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Rural dreams and the power of utopian thinking

Kim Graham

Shared Assets is part of a new project which aims to translate the hopes and dreams of rural communities across Europe into supportive policy frameworks – but with so many pressing issues to deal with, do we have time for dreams? Our Research Coordinator Kim explains why we must.

Last month, The New York Times published an article highlighting the experiences of rural communities in Cumbria, contrasting the area’s ‘bucolic landscape’ with the poverty and isolation faced by its residents. While the UK’s rural areas are often imagined as idyllic sites of natural beauty and ‘the good life’, years of austerity-induced cuts to benefits, transport, and healthcare services have pushed younger people to move to cities to find jobs, and left older generations with fragmented support networks.

Similar challenges are being faced by many rural communities across Europe. Rural populations are in decline as young people move to urban areas in search of opportunities, and those who stay face difficulty making a living and accessing services. Estimates suggest that between 2014 and 2050, rural regions’ populations will decrease by 7%, and the difference in average GDP per person between urban and rural areas is stark – €34,179 in urban regions versus €19,104 in rural regions. For anyone interested in making a life for themselves in the countryside, accessing land is also tricky – for instance, 52.2% of EU agricultural land is controlled by just 3.1% of farms.

"52.2% of EU agricultural land is controlled by just 3.1% of farms" - European Parliament (2017)

It was with these issues in mind that we attended the recent kick-off meeting for ‘Ruralization’, a four-year project involving 18 organisations from 12 European countries. The project aims to explore the challenges and opportunities in rural areas for new and existing residents, and use this knowledge to put forward policy proposals. Shared Assets’ role will be to facilitate conversations between people from rural areas which have been relatively more and less successful in recent years to see how they might learn from each other, and to support better access to land for new farmers.

Group of people (Ruralization consortium members) walking downhill across crop fields, with old building in the background

A large part of the Ruralization project is capturing the dreams of young people living in rural areas all over Europe, by asking them to imagine the future they’d like to have in 10 to 15 years’ time. Where would they like to live? What would they want to do for work, or fill their spare time with? The idea is to put these together to look for trends or patterns in their ambitions and desires, which can ultimately inform policy recommendations.

Using dreams to directly influence policy might seem overly optimistic or impractical, given the severity of problems rural communities are dealing with today. However, researchers like Ruth Levitas and Mark Shucksmith talk at length about using such utopian thinking as a method – imagining alternative visions of the world can be a means of informing holistic action today. Instead of dreaming being a distraction from urgent issues like climate change or inequality, it can be used as a tool to undermine the neoliberal power structures which uphold injustice. Keeping such a wide view allows us to purposefully embrace complexity, something increasingly considered within policy-making, inspired by systems theory, as described in this Apolitical article.

"Imagining alternative visions of the world can be a means of informing holistic action today"

At Shared Assets, we see community control over land as key to achieving the dreams of rural youth. We want to change land systems from being centred on concentrated private ownership and wealth accumulation, to underpinned by social and environmental justice. We’re excited to hear narratives about land which move us forward towards new, complex and inclusive visions of rural life, devised by diverse rural communities, recent arrivals and older generations alike. We’ve seen how this can happen through our involvement in Project Skyline, where communities in the South Wales Valleys have been imagining what they could do if they managed all the surrounding land, and hope Ruralization will provide opportunities to have similar conversations with groups across Europe. If you’re also interested in these issues, we’re always up for a chat, and you can stay up to date with the latest on Ruralization through Twitter and by signing up for news about the project here.

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