Rural attractiveness – a holistic, place based approach

What makes certain regions more attractive than others? How do you get young people to stay in or return to their rural home ground? And how do you develop new businesses and create new jobs? These are crucial questions for rural regions under pressure from the current global trends in terms of migration, economic development and social diversity. Nordic expert groups are trying to find answers to how you can best address these challenges in a Nordic context and maybe even beyond.

An important part of Nordic co-operation takes place in a number of expert fora and working groups established by the Nordic Council of Ministers. When it comes to the study of regional development and planning there are currently three groups in the mandate period running from 2017-2020, all administered by Nordregio, an international research centre set up by the Council.

The Nordic thematic group on Rural Development is one of them. The group will look at things like rural attractiveness, job development, tourism, bioeconomy, housing and more – or in short, they will study the changing ruralities in the Nordic Region, which will also be the topic of a major Nordic conference in November, the annual Nordregio Forum, taking place in Lund, November 28-29, 2018.


Nordregio Senior Research Fellow Michael Kull is deeply involved in all aspects of the ongoing work in the Nordic thematic group on rural development. But his main focus is on a study of attractiveness, including the question of what makes people stay and what makes people leave rural areas? Often economic reasons are seen as the main factor, but money is not the only thing at play here.

– As a boy from the countryside growing up in a village of about 100 inhabitants, “rural attractiveness” always had many different dimensions beyond economic performance, Michael Kull says.

– Living close to nature with lush forests, clear streams and creeks to explore and fish in; a well-functioning and well organised community life where people had an impact on their living environment by working together – all this made my home village an attractive place to be, he continues.

– At the same time, people had to face considerable commuting times both to jobs and education. And as a teenage boy, the lack of attractive places to spend one’s evenings was of course also one of the reasons why the place that had such fantastic opportunities for a small boy, became increasingly less attractive, he furthermore adds.

These personal observations are all part and parcel of what scientists dealing with rural studies focus on, including those working with different attractiveness concepts and indicator sets both in Europe and elsewhere.

If you take for instance the Canadian Newcomer and Youth Community Indicators index it looks at eight indicator sets, which are pretty much in line with the experience of the countryside boy described above: Economy, Education, Amenities, Access to Healthcare, Housing, Society, Innovation & Creativity, and Youth.

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Youth by the bonfire. Photo:

Great variety across the Nordic Region

The Nordic thematic group on rural development explores most of these aspects to describe the attractiveness and vulnerability of rural areas in order to better understand reasons for e.g. migration or business and job creation.

– Demographic data over the past ten years and in different rural areas in the Nordic Region show remarkable variations in terms of in- and outmigration, Michael Kull states.

– So, our project tries to capture among other things reasons behind why people choose to leave sparsely populated areas, why others have moved there and why some have never left.

The work has a special focus on young people and combines the quantitative analysis of population, demography and job change with more qualitative analyses of indicators that decide where people live, work and recreate.

When looking at job development, the study uses the method of shift/share analysis – a standard regional analysis method that attempts to determine how much of municipal or regional job growth can be attributed to national trends and how much growth is due to unique regional or local factors.

Shift/share analysis helps show where employment is growing or declining in a local or regional economy. It looks at how the community compares with other communities? What are their strengths and weaknesses in providing jobs and in which sectors? And what is the role of local as opposed to national or sectoral factors?

New maps are already being produced by Nordregio to describe such developments, as seen in the map below:

Relative local employment effect in the Nordic region 2008-2016

The map shows the change in jobs (growth or decline) at municipal level over a period that can be attributed to local factors (e.g. local policies or local natural or institutional conditions) and is thus not due to national or industry trends. The map is based on shift-share analyses which can help answer why employment is growing or declining in a local or regional industry. The map does not show the total change in jobs.

The rationale for our approach

The work in the attractiveness projects builds on the following rationale: There is a strong relationship between jobs and migration, but there are also other reasons for why people migrate.

The research model used operates with the following relations:

  • Demand-driven migration (when jobs attract people and therefore they move)
    • Indirect impact on job creation (people and their families indirectly create jobs as schools are needed for new children, various welfare functions are in higher demand and so are houses and infrastructure in general)
  • Supply-driven migration (when people move due to other reasons than available jobs)
    • Direct impact on job creation (people create jobs/set up businesses themselves)
    • Indirect impact on job creation (same as above)

The diagramme below shows the approach used, which is built on the work by among others the EU-project TOPMARD (Bryden et al. 2008) and Telemarksforskning in Norway.


The left of the diagramme is a model of how jobs and population size relate and develop, while the population and migration relations are shown in the middle. To the right it is highlighted how place impacts on migration.

The attractiveness of a place is, in this model, a combination of how attractive a place is for people to move to because of available jobs in the area, how attractive the conditions are for development of businesses and how attractive the place is for living – all in all, a holistic, place based approach. The model is based on research in the former EU-project, TOPMARD, within which research director Karen Refsgaard took part and has been adapted to the Nordic level together with colleagues at Nordregio including senior researcher Nora Sanchez-Gassen and Michael Kull.

– Any serious approach to study attractiveness and its potential to foster growth through policy intervention requires holistic and place-based thinking. One must see urban, regional and rural systems as a whole and move towards “place specificity” and beyond “one‐size‐fits‐all” development approaches, Michael Kull points out.

Upcoming work in the Nordic thematic groups

The work of the Nordic expert groups on both rural and urban development, as well as regional innovation and other aspects of development and planning in the Nordic Region will continue over the next couple of years. The groups hope to be able to answer a lot more questions in line with the one addressed here: What influences the attractiveness of any given place and what factors are at play in increasing this attractiveness?

How can development best be described from a holistic perspective and what are the structural dynamics at play? What is the good life and which paths are the most likely to lead towards it. Ultimately, what policy decisions need to be taken and what advice can we as experts and researchers give local planners and politicians? So stay tuned for upcoming results.

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