Image CC University of Gloucestershire
I’m a big fan of the ‘Monocle’ suite of podcasts, especially ‘the urbanist’, and I was struck by how one of their contributors used the term ‘urbanist’. For many years it was used only in relation to city planners but increasing it is being used to refer to anyone who is trying to shape the city. At the same time I was listening to people wrestle with terms such as ‘rurban’ and ‘rurbanism’ to try to explain the emerging links between rural areas and cities that are becoming obvious in many cities. What struck me was that there is no equivalent term for those who are trying to shape the rural, be they professional planner, community activists or just those with a vision of change.
In part that is because we tend not to think about the rural as an area that we can shape, or possibly should shape. In part that is because of the role of nature in rural areas, but increasingly this is a nature that is under our control – even the proposed re-wilding will actually be bounded and contained. Or is it that we tend to think that we cannot gain the necessary control of rural areas in social terms? Land ownership is very ‘sticky’ the processes of devaluation and revaluation that mark urban areas tend not to happen the same way (at least in the UK). So any rural opportunity becomes the preserve of those who are either wealthy, or have a particularly personal circumstance, rather than a field of action that can addressed by a wider group of people.
If this is the case then we need to think, and debate, about making rural areas more responsive to the need for change. The demands that are going to be placed on all of us by climate change and demographic shifts alone will necessitate changes to rural areas of a scale and scope that we have not contemplated for many years. There are also changes that are re-configuring rural areas around us in a more incremental but no less profound way. Most obvious of these is ICT, which is for rural areas challenging the role of space in defining what rural means. Even basic broadband, often allied to 4G, smartphones and the plethora of social media are reshaping the rural. Micro-businesses can now be connected to global markets, market towns are now facing-up to internet retailing and the plethora of delivery services, and agriculture finds itself even more tightly tethered to global markets. Hence the UK treasury is suggesting that the difference between cities and the surrounding areas cannot be detected economically, indicating that what constitutes the uniqueness of ‘ruralness’ lies elsewhere.
As I’ve hinted above the other factor that we have to consider is if the rural is becoming more urban, the urban may be becoming rural – so there are now opportunities to be a ruralist in the city. In the next few posts I’ll be considering how a ruralist set of interventions could be made. But in the next few years we are going to need people who view the rural as a space in which they can intervene to make important and purposeful change.