Reviving Rural Europe: A Sustainable Vision for 2040 and Beyond
We live in times of hypergrowth infused by relentless ambition. The ambition of business to raise profits at an unprecedented rate; the ambition of governments to attract new funds to their cities; the ambition of the individualistic lifestyle to have one of everything for yourself. The issues it causes are self-evident: from a day-long traffic jam to a housing crisis. The cities are growing faster than what can be accommodated today, literally.
At the same time, across the European Union, there are vast rural territories that are historically underdeveloped. According to the EU Rural Vision 2040, the rural areas cover 83% of the EU and are home to only 30% of the EU population. These territories possess the qualities that the cities are rapidly losing: fresh air, space, proximity to nature, the feeling of community, and the calm rhythm of life. It is not a surprise that since the pandemic, people who got burned out in the cities started moving to rural areas to improve their quality of life and mental health.
For better or for worse, the rural areas have been seeing much less development of the infrastructure and transport system than the urban centers. Access to medical services and education remains a challenge and the job options are limited. Despite that, the rural areas of Europe represent an opportunity for our society to learn how we can grow and move ahead in a sustainable way.
The EU Rural Vision 2040 identifies ten shared goals to help rural communities reach their full potential in the coming decades. The key themes are connectivity, innovativeness, climate resilience, inclusivity in genders and ages, and collaboration. But many questions are yet to be answered: how can the European Union revive the rural areas? Will they follow the blueprint of the cities and lose their identity? Would people come to villages to live if they could choose? Is it possible to grow and still be sustainable?
To answer these and many more questions, in 2022, the Think Tank AlterContacts launched a nonprofit initiative mOther Earth. It has been recognized by the United Nations as the SDG Acceleration Action. The goal of the initiative is to explore how we can collaboratively and sustainably revive rural areas of Europe by creating opportunities for social and economic development. The ambition is to integrate sustainable methods and innovative approaches with rich natural resources and the cultural heritage of rural areas, and ultimately create self-sufficient communities driven by local youth, women, and entrepreneurs.
Rural development is a multi-faceted issue that is tackled by a variety of stakeholders at different levels. In the course of the initiative, the experts of the think tank identified that the road to a balanced and sustainable development of rural areas can be summarized in these key principles.
Immersion, Integration, and Inclusive Collaboration
1. Embrace local experience: Instead of attempting to devise rural development solutions from an urban setting, it is crucial to explore and experience the rural realities first.
2. Engage with local communities: Spend substantial time in various rural locations, engaging with local people, and exploring their perspectives. It is important to build genuine connections with the people and entities that might be future partners in implementing your project.
3. Listen and learn: Ask residents about their joys and challenges living in rural areas, gaining a deeper understanding of local life. Encourage youth involvement by asking them to share their thoughts.
4. Identify local champions and learn from their experience: Seek out local entities and activists who have independently tackled a single aspect of your project. Collaborate with these stakeholders to gain insights from their experiences and innovative ideas.
5. Engage regional and provincial governments: Extend invitations to every regional and provincial government to ensure broad support, political will, and alignment with existing policies and actions.
6. Facilitate connections: Connect these stakeholders with relevant initiatives on both local and international levels to help them get a much-needed boost.
7. Avoid replication: Instead of duplicating existing efforts, adopt a strategy of integrating and enabling other stakeholders.
8. Transparency and accessibility: Share the results of these collaborative efforts publicly to maintain transparency and accessibility.
Rather than limiting the project to a select few participants, be open to include everyone. For example, partners of mOther Earth include rural youth, NGOs, regional and municipal authorities, local community leaders and entrepreneurs, green incubators and accelerators, foundations, universities, and vocational schools.
By following these principles, you can enhance collaboration, gain a deeper understanding of rural life, and ensure an inclusive approach to your rural development initiatives, contributing to the success of the project.
The mOther Earth initiative has been awarded the EU Break Fellowship Program 2022 for women-led initiatives to transform systems for the best and contribute to a stronger and more equitable European Union. The fellowship allowed the Think Tank AlterContacts to carry out the fieldwork in the village of Silleda, Spain.
The concentration of population in urban centers has become a reason for many issues in rural areas: population decline; aging; lack of employment; brain drain; and environmental degradation. It was not a coincidence that Spain was chosen for the pilot of this rural initiative. Across Spain, there are currently more than 5000 abandoned villages and more than a thousand municipalities with less than a hundred citizens.
In the region of Galicia (where Silleda is located), the government is actively attempting to change this situation. One of the projects they have launched as part of an EU-wide movement towards smart villages is Aldeas Inteligentes. But beyond placing the infrastructure and technology in remote areas, it is important to find ways to attract the population.
In the framework of the collaboration with the Agency of Galicia on Rural Development (AGADER), the AlterContacts experts provided advice on recreating the socio-economic fabric of the rural areas. Among many ideas discussed and proposed, there were entrepreneurial hubs, schools of crafts, volunteer forest missions, mental health retreats, and many others.
To validate their feasibility and desirability, the think tank experts conducted field visits to the local entrepreneurs and organizations. It was humbling to discover that in rural areas, far away from the city buzz, there are people who are trying to implement genuinely sustainable initiatives.
For example, a corner store that sources only local plastic-free products and ecological food where the owner spends from ten to thirty minutes with each new customer educating them about sustainable choices. Or a couple that sold their apartment in the regional capital and bought a piece of land in the village where they set up a community arts center. They became one of the pioneers who installed solar panels to power their house-in-a-tent and went completely off the grid. Right now, together with a local foundation they are building a zero-footprint 100% sustainable cabin.
Another inspiring example is an enterprise of two people preparing and selling sun-dried fruit and vegetables. Besides being powered by solar panels and developing unique equipment together with the local university, they run the farm themselves. Every fruit and vegetable they dry is grown by them in accordance with the latest knowledge about sustainable farming and cradle-to-cradle recycling. Neither of them has a background in sustainability. Everything they do, they learnt from online resources, books, and seminars — and then put it all together. They regularly receive visits from schools and universities sharing how the future of farming can look like.
The highlight of the fieldwork was an event that AlterContacts hosted together with the local school CEIP Plurilingüe de Silleda. More than 250 pupils between the ages of three and twelve years were asked to draw or write about what they love in their village and what ideas they have for it. The children were extremely enthusiastic and proud to participate in formulating what might be the future of their village. Notably, the things to cherish in rural areas according to the children were the same as the findings of renowned experts on rural development: family connections, proximity of social circle, cultural heritage, and of course, the joys of nature, from petting the cows to watching a sunrise over the mountains. All the results, including featured drawings and stories are available online publicly.
The rural areas of Europe are our chance to create a more sustainable future. Let’s follow the lead of rural champions and make the changes we want to see in the world. They are the living proof that development can be done differently. So maybe it is time to take a hard look at city life and start creating rural alternatives.
In a world where hypergrowth and ambition often lead to challenges in urban centers, the rural areas of Europe represent a chance to reevaluate our approach to development. By recognizing the opportunities present in rural regions, and learning from the innovative solutions being pioneered, we can collectively create a more sustainable and balanced future. It's time to shift the lens from urban aspirations to rural alternatives and embrace the unique potential that rural areas hold for a brighter tomorrow.
EU Rural Vision 2040: https://rural-vision.europa.eu/rural-vision_en
mOther Earth initiative: press here
Aldeas Inteligentes: https://agader.xunta.gal/es/planificacion/aldeas-inteligentes
Fieldwork in Silleda: press here
Event with schoolchildren: press here