Communities that are more sustainable fared better over the pandemic

One of the most profound thinkers on community development is John Turner, now retired on the South coast of England, whose work on housing in Latin America and India turned conventional wisdom on its head.

“What they thought was the solution (slum clearance) turned out to be the problem” he told me many years ago “and what they thought was the problem (informal settlements) turned out to be the solution.

I was reminded of John’s words when chairing a session earlier this Summer for researchers on rural development across the world, Regions in Recovery Global e-festival organised by the Regional Studies Association.

For years, rural areas have been seen as a problem in terms of economic development. Policy at national and European levels characterise rural areas as ‘peripheral’ regions that are backward and needing to catch up with the centre. Across the OECD, rural regions account for 80% of the land mass and are home to 30% of the population. The challenges are characterised as scattered people, population decline, poor access, distance from markets and low diversity.

But how have these peripheral areas fared under COVID-19?

A team of researchers across a range of European countries, including Scotland, Ireland, Finland, Sweden, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Canada came together to examine this, funded by the (European) Northern Periphery and Arctic Programme. Appropriately, many of the researchers were bringing their own lived experience to bear and the research was coordinated from the Outer Hebrides by CoDel, Community Development Lens. 

The research findings were that rural areas were both advanced in terms of their sustainability, but also organised and effective in terms of responding to challenges, with more positive health and economic outcomes.

  • Cohesive communities and responsive local governance found local solutions, for example to implement test and trace systems effectively, to shut down community transmission swiftly and to vaccinate local populations rapidly. 
  • There had been extensive community engagement and participation, volunteering and generosity expressed in practical action to help the most vulnerable.
  • Over half of the entrepreneurs surveyed, consider that COVID-19 brought about new business opportunities.

The presenters of the research included Mads Randbøll Wolff who has been a leader in rural sustainable development, new Nordic food and bioeconomy action in Denmark and Liam Glynn, Professor of General Practice, School of Medicine, University of Limerick. Liam helped to lead the inspiring community campaign, ‘no doctor, no village’ and is Chair of the organising committee for the next World Rural Health Conference in June 2022.

As a practising GP alongside his academic research, Liam concluded that “the resilience shown by rural and remote communities during Covid-19 has been a testament to the inherent engagement, cohesiveness and flexibility of these communities.  The pandemic has generated a renewed vigour in re-imagining life on the periphery as a very attractive place for people and businesses to come, work and live.”

Theona Morrison of CoDel suggested that the the social and economic infrastructure of voluntary organisations, social and community enterprises have proved critical for island and rural communities during Covid. And her colleague Thomas Fisher, stressed that “this builds on 40 years of practice among island communities such as Uist in delivering to community needs, building community wealth, and developing our islands as attractive places to live and work.”

This includes efforts around culture and participation, such as this wonderful poster coming out of a Scottish Rural Parliament.

Perhaps in recognition of this, earlier this year, Uist and Lewis were named as Social Enterprise Place award winners by Social Enterprise Scotland. As Thomas says “at last our island communities are being more fully recognised for their dynamism, enterprise and resilience.” Things are starting to change.

Similarly Patrick Krouse, CEO of the Scottish Crofting Federation commented in the research that “I really do believe that crofting, and rural and island, are coming into their own. I have noticed that policy makers are looking at crofting a lot more as a way forward, rather than an anachronism, as they used to.”

At the heart of this is a recognition that many rural communities are at the forefront of the shift towards a more sustainable economy, using natural resources with care, encouraging a diverse micro-enterprise base and recognising the scope for community action and ownership.

Covid-19 has also shifted how people view the attractiveness of rural living. There are signs of people leaving cities and buying properties in rural areas and islands. Ironically, of course, this in turn can lead to tensions around housing, with some concerns of a new ‘economic clearance’ if local people are priced out and forced out of their own communities.

As John Turner might conclude, with a wry smile, the problem has again become the solution. The rural, the sustainable, has become the place to watch.

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