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Framing essay II

The places of rural life have changed dramatically in the past generation. The ongoing transformation of built environments and landscapes is putting a strain on everyday life in many places. At the same time, place-based spatial development, especially through participatory processes of placemaking, is increasingly being viewed as a means not only to achieve attractive and functional built environments but to promote a sense of community, place attachment, social cohesion, and to help stimulate local economies – in short to enhance rural dwellers’ quality of life and well-being. The essay frames the critical examination of interventions in rural built environments in European countries, China and South Africa, with an eye to their role in constructing quality of life. Importantly, this includes the (potential) role of planning and spatial design to enable rural places to flourish and to enhance individual and collective well-being. The framing takes its point of departure in a situated and relational understanding of well-being. People, things and places are assembled in everyday encounters and well-being is conceived of as an effect arising from such complex socio-material assemblages. We have thus tasked authors to critically question the ways in which built interventions and transformation processes instigate new relationships between people, things and places, and how this may contribute to quality of life, while remaining open to the possibility that such interventions might not always be beneficial for quality of life.

Introduction

This essay frames a critical examination of interventions in the built environment with an eye to their role in constructing rural quality of life. Importantly, this includes the (potential) role of planning and spatial design to enable rural places to flourish and to enhance individual and collective well-being. The framing takes its point of departure in a situated and relational understanding of well-being, where people, things and places are assembled in everyday encounters and well-being is conceived of as an effect arising from such complex assemblages. The chapters in Part I have already provided insights into the relation between well-being and everyday rural life. In Part II we build on this grounding to address more specifically interactions between everyday life, rural planning and the built environment.

The places of rural life have changed dramatically in the past generation, driven by globalisation, urbanisation and environmental change (Woods, 2019). New uses and competing societal demands for rural space promote conflicting ideas about rurality and broaden the scope of rural planning (Gkartzios et al., 2022). While the ongoing transformation of built environments and landscapes is putting a strain on rural life in many places, place-based spatial development, especially through participatory processes of placemaking, is increasingly being viewed as a means not only to achieve attractive and functional built environments but to promote a sense of community, place attachment, social cohesion, and to help stimulate local economies – in short to enhance rural dwellers’ quality of life and well-being (Tietjen & Jørgensen, 2018). The logic involved in this trend reflects an old trope of planning rationality, where interventions in the built environment are believed to be capable of enhancing human well-being by providing a material environment which is more conducive to human flourishing. Instead of taking this for granted, we want to critically examine how such interventions affect rural places and (possibilities of) rural life and how this may contribute to quality of life, while remaining open to the possibility that they are not always capable of doing so.

Drawing on a situated and relational understanding of well-being, we treat rural built environments and landscapes and their transformation as co-creators of relational spaces of well-being and becoming. This is inspired by Sarah Atkinson’s (2013, p. 137) deliberately ambiguous framing of well-being as ‘an effect, dependent on the mobilisation of resources from everyday encounters with complex assemblages of people, things and places’; in this way well-being can be defined and examined as ‘stable and amenable to change, as individual and collective and as subjective and objective’ (see also Atkinson et al., 2012). From this shared vantage point, chapter authors investigate built interventions in rural places made by local communities, planners, architects and policymakers, and driven by aims that explicitly emphasise quality of life. The purpose of this framing essay is to set the scene for this, to prepare the reader for what (not) to expect, and to highlight the most relevant interconnections between chapters.

Are interventions in the built environment always beneficial to the quality of life?

Part II opens with an intervention by Mark Scott, who makes the case for a rural planning paradigm in which human well-being and quality of life are placed front and centre as the primary aim and guiding light for planning. This is based on the simple principle that spatial planning ought to be about making places better for people. As his review of rural planning shows, however, this has not always been the case in the countryside. For instance, an ethos of preservation has often prevailed in which farmland and landscape quality preservation has been prioritised to the neglect and detriment of the social dimensions of rural places. Likewise, agricultural interests have often dominated the shaping of rural futures, which in turn has tended to marginalise socially progressive planning practices. Instead, Scott encourages us to consider the tangible and intangible built environment factors that contribute to quality of life and how these vary across different types of rural places from the almost urban to the most remote. Drawing on a range of examples from across Europe, he shows how planning interventions may both enhance and erode quality of life. Appreciating that rural planning and built environment interventions also risk having detrimental effects on human well-being is an important step towards a better understanding of their potential to improve quality of life.

The following chapters take up this thread more concretely by looking closely at specific instances of interventions in the built environment in very different settings around the world. Each in their own way, these chapters grapple with the following questions: Do such interventions actually fulfil their purpose and deliver on the promise to make life better, and if so, how? If not, why do they fail? Under which circumstances do they become counterproductive and why? To do so they also explore the implications of built interventions with the physical changes to the material rural fabric comprising only the most obviously visible side. Often, however, the invisible side is just as important: the processes and projects through which built interventions come about reach much further into the social fabric of communities. In this sense, the interventions under scrutiny are not merely concerned with the material environment of rural places but also intervene in the goings-on of everyday rural life that comprised the topic in Part I. The combination of findings from parts I and II thus allow us to provide a more informed basis for future rural planning and policy-making. This includes not only questions of how to intervene, but also the overlooked question of how not to intervene; as disruptions, interventions cannot be assumed to always be beneficial. What we have tasked authors with, then, is to critically scrutinise the ways in which interventions instigate new relationships between people, things and places. A key question that this entails is by and for whom are rural spaces of well-being created, and who are being overlooked or excluded in their production? This, again, harks back to the critical framing of Part I.

From rural planning to place-based, participatory projects

In the first in-depth empirical exploration of interventions in the built environment, Anne Tietjen and Gertrud Jørgensen introduce us to the plethora of place-based participatory projects that have been carried out in Denmark in areas affected by population loss. They present an encompassing inventory of such projects and provide detailed insights about a smaller selection, showing what changes local communities make to their built environments to enhance quality of life and community well-being, and what these changes do. The reader will do well to pay special attention to the ways in which project communities were often seen to outlast the projects themselves, sometimes with long-term placemaking effects. This ought to prompt questions about what we focus on when assessing acts of physical planning and design: is it only about changes associated directly with the built environment or should we perhaps pay more attention to how projects intervene in the sociality of rural communities as well? Regarding rural quality of life, both aspects would seem relevant.

Juanee Cilliers and Menini Gibbens address the complexity of placemaking and its relation to rural quality of life by attending to the development of child-friendly spaces in impoverished South African communities with a predominantly young population. If rural planning and placemaking is to prioritise quality of life – the argument made earlier by Scott – whose quality of life and whose spaces should be prioritised, and where does that leave child-friendly spaces in prioritisation dilemmas in places that also desperately need basic infrastructure? In their empirical exploration of this, the authors employ both a child’s and an adult’s perspective, thus opening for critical scrutiny whose perspective on rural places gets to count in rural placemaking. A more general corollary of this chapter is that different rural spaces, different living conditions and different views on rural quality of life also entail different requirements for placemaking policy and practices.

These insights are worth bearing in mind when accompanying Meiqin Wang on an extended visit to the Longtan village in China. The village has been the setting for an art-led intervention which has been sustained over a longer time period to revitalise a poor, depopulated village as a heritage and tourism destination. The intervention followed a logic in which art was assumed to be capable of enabling a local transformation which, among other things, would enhance quality of life for village residents. As such the chapter prompts us to think critically about the implications that such an assumption may have on how the intervention unfolds and especially how local residents respond to it. This connects to broader questions concerning local and extra-local agency and the uncritical export of urban ideas to rural areas.

The production of rural winners and losers

The last two chapters in Part II both take on the difficult questions associated with the ways in which rural planning and policy-making may contribute to the production of rural winners and losers. Nick Gallent explores this through a perspective on affordable rural housing, taking up the thread on gentrification started by Martin Phillips and colleagues in Part I. Gallent employs a domain-based view which emphasises the intersections between housing and a range of life domains including home life, work life, social life and community life. This forces us to reflect on how the (un)availability of affordable housing has implications for rural quality of life that reach across all these domains rather than being confined to home life alone. Looking at housing development in rural England, the chapter affords insights into how processes of rural gentrification may affect rural quality of life, while also beginning to identify pathways out of the problem.

With Nils Björling in the last chapter, the theme of winners and losers is taken up again by looking at the longue durée development of the Swedish welfare state and the stark geographical divides between prospering cities and declining countryside that have emerged from it. Instead of getting caught by the binary terms of his account, however, Björling uses it as a point of departure for identifying what he calls ‘the rurban void’ which is produced precisely by the polarised forces pulling Swedish society apart along the rural–urban interface. Illustrated by a number of cases, the chapter outlines emerging alternative spatial development practices in the rurban void that take place outside the realm of official planning practice and can open new avenues for planning for rural quality of life.

References

Atkinson, S. (2013). Beyond components of wellbeing: The effects of relational and situated assemblage. Topoi, 32, 137–144. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11245-013- 9164-0
Atkinson, S., Fuller, S., & Painter, J. (2012). Wellbeing and place. In S. Atkinson, S. Fuller, & J. Painter (Eds), Wellbeing and place (pp. 1–14). Farnham: Ashgate.
Gkartzios, M., Gallent, N., & Scott, M. (2022). Rural places and planning: Stories from the global countryside. Bristol: Policy Press.
Tietjen, A., & Jørgensen, G. (2018). There is more to it than meets the eye: Strategic design in the context of rural decline. Transactions of the Association of European Schools of Planning, 2(1), 9–31. https://doi.org/10.24306/TrAESOP.2018.01.002
Woods, M. (2019). The future of rural places. In M. Scott, N. Gallent, & M. Gkartzios (Eds), The Routledge companion to rural planning (pp. 622–632). London and New York: Routledge.
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