How to regenerate rural communities? We asked the experts

Collaboration, embracing unique culture and innovative thinking are all key

Revitalising rural areas isn’t easy. A 2014 analysis found over three quarters of people classified as poor in the Multidimensional Poverty Index across 105 countries lived in rural areas. Economic hardship aside, rural communities can be isolated by poor transport links or limited digital connectivity.

So as governments around the world look to help these communities solve their unique challenges, what do public servants need to bear in mind? Where should they look for inspiration? What goals should they strive for first?

In the course of reporting our Deep Dive on Resilient Rural Communities, we’ve engaged with dozens of practitioners and experts in the space. Now, we’ve asked a range of them for their top tips for policymakers looking to regenerate rural places. Here’s what they came back with.

Come together

According to John Molinaro, CEO of the Appalachian Partnership, “Rural revitalisation rarely works well one community at a time.”

Instead, he said, “you generally need a regional effort in today’s world where a small community simply cannot support an array of competitive businesses and services all on its own.”

But, he added: “Regional efforts at rural revitalisation require a strong intermediary to serve as the glue to pull all the disparate threads of a viable revitalization effort together.”

In our Deep Dive, we’ve covered the work of the Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Corporation, which co-ordinates individual towns’ rebranding efforts at a regional level.

Turn to design thinking

“Many of the challenges facing rural areas, demographic change, pressure on public services, lack of connectivity and climate change, all affect every aspect of rural life,” said Paul Cowie, a Faculty Research Fellow at the Centre for Rural Economy in Newcastle University, UK.

As such, he said, “my top tip would be to take a long-term, holistic view of the problem.”

“Policy makers are increasingly looking to design thinking and user centred design methods to tackle these issues,” Cowie said. “My second tip to policy makers would be to get up to speed on these methods and put them in your policy making toolkit.”

Apolitical’s Government Innovation and Leadership newsfeed is packed with ideas on how to change the way policy gets made, including bringing service users and other stakeholders into the heart of the process.

Collaboration is key

“Regeneration works best when there is collaboration across sectors in the local economy on various projects,” said Rosalind Kennybirch, a contributor at the Agora think tank.

She gave the example of “A university redevelopment project trying to work together and embed with other projects in the town, like a transport or mobility scheme. Tying the assets of a local area together helps to regenerate a city as a whole.”

One story from our Deep Dive which highlighted this sort of cross-sectoral collaboration was a report on the small town of Eiheiji, in Japan, where religious, public and private institutions are joining together to try and boost tourism.

Discover your identity

Eiheiji, which has sought to brand itself as a “zen city”, drawing on the area’s rich religious tradition, is also an exemplar of another top tip.

Anthony Rausch, a researcher on social science at Hirosaki University, Japan, said his advice was to shore up a strong sense of your rural community’s culture among residents.

“This means discovering and energising the cultural resources individuals possess within the community,” he said, as well as “bringing culture to the community, in the form of hosting performances and exhibitions.”

Embrace your strengths

“The ‘problem’ of rurality is that it is a somewhat paradoxical setting,” said Jameson Hirsch, Professor and Assistant Chair at the Department of Psychology in East Tennessee State University.

“On the one hand,” he continued, “rural areas are viewed as slow-paced, idyllic places, where the people are easy-going and friendly, where communities work together, and where you can enjoy the benefits of nature.”

“On the other hand,” he said, “rural areas are suffering from economic and infrastructure declines, out-migration of younger and educated persons, in-migration of persons of minority status, social isolation, and the presence of rural-based ideologies that preclude help-seeking and health.”

So, Hirsch argued, policymakers must focus “on both of these aspects; that is, on reducing the deficits and barriers that are plaguing rural areas, but also on promoting the strengths and adaptive characteristics of rural people and communities.”

He advocates a “positive public health” approach — offering “strengths-based education and training that promotes self-efficacy and engagement at both the individual and community levels, and which promotes motivation, goal-setting and goal- attainment, allowing rural communities to forge their own way forward.”

(Picture credit: Richard Smith/Deathtothestockphoto)

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