridden. Good connection. A school in the immediate area. An ambulance. That the police come when you need it. That you can afford to renovate the rural farm, which is the rural arena for culture and an important meeting place. That one should be seen in the media world. To be counted. Yes, you get it. That places that are not big cities should have the same opportunities. Good conditions. Development opportunities and above all not devalued.

In the city, you take a lot for granted. As in the countryside and in smaller towns, it is just as obvious that the countryside people have to fix themselves. At the same time, there is a perception that “all contributions” go to these places. It’s not true. Slowly but surely the picture is changing and I am very happy about it. Part of that work has been to produce our “Balance Reports” which precisely report how the distribution of resources between locations is. And now the podcast we started: All of Sweden talks where I have the privilege of talking to interesting people about these issues on a deeper level. [English readers can get a good sense of the talks using web-based translation tools, and about the balance reports here].

Above all, I can now to an even greater extent work from home (the pandemic has had some positive consequences) as more meetings take place digitally. It improves the chances of being able to live and work throughout Sweden, but also because I can more often take a lunch walking in this wonderful place on earth.”

“För mig var det i alla fall kärlek vid första ögonkastet. Denna oerhört vackra plats föll jag för. Pladask. Men också känslan av trygghet, att vara sedd men också behövd. Året var 1999. Platsen Ragunda kommun. Och jag har haft förmånen att kunna bo där sedan dess.

“Paradoxen var att jag lämnat en plats som rankades som ”bäst att bo” till en plats som låg sämst på den listan. Min uppfattning var tvärtom. Och så började ”kampen” om att ändra uppfattningen att bara urbana platser är de som räknas.

“Idag har jag möjligheten att jobba med det jag brinner för. Just för att platser som dessa ska få det som de förtjänar. En väg som går att åka på. Bra uppkoppling. En skola i närområdet. En ambulans. Att polisen kommer när man behöver det. Att man har råd att renovera bygdegården som är landsbygden arena för kultur och en viktig mötesplats. Att man ska synas i den mediala världen. Att räknas. Ja, ni fattar. Att platser som inte är storstäder ska ha samma möjligheter. Goda villkor. Utvecklingsmöjligheter och framförallt inte nedvärderas.

“I stan tar man mycket för givet. Som i landsbygderna och på mindre orter det är lika självklart att bygden folk själva ska fixa. Samtidigt som det finns en uppfattning om att ”alla bidrag” går till dessa orter. Det är inte sant. Sakta men säkert håller bilden på att ändras och jag är väldigt glad över det. En del i det arbetet har varit att ta fram våra ”Balansrapporter” som just redovisar hur resursfördelningen mellan platser är. Och nu podden vi startat: Hela Sverige pratar där jag har förmånen att samtala med intressanta personer om dessa frågor på ett djupare plan.

“Framförallt kan jag nu i ännu större utsträckning jobba hemifrån, (pandemin har haft vissa positiva följder) då mer möten sker digitalt. Det förbättrar chanserna att kunna leva och bo i hela Sverige men också för att jag oftare kan ta en lunchpromenad på detta underbara plats på jorden.”