Discussion Post: Rural Re-advantages?

Tue 30 Jun 2020

In this Discussion Post, Dr. Matt Reed (CCRI), posits that the COVID-19 pandemic might finally give rural areas the advantage they need to thrive, as countries and regions collectly test out their "new normal".  Read on to learn how.

Being part of the ROBUST project has given my lockdown experience in the United Kingdom a very distinctive flavour. 

I have been at home longer than at any time in the past 20 years, and I haven’t left my community – a small rural market town where I grew up – in months.  As we come out of the lockdown, the community is discussing the future and how to respond to the changed normality. The high street continues to retreat, the difficulties of a tourist economy resonate, and a complicated relationship with the food system is even more critical than before.

From my study window, I see two complex processes that currently disadvantage rural communities begin to shift.  At this point, I don't have data, but rather anecdotes. But sometimes observations come more quickly than the evidence.

The first is that, for some time, the focus on cities as the centres of economic growth has left rural areas at a disadvantage in generating capitals. The asset inflation, most seen in house prices and reflected through migration, has disadvantaged rural residents.

For example, a friend of mine, originally from the south-east of England, reports that no 'locals' live in his village.  You can swap a small house in a city in the south of England for a large home and garden in a rural area.  London might be over 120 miles away, but the reach of holiday homes and retirement migration has greatly influenced and pressured the local real estate market. This reality subsequently influences the labour market, the aspirations of young people, and those running businesses.  

Of equal significance is the generation of social capital.  We do well at bonding social capital, not-as-bad at bridging social capital, but not-so-well at linking social capital.  Bonding social capital is the “glue” of a community that helps us stick together through mutual recognition and solidarity. Bridging social capital is the “lubricant”, that helps people manage differences and get along together.

Linking capital is where “vertical relationships” take place - where someone with higher social status can lend a hand or help with some information to make broader connections. That person could be an elected official, an entrepreneuer, or someone more senior in an organisation. But all of these roles can be missing in rural areas.  The hollowing out of the state and the absence of large businesses and organisations, means that the chance for those connections is absent.  Visitors often find that they are welcomed into a strong community, but that it is not well connected to wider opportunities.

I have observed that the challenge of linking social capital is being overcome during the lockdown, as almost everyone in rural areas and cities move online. It may begin to question one of the critical advantages of urban areas - agglomeration. 

A neighbour of mine found that his business ostensibly ended within days of the lockdown beginning. His existing clientele would not buy his services unless he visited them in person; when he could not do that, his business disappeared.  Before the COVID-19 travel restrictions were in place, he travelled thousands of miles a month to cities throughout England and Wales, returning to his rural base.

Responding to the new economic conditions from the lockdown, he changed his business model to facilitate online events that help salespeople and manufacturers adapt to the new normal.  His new clients are located throughout Europe, as most of his business is conducted online and proximity no longer matters.

After years of predicting that ICT would overcome rural disadvantage, it appears to now be happening. The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated that clustering businesses in urban centres and physically bringing people to them - is no longer a competitive advantage and that there are viable alternative models. This may, over time, begin to make rural areas more competitive.   

Rural-urban relationships are dynamic, and the first stages of the pandemic have already accelerated changes. The previous order of cities generating value, accumulating resources, and, in time, creating structural advantages is in question. More dispersed networks, tracking functions, and capacities begin to look more important than proximity and hard boundaries.

The “just-in-case” capacities of healthy communities start to look more important than the “just-in-time” lack of friction of urban zones. By “just-in-case” I mean the realise that comes from knowing one another, of being able to respond collectively and confidently. It is slow and at times awkward, but exemplified by the self-organised groups that sprang up to respond quickly to community needs, and the Black Lives Matter protests that happened in English market towns. The “just-in-time” of large urban areas is focused on a brittle efficiency of not knowing and not needing to know one another, leading to a flurry of urban dwellers meeting their neighbours for the first time during the lockdown and discovering corner-stores. 

What I see as signs of change may be transitory and could be overtaken by the next stage of this pandemic-induced acceleration. But, for the moment, it looks like significant shifts are afoot in rural-urban relations.


Dr. Matt Reed, Associate Professor in Food Citizenship

Matt is a sociologist with research interests in how and why social change takes place around food. He has worked at the CCRI since 2007 and is currently working on a range of projects. For more than a decade Matt has been researching the organic food movement from various perspectives, publishing his findings in a range of books and articles. Alongside this interest he has research interests in the farming family, rural communities, social networks, fishing communities and the changing technologies of food. Matt is the Subject Group Leader for the Economy and Society research cluster.

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News about Rural-Urban Europe and the ROBUST project is published regularly in the INFORMED CITIES newsletter.

ROBUST is a European research project involving 24 partners from 11 countries. ROBUST receives funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 727988.

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