The new narrative for rural areas: thriving, sustainable and young

The Nordic Region covers a lot of land and there are many remote and rural communities in the five countries and their autonomous areas, Greenland, the Faroe Islands and Åland. Rapidly increasing urbanisation has put many of these communities under pressure, and they are now searching for new ways to ensure a good quality of life and sustainable rural growth. The research of the Nordic thematic group on sustainable rural development aims to support rural communities in pursuing a prosperous future.

Thriving rural communities in the Nordic and Arctic regions

“In a broad sense, the group focuses on sustainability from the three dimensions: the social, economic and environmental,” says Anna Karlsdóttir, Senior Research Fellow at Nordregio. “More specifically, we’re looking into ways to spur sustainable development of rural, remote and sparsely populated areas of the Nordics, including some of the Region’s northernmost areas and the Arctic.”

The group’s activities are organized around four key themes of sustainable rural development: demographic challenges, social innovation, skills development and cross-border cooperation.

”Demographic development poses a great challenge, especially with regards to maintaining a decent level of services and remaining attractive to people of all ages and educational backgrounds,” says Patrik Johansson, chair of the Nordic thematic group for sustainable rural development 2017-2020. He is Deputy Director of the Division for regional growth and cohesion policy at the Swedish Ministry of Enterprise and Innovation.

According to Johansson, the ability to adjust the supply of skills to meet the needs of both the public and private sectors in rural areas is a key aspect of ensuring sustainable rural development.

“It’s important that these rural communities have the knowledge and capacity to engage in and encourage sustainable rural development. We’re striving to make sure that they have access to the right resources when it comes to the transition to long-term sustainable development, for instance the possibilities of the bioeconomy. Enhanced digitalisation is another interesting field for us, as it can bridge some of the distances that are detrimental to rural areas.”

New perspectives for the future

The working group recently published a policy brief on young people in the Nordic Region who are neither in employment nor in education or training, a group often referred to by the acronym NEET. The education and welfare of youth that resides in or originates from rural areas is a key priority for the group, says Karlsdóttir.

“We’re looking into labour market development and education, including the reasons why young people drop out of school. We see youth as a key source of innovation for these communities, which is why it’s particularly important to link them to future opportunities in rural regions.”

The group is currently conducting a large project exploring the different aspects of rural attractiveness. This research looks into everything from job opportunities and housing options to the value of having access to outdoor activities in the often breathtakingly beautiful rural regions of the Nordic countries.

“We’re interested in seeking out the other side of the story and changing the one-sided narrative that everything is on the brink of depopulation,” says Karlsdóttir. “There are plenty of examples of the opposite, where rural areas have attracted dynamic and industrious people who become entrepreneurs in their local community.”

“We want to learn from these examples in order to create similar success stories in other rural areas,” she continues. “What makes a region attractive? Which conditions need to be in place in order to attract well-educated young people and entrepreneurs? This type of knowledge sharing is the essence of Nordic cooperation.”

Different communities, different housing issues

One of the key issues facing rural communities is to maintain a balanced supply of housing for their current and potential inhabitants. Attracting new people requires suitable housing options, which is a challenge for many rural communities. Depending on their location, the market mechanisms associated with the housing market, regulating supply and demand, do not necessarily apply.

“In some cases, the problem is that there are too many empty houses, and in others, there’s a lack of adequate housing, and both these scenarios can even occur at the same time,” says Karlsdóttir. “The problem is exacerbated by the lack of suitable financial mechanisms to build new housing. One of the manifestations of this problem is that the cost of construction is actually higher than the market price. We need to develop new financial mechanisms to solve these rural housing dilemmas.”

Rural tourism spurs growth in the Nordics

Together with the Centre for regional tourism in Bornholm and Åland Statistic, the Nordic thematic group for sustainable rural development is also studying the recent tourism boost in the Region, notably in Iceland and the Nordic Arctic regions, and the perspectives for future sustainable growth in this increasingly important sector.

“While the rapid growth has provided a considerable boost to the economy, it also comes with a range of challenges that we need to prepare for,” says Karlsdóttir. Some of the main concerns include capacity constraints, environmental impacts and strong seasonal differentiations in the flow of tourists. “In this project, we’re looking into the future perspectives of rural tourism, focusing on issues such as regional planning, transport and security, and potential land use conflict. Also, we’re studying the impact of this steep growth on the traditional freedom to roam – the everyman’s right – which is a special cultural phenomenon in Iceland, Finland, Sweden and Norway.”

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