By Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins
Rural places are peopled places – and people have and need cultural life. Culture can include heritage and the arts, the activities we enjoy, the food we eat, and the language we speak. Since these things matter in all our lives, they matter for all the places where we live, too. But talk about rural renaissance can often miss making cultural connections.
From an urban perspective, it can be all too easy to imagine that rural culture is less dynamic, creative, or important. There are plenty of tired stereotypes about uncultured ‘country bumpkins’, and plenty of other perceptions of rural Europe as empty green space. Policymakers do remember rural people, but often as problems who leave, or grow ill and old. Meanwhile, important work towards sustainable agriculture and ecosystems can sometimes forget that rural lives are rich beyond the soil.
Rural and urban places do have different cultural characteristics. Urban museums and malls are hard to replicate at village scale, just as farms and outdoor festivals find little space in the city. But, rather than seeing separate spheres, we should ask: How can rural and urban cultural offers be connected for mutual benefit? We know that digital technology, media and mobility are already blurring rural-urban boundaries. What kinds of new cultural connections could be possible? We should also remember that culture can segregate, with different groups having divergent visions, and tensions and prejudices sometimes flaring. How can we find solutions to cultural disconnections?
ROBUST – Connecting research to practice in rural Europe
Fostering rural-urban dialogue calls for connections within and between regions. The Horizon 2020 ROBUST project brings researchers together with practitioners in a network of ‘Living Labs’ across eleven European countries. Four Living Labs – Mid Wales (UK), Tukums (Latvia), Lucca (Italy), and Styria (Austria) – have joined together to share what we are learning about cultural connections. After engaging with regional stakeholders, workshopping ideas, and exploring good practice, we recently released our mid-term report, highlighting three key lessons from our work so far.
Lesson 1: Coordinating cultural life is a practical regional strategy
Galleries, theatres and other cultural attractions in cities tend to be well-known, and they benefit from a central location and plenty of potential visitors. The cultural offer in rural places is more dispersed, and often ‘off the beaten track’. Coordination is a practical way to address the disconnect. Put simply, coordinating cultural life involves connecting activities, events, and the people who enjoy them. Coordination could be as straightforward as an online events calendar, or as complex as a regional cultural strategy – like the one currently being developed in Tukums.
Tukums is a predominantly rural region within reach of Riga. The region’s cultural attractions, activities and events are spread around multiple institutions and parish administrations. Because these local organisations have largely worked independently, the cultural sector in Tukums suffers from fragmentation. In response, stakeholders are now coming together to co-create the first ever cultural strategy for the region, supported by the municipal government. The aim is to reduce duplication, share resources, and build collaboration across the sector. Work began by identifying institutions to involve and mapping stakeholders. Progress so far shows that success comes down to a positive process for collaboration, including sharing good will, choosing an appropriate network structure, enabling dialogue, and sharing decision-making.
Lesson 2: Enhancing local and regional identity can build bridges
Identity differences between rural and urban areas can be hard to overcome. For example, rural residents in the shadow of a large or dominant city can feel left out of a shared regional identity. At worst, when identities conflict or turn parochial, ‘other’ people can be actively excluded. Building cultural bridges between rural and urban involves enabling positive, inclusive connections between people and places, and balancing what makes localities distinctive with what can be shared. Cultural activities can help enhance a sense of shared rural-urban identity across a region – as blossoming creativity in Styria shows.
When administrative boundaries changed a decade ago, residents in the new Metropolitan Area of Styria found themselves part of a region they did not automatically identify with. Graz is Austria’s second city, with vibrant cultural amenities and a growing creative sector. By contrast, the surrounding region is rural, with small towns and remote villages. To build real cultural connections and help everyone feel part of cultural life in the region, Graz cannot be the centre of all activity. Festivals and the arts are two important ways that an attractive cultural offer is being grown in rural areas, too. For example, the La Strada festival, founded in Graz in 1997, now hosts productions within a 40km radius. CULTURE 24 began through a LEADER local action group, and works to network artists and creative professionals across rural locations. These examples show how connections can be made in both directions: La Strada started from the city and spread outwards; CULTURE 24 started from the country and forged links to the city.
Lesson 3: Valorising rural culture is part of sustainable futures
If rural places are to be attractive to live in, work in, and visit, then rural culture needs to be valorised. That means celebrating rural culture as a valuable part of the present, with a role to play in the future. When rural culture is undervalued, opportunities and initiatives that sustain local livelihoods can be easily overlooked. And, when rural culture is seen as stuck in the past, culture’s role in sustainable futures gets closed off. The two lessons above already suggest ways to keep rural cultural life alive – the Northern Tuscan province of Lucca offers another bite.
Tuscany is synonymous with its landscapes and cuisine. The vistas of historical villas, hillside vineyards and olive groves that make Lucca so charming to visit were made by people, and need people to sustain them. Unfortunately, agricultural land has been increasingly abandoned in recent decades. In Lucca, growing local food is vital to conserving landscapes, maintaining traditional architecture, and keeping cultural knowledge alive. To develop a future vision for a sustainable region, local stakeholders are using food to profile what rural culture has to offer. By celebrating local food culture, market demand can be grown – along with opportunities for innovation. Local gastronomy festivals and events are one way to celebrate culture through food and show why rural skills and knowledge matter. But, one festival won’t help if rural culture is neglected for the rest of the year. Hence, new food trail initiatives in Lucca are developing year-round links between producers, retailers and cultural venues.
Learning our lessons
From a coordination strategy, to an arts festival, to a gastronomic trail, these three lessons each offer different ways to strengthen cultural connections between rural and urban places. They also have some practical elements in common. First, to make connections happen, the right stakeholders need to be found and brought together. Second, the strongest connections are mutually beneficial – in other words, it goes both ways. Finally, keeping up connections takes forward planning, whether that means a structure, a strategy or a vision for the future. The examples above show that cultural connections matter. The work ahead is putting learning into practice.
Dr Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins is a social researcher specialising in rural and regional development in the UK and Central Europe. Her current research is part of IMAJINE and ROBUST – two major consortium projects funded by the EU Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, and working across sixteen and eleven countries respectively. Based at the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences, Aberystwyth University, Bryonny is an affiliate of the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research, Data and Methods (WISERD), and was recently recognised as one of the Welsh Crucible’s thirty emerging research leaders in Wales.
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