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‘Going rural’ - Managing Land Access (and Use) to support rural futures

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Giovanna Guiffrè & Valentina Malcotti

May 4, 2023

Renewing rural generations, via the provision of green jobs and accessible farming enterprises, has powered the EU-sponsored RURALIZATION project looking to promote synergies between agriculture policymakers and local rural communities in painting attractive rural futures.

If the keyword in the use of land, from the 18th century onwards, was ‘urbanisation’, concentrating on industrialisation and city expansion, the current environmental challenges, including food security and carbon emissions, make a strong case for ‘ruralisation’. Sustained and long-term efforts to foster the regeneration of rural areas in Europe should take the stage to rebalance soil protection, shift economic activities to rural areas to safeguard local food supply chains and cater for the loss of biodiversity which is bound to negatively impact planetary health. Inverting the urban-centric trend requires re-thinking land use and identifying strategic issues that contribute to lowering pressure on cities, repopulate rural areas with new generations of farmers, and ensure the sustainability of the whole process. Behind the Horizon 2020 RURALIZATION initiative is the desire to make rural areas more appealing to new generations of farmers and inhabitants.


Embracing rural futures

A true rural regeneration is only possible if issues such as limited choice of services, fewer job opportunities and isolation due to poor connections are properly addressed.

However, before diving into the improvement of the quality of life in rural areas, Professor Willem Korthals Altes, coordinator of the RURALIZATION project has no doubts: “Access to land is one of the key widespread barriers to entering farming as land ownership is largely concentrated in large companies or long-standing family businesses, driving away rural newcomers.”

As a Professor in Land Development at the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment of the Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in the Netherlands, Korthals Altes is an expert in governance of land development and a connoisseur of the legal complexities of modern land use.

To get young generations on the fields, running small farms (with an eye to sustainable agricultural practices), and replacing retiring farmers, the land must be accessible! This is why RURALIZATION has not only united research organisations in rural policy brainstorming but also members of the Access to Land network, to formulate solutions and recommendations responding to the diverse needs and features of rural areas in Europe.


RURALIZATION’s efforts towards promoting a constructive dialogue between actors from all levels of the agriculture chain around the allocation and use of land has led to a tangible result: a Handbook intended to support local authorities in ‘regenerating’ their rural areas. It offers ideas, tools, and field-based examples to inspire and enable local authorities to take action across Europe to protect farmland and make it work for the public good.


To inform a forward-looking policy able to facilitate the settlement of new rural generations, RURALIZATION makes use of foresight. Foresight analysis was first employed to identify, through an exploratory analysis of megatrends, trends and weak signals, a large set of inclinations potentially having an impact on rural regeneration in thinking about rural futures. To better understand what the expectations are for a location to qualify as a ‘dream area’ and what kinds of people are dreaming about specific types of (rural) areas, an inventory of future dreams among the youth was carried out in 20 regions across 10 EU countries.

“The result of asking 2,000 young people about their dream lives for the future has naturally yielded 2,000 different dreams”, says Korthals Altes, “but what we have noticed, in general, is that an increasing number of people hope to live more rural than where they are living now.” To turn these rural dreams into reality it is central to build both an accessible system for young people to make their income in rural activities as well as provide the infrastructure for them to have the desired quality of life in a non-urban context. In this respect, bucolic coastal areas have a high development potential and can provide a whole range of attractive socio-economic opportunities.


Land access, farming and stewardship: informing policy to paint rural futures

These foresight methodologies allowed RURALIZATION to develop a potentials matrix as a synthesis of the assessment process of rural trends and dreams. This output may serve as a benchmarking tool for a high-level vision of what is considered beneficial by stakeholders, experts and researchers in various types of rural settings. Local applications of foresight tools such as the potentials matrix may support European, national, regional and local actors in their assessments of alternative futures for their rural regions.

How these futures will look depends on the course that governance of land and nature will take: “As land and nature are clearly also important investment goods, funds and environmental values are not always aligned”, notes Korthals Altes, “but if you want to protect nature you must take action not only in terms of regulating land allocation but also in terms of shaping the ‘marketing’ of how land will be managed by people in an environmentally-conscious manner.” Within the wider rural scenario, special attention should go to making a wiser use of coastal areas, promoting activities such as aquaculture production or the restoration of coastal wetlands.


“Most EU agricultural policy is still guided by 1950s ideals which don’t take into account the current soil health scenarios and the fact that, to meet Green Deal objectives, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has to be re-structured to cater for an agroecological management of land”, says Korthals Altes. Currently, most subsidies coming from the Common Agricultural Policy are not supporting pathways for land acquisition by new farmers who are willing to engage in green developments.

Looking at the social agenda, there is a need to consider who is managing the soil, which groups are ‘invested’ with its stewardship and how this is passed on. Part of the structural change needed in rural settings is not only a generational one, linked to the need to replace the aging population of farmers, but also to make the agricultural system more inclusive in terms of gender balance: “Land management is still a very masculine and patriarchal business, often tried to strict kinship-based structures; it’s almost impossible for people without a family-base in farming to step in”, Korthals Altes observes, “We have to move into the direction of facilitating new actors in joining, with social models that reflect current times”.


Making ruralisation the norm, not the exception

Korthals Altes is a firm believer that the future, including our agriculture and soil management, is what we make of it today, which paths humanity chooses to embark on by taking well-informed actions. A shift in people’s lifestyles towards ruralisation can be instrumental to boost sustainable agro-practices and re-balance the distribution of production, resources, and people from high-polluting urban settings to well-connected rural ones. To ‘go rural’ it is paramount to make this regulation of land ownership and access ideally integrated by innovative and participatory land policy instruments.

The time is ripe to invest in more sustainable and agroecological uses of land: “Initiatives such as the Green Deal and the Farm to Fork are going in that direction but the scale and pace at which things are happening are worrying; too little, too slowly…”. The current outcomes of nature protection actions and policies already reflect this urgency: “Sure, we are seeing certain plants and animal species coming back but the negative developments still outweigh the positive ones”, reckons Korthals Altes.


This is an article from the Horizon Futures Watch Newsletter (Issue I, May 2023) presented by Foresight on Demand


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