A new perspective is needed on rural areas to secure a COVID-19 recovery
In the early stages of the pandemic, the focus was squarely on cities. Urban density and shared spaces contributed to surging case numbers and deaths: before June, the rise in excess deaths was more than three times higher in large metropolitan areas compared to remote regions. But rural areas still reeled from the economic impacts. Businesses closed to comply with containment measures, trade slowed, and tourism activity all but ceased. And as the year marched on, so too did the virus, extending its reach into smaller towns and rural communities more vulnerable due to their demography, limited health infrastructure and weaker institutions. The wounds of the pandemic will cut as deep – or and most likely even deeper – in the countryside as elsewhere.
Yet at the same time, the pandemic has prompted many to change their perspectives on rural areas. Months of social distancing forced city dwellers to forgo most, if not all of the benefits of city living but none of the costs. It required the urban workforce – and their employers – adapt to a new ways of life, including remote shopping and working. With those changes, many have started reconsider their priorities – and their opportunities – in life after the virus. In particular, they are looking with fresh eyes at the opportunities available in rural areas.
A new perspective is long overdue. Rural communities are home to roughly 2 billion people globally. These communities come in many forms. From bustling market towns, to centres of energy production and manufacturing, to remote villages far from the madding crowd. Yet the popular – and policy – narrative often imagines them as one – and it is rarely a flattering image. It is often one of traditional communities stuck in their ways. Declining. Ageing. Left behind. A sharp contrast with the popular image of urban areas as growing, young, and modern. It imagines rural areas as a problem to be fixed or mollified rather than a priority for growth – or the recovery.
As we look ahead to the recovery, it is time to change that view. First, because it obscures some uncomfortable truths about both rural and urban areas. For a start, because most rural areas are still growing: around two-thirds of rural regions are gaining population. Yes, a significant minority (36%) of OECD remote regions experienced population decline over the last two decades. But over the same period, 20% of metropolitan areas shrank too, even in countries with overall population growth like France, Germany, Italy, Korea and Spain.
Second, because the juxtaposition of urban and rural fortunes invites competition and obscures the real and important linkages and interdependencies between them. In many places, these links are direct and obvious like commuter towns in the economic orbit of a large city. Of the 29% of the OECD population in rural regions, three-quarters are in regions with close connections to cities.
Many of these areas, especially those with vibrant and specialised ecosystems, are increasingly becoming places of bursting economic activity on their own. And while others depend on nearby urban centres for jobs, urban centres depend on them, in turn, to meet the housing and public service needs of their workers. In more remote places, the links are less direct but no less important. They fuel cities in a more tangible way than agglomeration economies – providing food, energy and manufactured goods as well as providing their residents access to space and nature. Remote rural areas already generate around half of the total electricity produced from renewable sources in the OECD, a figure that is set to grow as countries invest to meet climate change targets.
Third, because the image blinds us to the abundance of opportunities available in rural areas. Opportunities from the transformation of existing rural industries, such as agriculture and manufacturing, where there is huge potential to adopt machine learning, robotics, sensors and drones into regular production practice. Opportunities to bind themselves more strongly into global value chains and take advantage of changes in the preferences of consumers that are increasingly favouring green, local and sustainable produce in their spending. Opportunities to modernise services like e-education and e-health.
In rural areas closer to cities, attracting more of the urban workforce will add to the skill base and create jobs, while releasing pressure on overburdened city infrastructure. The digital transformation – and a change in norms as a result of the pandemic – will allow workers in the services sector to operate remotely through teleworking, and workers in the manufacturing sector to transition to “desktop manufacturing” through 3D printing. There is evidence that a shift in location preference is already underway. A recent study showed that 15% of people in the UK said they were considering moving as a result of life in lockdown, and over the first 14 weeks of the crisis in the US, housing demand was up 74% in the most sparsely populated quintile of zip codes, mostly at the expense of the densest quintile.
For these reasons, an antiquated and generalised rural-urban perspective makes for poor policy. It can lead to an approach that treats rural policy simply as a process of managing agricultural subsidies and population decline. It can lead to the separation of rural areas from urban areas – through administrative geographies that detach urban areas from their broader commuting footprint, and pit town against country in a competition to attract funding and jobs. It can result in missed opportunities to achieve higher growth that is both more sustainable and more inclusive.
Instead, to secure the recovery, we need an ambitious and proactive agenda for our rural communities. One that empowers them to respond to their very different circumstances, builds on their opportunities, and recognises and enhances their connections with other areas and global value chains. This will require investment in the new technologies, infrastructure and new business models that will boost productivity, create jobs and attract and, indeed, retain world-class talent.
It is time to reimagine our countryside. Rural communities come in many forms. We need to open our minds to these if we are to unlock their potential and deliver a recovery – and a future – that is more inclusive, more sustainable, more productive and more prosperous than the model we left behind.