Article photo from Jelgava Local Municipality

The ESPON project on European Development Opportunities for Rural Areas (EDORA) looks at trends across the whole of Europe. The research team have developed “grand narratives” to explain the kind of changes that are occurring. These narratives are ways of interpreting the main drivers of change. They also imply policy responses.

Narratives of change that focus on agriculture

Traditionally rural areas were seen as agricultural. Farming (and to some extent other primary sector activities like forestry) dominated the landscape and use of land. What was good for farmers was seen as good for the countryside. Within nation states, the agriculture ministry who looked after the interests of the farmers; within the EU it was DG Agriculture and the subsidies provided by the Common Agricultural Policy.

However, agriculture has been changing, and generally declining in importance. The economic crisis that began in 2008 is likely to create further change in these rural industries. As the EDORA researchers have argued, one reason for the weakness of the agricultural sector is that the demand for food does not change much. Regardless of whether we have more or less money in our pockets to spend, we still eat the same number of meals a day. Compare this with our expenditure on leisure or travel and tourism. In the jargon of economists, demand for agricultural products is relatively “inelastic” – it does not stretch much as incomes change. When demand drops, it is the regions where agriculture is least profitable and efficient that are likely to suffer most.

There are big differences in the way agriculture is organised in different rural regions. At one extreme we have regions where farming is “agri-business”, with large companies running large farms and using machinery and fertilisers as much as possible. At the other end of the spectrum there are regions where farms are small, the land is still worked by hand and small farmers need to do other part-time jobs to sustain a livelihood. These differences are also reflected in the distribution patterns of farm produce. Big producers sell in bulk to supermarkets that transport the food over long distances: small farmers are more likely to need a local market for their goods.

Within this narrative that focuses on agriculture, there are different “stories” about how to handle change. The first of these is the story of agricultural modernisation, which basically says that the way to improve agriculture (and so, by assumption, to also grow the rural economy) is to amalgamate farm holdings, create efficient large units, backed by use of pesticides, fertilisers, machinery, larger fields and similar “modern” methods. An alternative story is one that tells how small farmers can still make a living by diversifying – in other words they do not just farm the land but also earn money from running a bed and breakfast or café, or even from work away from the farm. Sustainable development is likely to be an important part of this story, cherishing local and organic food rather than the “technological treadmill”.  

Urban-rural relations

However, in most of Europe it is no longer helpful to equate rural regions with agricultural regions. Not only has farm employment fallen, but personal mobility and the opportunities for commuting have increased greatly. In addition the EU’s regional policy in the past decade has increasingly sought to grow regional competitiveness rather than subsidise economically weak regions. A narrative of urban-rural relations has been central to this shift. The development story behind urban-rural relations is that the best way to manage rural change is to take advantage of the opportunities offered by being part of the hinterland of a town.  

Rural areas that are accessible to a big city are able to attract in-migrants who are prepared to commute to work so that they can get more space, and escape from the pressures of urban living. City dwellers can also be a market for recreation in the surrounding countryside. For example, they can be drawn to visit places of cultural or natural heritage. The growing settlements also help to sustain services for the rural population. Thus the story is about how a rural region can avoid decline by becoming more urban. This means that its profile of residents will include office workers and taxi drivers, not just farmers and saw mill operatives. However, accessibility is the key. Peripheral rural regions beyond the reach of significant settlements are at risk of further marginalisation.


The third major narrative looks at rural areas from the perspective of globalisation. Very clearly the countries on the southern and eastern shores of the Baltic have undergone a dramatic change over the last 20 years from a centrally planned economy to a global market economy.

One version of this story would see rural regions as having a low paid pool of labour, which can be enticed to migrate and undercut wages of workers in other richer regions. This leaves the regions with a declining and aging work force and problems in retaining key public services like schools, shops or post offices.

An alternative version emphasises that the internet now connects rural areas to global market opportunities, breaking down previous barriers of distance. Imaginative governance, rural business clusters, innovation and connection mark the way forward, selling the local to the global.

A variant on this story is the idea of eco-modernisation. This argues that the need for more sustainable forms of development, e.g. renewable energy, create new market opportunities for rural regions.   

Regional branding and regional development

These different narratives imply different approaches to regional branding and regional development. The first of the three puts agriculture at the centre. It means analysing the structure and potential of agriculture in the region and building the brand around the kind of agriculture that is emergent. In particular, subsistence farming has traditionally had a poor image, associated with poverty, inefficiency and ignorance. However, there are arguments that it can be a positive stabilising force in transition economies, sheltering people from the ruthlessness of market forces and contributing to food security and natural food. 

Accessible rural areas need to consider carefully who the targets for marketing of their region. Choice in jobs, skills and adaptability in the labour force, and affordability of housing are important factors. The main appeal is likely to be to households with children, drawn by space around the house. Quality of schools is thus probably more important than the kind of facilities that attract young professionals to big cities.

The globalisation narrative implies either an acceptance of migration (and an attempt to capture for the rural economy the remittances provided the young workers who have left), or an attempt to grow a new rural economy in the digital age. One reason why cities have economic advantages is that they offer what are called “agglomeration economies”. This means that firms can benefit by being in a city, through being able to access a large labour force with diverse skills, and also gain competitive advantage through getting easier access to new ideas and links to suppliers and a market. Trying to replicate some of these advantages in the rural area probably means trying to aid the development of clusters of linked small businesses, able to carve a niche and reach the kind of critical mass that gives the town or region a “name” as the provider of a special product – whether it be a traditional one such as a food product like a cheese, or a new one such as art or storytelling.


For a summary of the London workshop see, where a summary of the EDORA Interim Report can also be found.