ROBUST

‘The countryside and the city need one another badly’

Climate-proof rural and urban areas

Researchers want to know how the connections between the countryside and cities can reinforce both areas. Photo: Shutterstock

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Urban and rural areas are often seen as two separate worlds when policy is formulated, but in practice they affect one another a lot. In the ROBUST project, scientists at Wageningen University & Research and their European colleagues are investigating how links between the city and the countryside can improve the well-being of their inhabitants.

The countryside versus the city – they sound like two opposing concepts almost by definition. The one is open, remote, sparsely populated and with abundant nature, while the other is hectic, densely constructed and with endless possibilities. People associate the countryside with fields, farms and small villages. Museums, theatres and pop venues belong in the city. Or do they? “That has traditionally been the image”, nods professor of Rural Sociology Han Wiskerke of Wageningen University & Research (WUR). “Among policymakers too, cities and rural areas are seen as two geographically distinct domains. For example, when talking about jobs, we invest in cities ‘to make them even more attractive’ while we invest in rural areas ‘to combat depopulation’. The creative sector is seen as a typically urban phenomenon – as if nothing creative ever happens in the countryside.” But in fact, cities and the countryside are constantly influencing one another, explains Wiskerke. “Many of the challenges cities are facing can only be tackled by taking the relationship with the countryside into account. If you invest in culture in a city, that has consequences for visitor numbers to museums in rural areas. And the food on supermarket shelves has to come from somewhere, of course. Thinking in terms of such relationships sounds obvious but it often doesn’t happen at the moment.”

If solutions are to be found for problems in rural areas, it is crucial to link them to developments in urban areas

In Mediterranean countries, many farms also offer organised wine and food tours. Photo: frantic00 / Shutterstock

WUR scholars with expertise in rural development have revised the way they approach their discipline in recent years accordingly. If sound solutions are to be found for problems in rural areas, it seems logical – crucial even – to take account of links with developments in urban areas. This principle was the starting point for the four-year EU project ROBUST, which started in 2017 with WUR in the lead. Researchers and local governments from ten European countries took part in the project (see inset).

Quality of life

The abbreviation ROBUST stands for Rural-Urban Outlooks: Unlocking Synergies. That sounds rather abstract. “The aim was to see how we could utilise the connections between the countryside and urban centres to the benefit of both”, explains Wiskerke. “The results from our project are feeding into the European Commission’s long-term vision on rural areas.” To properly understand the background of the project, you first need to know a little more about the history of rural development. At first, it focused on agricultural development: how can we produce as much food as possible as cheaply as possible? This resulted in increased production and lower food prices, but we also have far fewer farms and much lower employment in the agricultural sector in Europe as a result. Furthermore, rural areas face shrinking populations, environmental problems and a decline in biodiversity.

This video introduces the Rural-Urban Learning Hub, which brings together and presents the latest and best European research on rural-urban synergies in one place.

Since the late 1990s, the EU has encouraged farmers to take on other tasks in addition to producing food. In the Netherlands, for example, farmers play a role in managing nature and the landscape. In Mediterranean countries, strong links have developed with regional products and tourism: many farms also offer bed & breakfast or run a campsite. “In Italy, this is often combined with a restaurant on the premises. Other examples are organised wine and food tours where urbanites visit farms to taste products, learn about production processes and savour the scenery.”

Making connections

These examples show that rural development is now less about agriculture alone and increasingly involves the relationship with traditionally ‘urban’ policy areas such as gastronomy and cultural heritage. ROBUST is building on that. The researchers have set up ‘living labs’ in eleven European regions to investigate how the link between urban and rural areas can be bolstered in practice. “The idea behind the living lab is that you see local practices and processes in action like in a laboratory,” explains Wiskerke. “You make interventions and then study and analyse what happens.”

At the start of the project, the researchers identified five topics that are important for both cities and the countryside: new business models; public infrastructure and social services; food; cultural heritage; and ecosystems. Each living lab worked on three of the five topics. The people involved in each topic also came together in a Community of Practice (CoP) to learn from one another. The food CoP, for example, discussed how the prospects for local farms could be improved by having urban schools and hospitals buy the food for meals locally. Another issue was urban food policy. “In the Netherlands, the municipality of Ede was a participant. They already had a food policy, while the Italian city of Lucca had just decided to develop such a policy. So it could learn from the experiences in Ede.”

Five priorities

Some of the ROBUST topics, such as food supplies, had been investigated previously in this context, but the team had never considered ecosystems in relation to urban development before, says Wiskerke. “A major issue now that we have climate change is the storage of water. How can we tackle the risk of flooding? To understand the urban-rural connections here, sometimes you need to look beyond the regional boundary – or even beyond the country’s borders. If more snow melts in Switzerland or if Belgium gets vast amounts of rain, it can cause problems in towns and villages in the Dutch province of Zuid-Holland.” Based on its findings, the ROBUST team identified five priorities for Europe’s long-term agenda for rural development: social services, proximity relations, circularity, ecosystem services and culture. Priority number one is maintaining services in rural areas, says Wiskerke. “The role of ‘anchor institutions’ is crucial here. These are institutions with physical ties to a particular area, such as schools, universities, hospitals and libraries.”

Priority number one is maintaining services in rural areas
If you can preserve a collective identity, that boosts well-being in the region

A farmers shop with natural products in Zoetermeer, the Netherlands. Photo: Nancy Bijersbergen / Shutterstock

Such anchor institutions are not just important for local residents’ well-being, but they also increase employment in the local economy. “Wageningen is a good example. Many amenities appeared here thanks to the university. The people who work for such a large organisation have to do their shopping somewhere and will also want to go to the pub or cinema from time to time.” Culture is another priority area. “What unites people and makes them feel they belong to a particular region and community? If you can preserve a collective identity, that boosts well-being in the region. In Wales, for example, the Welsh language is a driver. You can also use culture as an instrument to encourage tourism from outside the region. That could take the form of folklore, or food, as is the case in Mediterranean countries.”

Learning hub

The ROBUST team shares its key lessons with a broad audience in a new online learning hub. “It’s a kind of manual with practical information, explanations and examples. The idea is that we can add to it in the future with results from subsequent projects.” However, the researchers are cautious about drawing general conclusions for rural policy. “We aren’t trying to propose a standard approach that will work everywhere because what we found in the living labs was that the administrative setup in a particular country is a major determining factor in what approach you should take. Municipalities in the Netherlands may have very different powers to municipalities in Germany. You really need to look at the individual situation.”

In mid-2020, the European Commission presented its long-term vision on rural development for the period to 2040. Wiskerke was pleased to see the ROBUST project’s recommendations clearly reflected in the vision. “Thanks to the project, local and regional policymakers also now realise that the city and the countryside need one another.”

European research context

Rural-Urban Outlooks: Unlocking Synergies (ROBUST) addresses the following European policy challenges:

  • Rural development: how can well-being and prosperity be safeguarded in rural areas
  • Climate change: how can we combat the consequences of climate change across Europe

Wageningen University & Research groups involved: Rural Sociology group Countries involved in Europe: Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Latvia, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain and United Kingdom

Duration: 2017 – 2021

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