After difficult years marked by out-migration and structural disadvantages, rural areas are celebrating a comeback. Reasons for this are initiatives that have increased the attractiveness of the periphery and the Corona pandemic. Nevertheless, rural areas are facing major challenges, was the conclusion of the annual conference of the Platform Land on the topic of “Future Land”.
For many years, population migration knew only one direction: from the countryside to the city. Now a new trend is discernible, as more and more citizens want to go to the countryside – and not only since the Corona pandemic, where people have rediscovered the quality of rural life, Platform Land chairman Andreas Schatzer opened the annual conference. In order to maintain the attractiveness, he said, there is still a need for attractive jobs, affordable housing, functioning services and good accessibility in the form of fast internet and an expanded public transport system. Thanks to new forms of working, such as home office or coworking, and fast internet, some locational disadvantages of rural areas could be compensated. Some examples of this were presented by Thomas Egger, Director of the Swiss Working Group for Mountain Areas. Broadband internet, apps for carpooling or 24-hour shopping in the village shop increase the quality of life and overcome distances. Mountain villages would thus become “smart” mountain villages.
Despite the positive outlook for the future, the challenges for rural areas are great, reminded Platform Land director Ulrich Höllrigl. Mountain areas in particular are under increasing pressure due to heavy use of space, especially in the infrastructure and leisure sectors. It is therefore necessary to find a balance between use and conservation. The biggest task, however, is probably climate change, Manfred Miosga from the University of Bayreuth emphasised. “It is no longer enough to optimise processes. What we urgently need is a profound transformation towards sustainable development.” Rural areas must become adaptable and crisis-proof, he said. Therefore, a new way of thinking and a change of perspective are needed; the old “normal” no longer works. A rapid expansion of renewable energies and preparation for extraordinary weather events are very important. “Resilience, the ability to adapt to change and still remain functional, must become a central element of rural development.”
Hinterstoder in Upper Austria has undergone an impressive development. 30 years ago, a development process was started to make the community more attractive. For example, new structures such as an event centre or a museum were built. Squares were also redesigned and green space created. One focus was soft mobility. Likewise, investments were made in tourism development. In 2018, the efforts were awarded the European Village Renewal Prize. “The village development has not only paid off economically, but has also led to a positive demographic development and an increase in the quality of life,” says former mayor Helmut Wallner. For successful village development, it is important to be open to new ideas, to bring in experts from outside, to network and to focus on quality instead of mediocrity. “But it is especially important to involve the citizens in the decision-making process and to take them along with us.
EURAC and Platform Land have conducted an online survey to find out which topics are important for rural areas in South Tyrol. Three topics are to be explored in greater depth in the coming months, explained Philipp Corradini from EURAC. “The survey showed that transport and climate, housing as well as regional products and cycles interest people. Therefore, lighthouse projects are also being considered here.”
Hermann Atz from the opinion research institute Apollis looked at land consumption in South Tyrol. The conclusion: a lot of land is still being sealed in South Tyrol. “Land consumption and population development are not directly related. It can be concluded that transport infrastructures, tourism and trade are also partly responsible for land consumption, and not only housing construction.”
For Theresa Haid of Vitalpin, tourism also faces major challenges. Examples are sustainability, transport or the shortage of skilled workers. These must be solved with innovation.
The final round of discussions at the annual conference of Platform Land was exciting. For provincial councillor Maria Hochgruber Kuenzer, the community development programme offers a unique opportunity to shape the community and the rural area together with the population. For Christa Ladurner of the Alliance for the Family, child care (from infants to afternoon care) is a central challenge for the coming years. New solutions are needed here; the current system is too rigid. A major shortcoming is that there are too few women in committees.
In order to keep rural areas attractive, combined mobility offers (train, bus, car-sharing, e-bike) and fast internet are needed. In addition, Irene Senfter from the Ökoinstitut would like to see more energy independence. In terms of mobility, a lot has already been done in recent years, but improvements are still possible.
For UVS President Heiner Oberrauch, the rural area is the place of desire of tomorrow. Rural areas will also benefit from new trends such as location-independent working. Farms must continue to have opportunities to develop. What is needed, however, is a development with added value: from more to better.
And what keeps young people in the countryside? The landscape, the village community, the family and housing and work opportunities are important, Tobias Stecher from the Upper Vinschgau Youth Service reminded us. And after all, young people are the future – and of course also the present. Platform Land Vice-President Leo Tiefenthaler was convinced that rural areas will gain in importance. Platform Land will continue to campaign for attractive rural areas and for land protection.
Photo: Tobias Stecher (Youth Service Upper Vinschgau), Irene Senfter (Ökoinstitut Südtirol), Maria Hochgruber Kuenzer (Provincial Councillor), Christa Ladurner (Alliance of the Family) and Heiner Oberrauch (Entrepreneurs’ Association South Tyrol) discussed the key issues for a strong rural area.
More information on the German page.