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A new pathway is emerging for the prosperous future of rural areas

Fatima Bacharel 
 Andreea China

Rural areas: the new places to be

The ongoing and rich discussion about the future of rural areas cannot be taken out of the current context, as the pandemic has created new habits for living, working and interacting. Although hit heavily, Europe was not hit evenly by the shock waves of the pandemic. Alongside the challenges, the pandemic also created new opportunities, especially for the overlooked or forgotten territories.

Smart adaptation to unexpected challenges has become the new mantra.

However, to create the correct image and design adequate and place-sensitive policies, we must understand the long-term processes and challenges that rural areas are facing, as these important functional and structural transformations shape and alter the various aspects of living and working in rural areas.

"Smart adaptation to unexpected challenges has become the new mantra."

The territorial diversity across Europe was shaped by the (innovative) responses to complex socio-economic and spatial changes. These responses enabled some territories to grow, while others have been (or will be) experiencing demographic decline. Despite this variety, some differences and perpetuated processes that are associated with east-west and north-south divides have been preserved.

Evidence from ESPON (see Maps 1 and 2) suggests that these dynamics are the result of long-standing trends.

Looking at past and future demographic developments, it is expected that the share of population living in shrinking rural areas will decrease from 36.1 % in 1993 to 29.2 % in 2033.

Since the 1960s, many of the local administrative units, especially in East-Central and Southern Europe, have experienced prolonged periods of population decrease, while a smaller number, located in Western and Central Europe, exhibited a continuous population increase. When looking at the chronology of shrinkage, the east-west divide is evident, as in western parts shrinkage mostly peaked between 1961 and 1981, whereas in most post-socialist areas (in the east) it peaked after 2000. The most affected territories in Europe, where more than 8-10 % of the population was lost over a decade, were the Baltic countries, Bulgaria, many parts of Croatia, the former German Democratic Republic, Greece, Italy, Portugal or Spain.

Understanding different drivers of shrinkage

Depopulation is seen as a long-term and, often, irreversible trend that is driven by an imbalanced age structure /natural decrease or by outmigration. However, in reality, depopulation is a result of more profound, layered and complex processes that are driven by, national, regional or urban-rural interactions, or by Europe-wide or globalised flows. Based on this idea,regions with similar characteristics were clustered together as follows (see map), generating a more detailed understanding of the challenges that need to be addressed.

"it is expected that the share of population living in shrinking rural areas will decrease from 36.1 % in 1993 to 29.2 % in 2033."

However, population shrinkage is not linked to only economic decline, and unfavourable demographic processes can be both cause and consequence of wider socio-economic challenges in an area. Primary industries play a significant role in rural area economies, and, although their contribution to the economy is usually lower, agricultural production is still important, as it generates many of the employment opportunities. Poor economic performance or adaptation was more intensely displayed in rural regions with mono-industrial profiles, affecting the job market ( which is dominated either by a shortage of recruitment prospects or by high unemployment rates).

For many reasons, these territories were unable to retain their population, given the unlimited movement possibilities that have appeared over recent decades. In addition, although one of the effects of the pandemic has been the reversal of some migration trends, especially in South-East Europe and even in rural areas, these trends will not be sustained in the long-term, if there are no opportunities to enhance the quality of life. Aspects of ensuring a higher quality of life:

"population shrink age is not linked to only economic decline, and unfavourable demographic processes can be bot h cause and consequence of wider socio-economic challenges in an area."

Providing adequate access to main services of general interest

This is not only an indicator of the degree of territorial connectedness but also an indicator of the quality of life? determined by looking at easy-to-reach and cheap access to different types of services. Ensuring the quality and quantity of service provision (education, healthcare, public administration, etc.) is a challenge that all rural territories are facing, but especially the shrinking ones. This is happening because of depopulation, but also because service provision (especially healthcare, education and social) has been under increased pressure, worsened by a lack of specialised staff or underequipped service units.

Accessing the potential of innovation

The insufficient availability of (good-quality) local services underlines the need to supply an adequate connectivity infrastructure, which refers to both transport infrastructure(specifically the provision or better organisation of public transport services) and digital infrastructure. There are still many households in (remote) rural areas that do not have access to broadband, making the situation increasingly complicated when a high share of the population experiences a form of digital illiteracy. Furthermore, in such rural areas, the capacity to attract new investments in high-tech,innovative,industries is limited, as is the composition of the local labour market or the regional sectoral specialisation. As the technological industry 4.0 transformation is already visible, regions have to find new ways to cope with the socio-economic transformations in response to increasing competitiveness.

Tackling the effects of climate change

Climate change has also a very quantifiable dimension, as its social and economic effects are already felt by populations across the EU. Assessing howthe four main natural hazards have affected the European territory paints the following picture: floods and storms have contributed to nearly 76 %, while droughts and earthquakes have contributed to 24 % of damage and losses. ESPON evidence reveals that coastal and mountainous areas, as well as those along major rivers, experienced the highest economic impacts of natural hazards; out of which, more than 170 shrinking rural regions are registering a higher average economic impact, situation which could further increase disparities between regions in territories with high vulnerability levels (like Bulgaria, Greece, Italy or Romania).

Now is the time to act on building a prosperous future for rural areas

In the context of an increasing awareness of new possibilities associated with changes in technological, market and social contexts, the search for a prosperous future for rural areas demands a global, smart and structured approach, looking at European diversity, capitalising on innovation and seizing opportunities. Sparsely populated rural areas could become increasingly interesting, as the risk of spreading COVID-19 is lower in these areas. Remote but well-connected areas could become interesting locations, as they offer the possibility of telework while enjoying the slow rhythm of living. However, all this could be done only by linking policies to citizens' and territories' needs, in a supportive dialogue, using territorial evidence to support EU and national specific strategies.

The Territorial Agenda 2030 recognises that policy responses need to have a strong territorial dimension and coordinated approaches, while acknowledging and using both the diversity and the specificities of places. In this respect, the Territorial Agenda 2030 identifies a list of necessary actions, clustered in cross-cutting domains, which are all relevant to rural areas.

The place-based approach, linked to the cross-cutting domains and fitted under the common principles laid out in the Territorial Agenda 2030, can significantly increase the coherence and effectiveness of policy responses. It is clear that some of these responses will need to be tailored to some specific territorial needs.

In addition, the implementation of the Territorial Agenda 2030, through the designated pilot actions, is a promising experience, focused on the territorial and governance models and perspectives.

Fatima Bacharel is a Senior Officer at the Directorate for Territory Portugal  Andreea China is Senior Project Expert at ESPON EGTC

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This article appears in Rural areas: an eye to the future

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