Rural areas are often associated with high quality of life. Fresh air. Open space. Children running free. The impressionistic imagery is familiar and inviting. People visit rural places to relax, recuperate, wander and play. People move to rural places to slow down and follow dreams. Open a glossy lifestyle magazine and there, doubtless, will be a rustic home, replete with sweeping views and worn-in furnishings – and as near to some deep and comforting sense of homeliness as it is far from financial reach.

Rural areas are regularly associated with decline, too. Rural studies researchers warn of the ‘vicious cycle’ following job loss and service closure. Shuttered shops and shrinking villages. Withered opportunities. ‘Anyone with “get up and go” got up and went’, the saying goes. Even picturesque places mask histories pocked with poverty. The less picturesque – like former mining villages, surrounded by overgrown slag heaps and bits of rusted machinery – are tidied from the tourist trail and categorised as ‘left behind’.

Forty years ago, the Welsh cultural theorist Raymond Williams observed that rurality is not a neutral category, but laden with contemporary social and political meaning. Because rural space becomes defined more in relation to urban centres than according to any objective or intrinsic characteristics, then what the city is, the countryside is not (and vice versa). This explains why rural places, despite considerable diversity, are so often portrayed in broad, one-or-the-other terms: idyll or ignorance; satisfaction or suffering; close to nature or stuck in the past. Such simplified stories are mobilised for many purposes, from moralistic commentary and cultural critique to levering resources. To speak of rurality is inevitably to speak volumes.

Rural is especially laden because urbanisation has become a metonym for modernity. Though cities have been with us for millennia, accelerating urban growth is a relatively recent trend, accompanying industrialisation, colonisation and globalisation. The United Kingdom census first reported more urban than rural dwellers in 1851. In 2007, the United Nations estimated that the global population had reached the majority urban milestone. For some 55 per cent of people worldwide and over 70 per cent of Europeans, cities define the ways ‘we’ live now. Rurality, remembering Williams, represents the ways ‘we’ – fewer and fewer of us – do not live. To speak of rural quality of life speaks volumes indeed.

Plenty of commentators posit urbanisation as modernity’s triumph. Cities are celebrated for driving growth, incubating innovation, clustering creativity and recently even for saving us from climate change. Academic articles present urban agglomeration as an economic axiom and policies turn ‘city-regions’ into a fait accompli. Yet doubts nag. Urbanisation, many interjecting voices say, is an experiment on an unprecedented scale – and experiments are wont to fail.

Despite optimistic promises of everlasting progress, melancholic strands weave through modernity, too. What if we are erasing our heritage? What if we are sapping our souls in the city for things shallow and base? What if we went back to slower, simpler, greener ways of being? What if we cannot? What if we will not?

These are not new questions. Read one of the nineteenth-century romantics, or play a 1970s Anglophone folk record, and the questions hum between the lines. But nor are the doubts limited to sandal-wearing lyricists. In a now classic study, American economist Richard Easterlin showed that national happiness levels do not increase over time, even as incomes continue to grow. Easterlin’s paradox continues to be cited as evidence that economic growth alone is a poor proxy for real human flourishing. Perhaps chasing big city salaries from small high-rise offices really does leave us feeling, as anthropologist Karen Ho put it in her ethnography of Wall Street, liquidated.

The multiple crises of our recent times have given long lingering doubts new impetus. The 2008 global financial crisis ushered in state austerity budgets that bit at everyday life even as the ‘too big to fail’ banking sector bounced back to healthy profits. Despite (some) soul-searching in business and policy circles, economist Mariana Mazzucato astutely argues that our economic paradigm remains locked in the false belief that price is value, rather than value determining price. Societal value has taken on a new perspective during the COVID-19 pandemic: the ‘key workers’ we have most depended upon typically rank among the lowest paid and otherwise least regarded. Meanwhile, climate change adds uncomfortable urgency to conversations about what counts and why. Will recovery truly prioritise well-being – today, tomorrow and for future generations – or stick with limited measures of macroeconomic ‘success’?

If the pandemic represents a reset, little wonder that rural lifestyles seem so central to the story. Lockdown restrictions and lessons at home have made paved streets and poky apartments seem a lot less attractive. Digital technologies have decoupled many professionals from day on day in the office, affording opportunities not only to work from home, but for home to be further away. Living rurally is becoming more possible and more practical, just as the countryside is once again serving as a foil to city problems. The lives fewer of us have been able to live increasingly look like the lives more of us might want to. What if we went back to slower, simpler, greener ways of being? What if we can? What if we do?

Rural Quality of Life is a timely book that takes up classic questions. It is also a book that asks many questions. Subjective well-being surveys are often cited as proof that rural dwellers are, overall, happier than their urban counterparts. But surveys say little about why, and even less about what such results mean in practical terms. The chapters assembled here add much-needed breadth and nuance from a variety of perspectives, contexts and methods. Some chapters are consoling. Others are troubling. There are few simple answers – thankfully, because few real rural stories are simple either.

I vividly remember sitting in an undergraduate class (more years ago than I might like to admit), a kindly professor asking us to turn to the person next to us and chat about our childhood summer holidays. Had we been camping? Perhaps we travelled in a caravan to a scenic rural spot? I had spent many happy days in a caravan on the outskirts of a small horticultural town, whirling around outside in the sunshine with the grass tickling my toes and my fingers sticky from fresh-picked fruit. But I never went on holiday. My mother and I lived, for a time, in a caravan parked in my grandparents’ garden because we had nowhere else to go. I remember slipping quietly from the classroom that day, cringing in the recognition that I had the ‘wrong’ rural story to tell and that telling it would mark me as out-of-place in urban, affluent academic life.

The older, wiser version of myself knows how to speak up. And speak up I do about good lives and spatial justice. My own copy of Rural Quality of Life will soon be dog-eared and sometimes thumped. My hope is that fellow readers will find in the book a rich and challenging resource for speaking up in their own ways and for speaking – critical, complex – volumes about rural places, people and futures.

Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins

Countryside and Community Research Institute

University of Gloucestershire

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