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Rural placemaking for sustained community well-being

Rural spatial development policy increasingly aims to improve quality of life and meet broad sustainable development goals. The New Rural Paradigm marked a shift towards supporting place-based, participatory local projects. In Denmark, this coincided with the 2007 structural reform whereby 273 municipalities were merged into 98 while giving municipalities full planning sovereignty over their territory, including the open countryside. Hundreds of place-based, participatory local spatial projects have since been carried out. This chapter examines the potential of such interventions in the built environment to enhance rural quality of life in peripheral areas affected by population loss.

An inventory of projects receiving public or philanthropic funding in the 2010–2016 period was assembled to identify projects that (1) involved built interventions (buildings, open spaces, landscape projects), (2) were carried out to enhance quality of life, (3) were publicly accessible or open to a larger public, and (4) community-driven or participatory. Of 734 such projects that were found, 13 were selected for in-depth study using spatial and functional analysis, document studies, and site visits and interviews with key actors. The chapter finds that quality of life is pursued by (a) creating spaces shared by locals and non-locals alike, (b) reinventing cultural heritage, (c) creating green meeting places, and (d) forging new spatial connections, all with a focus on sustained community well-being. Importantly, the project communities often outlast the projects themselves, sometimes with long-term placemaking effects.

Introduction

In Denmark, as in many countries, rural areas face the challenges of a decreasing and ageing population, lack of access to public and private services, decay of the built environment and below-average socio-economic development. Balanced urban–rural development is a major societal concern, and place-based, participatory local projects are increasingly at the forefront of political measures to address it. Such projects are partly publicly funded, for example by Leader or national funds for area renewal, but they are increasingly also funded by private charities. To sustain and enhance their community well-being, rural dwellers collectively initiate and implement projects in the built environment through such funding.

This chapter investigates projects for buildings, open spaces and landscapes in villages, small rural towns and the open countryside which are (co-)created by local people and seek better quality of life and community well-being. The projects reveal what rural dwellers deem valuable for their (individual and) collective well-being and future welfare, insofar as they devote considerable resources to designing the projects, applying for funding, carrying out the construction and securing the projects’ management and use post-completion.

Using thirteen Danish cases, we examine the physical interventions rural dwellers undertake to preserve, transform and develop their built environment, and how these interventions change the possibilities of rural life. Specifically, we ask what types of common spaces people consider valuable for their (individual and) community well-being, and what interventions they therefore pursue in placemaking. We are also interested in what such built interventions do: how they change relationships between people, places and things, how they affect possibilities for rural life and how they stimulate new perceptions of place and new ideas for future development.

Placemaking as an expression of community well-being

Placemaking refers to the process of people collectively making, shaping, remaking and maintaining what we would classically understand as places: specific spaces that provide services or functions for the community, but which also create or sustain local meaning, identity and community (Cresswell, 2004; Gordon, 2012). Places should be understood from an insider perspective (Friedmann, 2010) as lived-in spaces where ‘people live and work, converse with others, are alone, rest, learn, are active or still’ (Canter, 1977, p. 1). A place in this sense need not be unique. A place is a place ‘because it is yours. It is intimate and known, cared for and argued about’ (Schneekloth & Shibley, 2000, p. 132). While psychology often understands place attachment as an aspect of individual identity (e.g. Giuliani, 2003), planning and design give it a collective meaning, understanding places as assemblages of many – sometimes conflicting – individual representations (Cresswell, 2004; Relph, 1976). Place is more than a static container or material backdrop against which social interactions occur; it is inherently relational in both its production and its influence (Cresswell, 2004) and physical spaces co-produce social life as ‘the structure of the material world pushes back on people’ (Yaneva, 2009, p. 277).

The concept of placemaking is understood differently by different disciplines, from cultural workers to architects (Ellery et al., 2021). For the purpose of this chapter, we tentatively define it as ‘small-scale, citizen-informed … projects designed to improve, enliven and redefine the spaces of the city’ (Sweeney et al., 2018) – or in our case, the spaces of the village, small town or local landscape. In practice and research, placemaking is often linked to urban redevelopment. Although rural placemaking is less well researched, Lee and Blackford (2020) consider placemaking an important framework for individual and collective identity and well-being in rural areas.

Well-being can be measured individually as ‘a contented state of being happy, healthy or prosperous’ (Forjaz et al., 2011, p. 784), and indicators are conceived with the intent of comparing levels of happiness (Helliwell et al., 2021). But we work with the concept of community well-being as the ‘broad range of social, environmental, cultural and governance goals and priorities identified as of greatest importance by a particular community, population group or society’ (Cox et al., 2010, p. 72). Well-being is not only about the individual’s good life in a practical and material sense, but also about living the good life in relationship with others; it is thus ‘grounded in a broader, shared understanding of how the world is and should be’ White (2010, p. 160). Similarly, McCrea et al. (2014, 2016) underscore the importance of agency in well-being: the ability to collectively create and shape life as a means of community resilience, sustaining good local community under the pressure of changing circumstances. Well-being ‘can have no form, expression or enhancement without consideration of place’ (Atkinson et al., 2012, p. 3) – and, we would add, the process of placemaking and collectively shaping physical spaces is connected to agency in the creation and sustenance of community well-being.

This chapter considers placemaking as a situated, collective approach to the enhancement and maintenance of community well-being through physical projects that create, change or restructure shared built environments and landscapes and thereby affect (the possibilities of) rural life. To this end, we work with a situated, relational and temporal understanding of rural spaces and well-being (Atkinson, 2013; Winterton et al., 2014), and we view local spatial projects as complex assemblages of people, places and things that have been established to protect and enhance individual and collective quality of life and well-being (Tietjen & Jørgensen, 2016, 2018). We therefore also acknowledge relationships among localities and between insiders and outsiders as both users and funding bodies (cf. Winterton et al., 2014).

Rural development and placemaking projects in Denmark

Denmark is a small welfare country with a population of 5.8 million, between 20 and 30 per cent of whom (depending on the definitions used) live in rural areas where intensive agriculture dominates the landscape’s spatial character (Statistics Denmark, 2019; European Commission, 2020). As in many countries, Denmark’s spatial development is characterised by a ‘double urbanisation process’ (Eliasen et al., 2020; Bogason, 2020) polarised between cities and rural areas: while population and economic growth are generally concentrated in larger cities and metropolitan areas, the population in rural peripheral areas is also increasingly concentrated in local centres of 1,000 inhabitants or more (Statistics Denmark, 2019; Regeringen, 2020).

This leaves peripheral rural areas – i.e. very small towns, villages and the open countryside more than half an hour’s drive from one of the eleven largest cities – facing multiple challenges. Although unemployment differs between different rural areas, they all generally suffer from other socio-economic problems: a shrinking population (as young people move away), below-average socio-economic development, large numbers of empty or difficult-to-sell houses and declining levels of public and private services (Regeringen, 2019, 2020).

In line with the ‘new rural paradigm’ (OECD, 2006), national rural development policies increasingly aim for improved quality of life and broad sustainable development goals (e.g. Regeringen, 2020), marking a shift from general welfare distribution and agricultural support towards place-based, participatory local projects. This shift coincided with a structural reform in 2007 whereby 273 municipalities were merged into 98 relatively large, strong entities. Services were centralised, especially in rural areas, and there was increased emphasis on the development of attractive rural living environments based on existing qualities, resources and potentials. A multitude of place-based, participatory spatial projects to enhance rural quality of life have subsequently been conducted, initiated by local communities, often in cooperation with municipal administrations (Tietjen & Jørgensen, 2016, 2018, 2019).

This has been possible thanks to not only municipal reform but also a strong charitable sector. In Denmark, charity funding for good causes amounts to approximately DKK 8 billion (more than EUR 1 billion) annually. Charities are increasingly professional and strategic, proactively setting agendas they consider beneficial to society (Kristiansen, 2019). Some charities focus on improving quality of life through the built environment or direct their programmes towards challenges in rural areas. This makes it possible for communities in such areas to attract funding to change their built environment and thereby support community well-being.

Using information from the five most relevant funding bodies (private, semi-private and public), we identified 734 built interventions funded during 2010–2016 in peripheral rural areas (new or transformed buildings, open spaces, landscape projects) that were initiated, co-designed or operated by the local community and were open to the public or directed towards a larger community. Of these projects, 104 had estimated construction costs of more than DKK 1 million each (EUR 130,000).

Many of the smaller projects were shelters for nature-based recreation or open public spaces for multiple activities, mainly sports. This was probably partly because two large funding bodies had special programmes for such small-scale projects. Among the 104 larger projects, multipurpose cultural centres prevailed. These constitute something more than typical community centres, providing meeting places not only for locals but also for larger communities with shared interests and activities. Visitor attractions, mainly for non-locals or tourists, and outdoor public spaces were also frequent; their uses included meeting places, cultural activities, sports, business and education. The larger projects also included several new or transformed walking or cycling routes, creating new spatial connections within local communities or with the landscape.

From the 104 projects, we selected 13 qualitative case studies (Figure 8.1, Table 8.1). They represent a variety of locations, intervention types and forms of project organisation. All are projects where larger or smaller interventions have renewed or transformed existing buildings, open spaces or landscapes. Structural interventions include conversions, renovations, extensions and new builds, and also the demolition or partial dismantling of existing buildings. All thirteen projects have been completed, a criterion we chose because we wanted to know how the projects affected the community’s built environment and life. We studied the processes, outcomes and transformative effects, including physical changes, new activities, new spatial uses, perceptions of place, and how these had sparked ideas for future place development. We took a qualitative mixed-method approach including spatial and functional analysis, document studies, site visits and interviews with key actors.

Our starting point was that these charity-based projects could reveal what people strive for as placemaking for community well-being in peripheral rural areas. We see these interventions in the built environment as (attempts at) creating place-based solutions to local challenges, not forgetting that they are also influenced by the funders’ agendas.

No. Case Main idea Changes to built environment Owners Use and users Community well-being perspectives
1 Balling: ‘Pulsen’ multipurpose cultural centre.Transformation, new construction, 2014, DKK 69 million. Transform local sports hall into community centre for several villages. Sports hall rebuilt, new constructions added. Non-profit local organisation. Sports, wellness, cafe, healthcare, meetings, fetes. Services and meeting place. Many people do voluntary work, enhancing local networks and social life.
2 ‘Village of Seven Parishes’, island of Mors: village cooperation.Transformation, demolition, new construction, public space, landscape project, 2015, DKK 17 million. Formation of village cluster where services and meeting places are differentiated by function (sports, culture, nature) and shared among seven parishes. Private school in new building, three community houses in former schools, houses demolished to form new public space, landscape path binding the villages together. Umbrella organisation coordinates subprojects owned by local associations. School, meetings, sports, theatre, nature education, playground, park, billiards, brewery, birthday parties etc. Sustaining social life and new relationships between villages. ‘Houses are easily sold, there are jobs, a school, a nursery and a grocer’s shop, depopulation halted’ (project website).
3 Ærøskøbing shipyard.Renovation, transformation, new construction, public space, 2012, DKK 25.5 million. Redevelop underused shipyard into visitor centre, educational facility for youth with special needs. Renovation of shipyard, creating room for shop and offices. Educational facility in new building. Buildings owned by the public. Activities are private social entrepreneurship. DIY ship repair. Education for people with special needs.Visitor centre for tourists. Point of interest in the town.Preservation of living heritage. Education for disabled youth benefits the whole island.
4 Horbelev multipurpose cultural centre.Transformation, new construction, 2016, DKK 12.5 million. Transform closed school into new meeting place for several villages on North Falster. Dispersed buildings of former school renovated, new connecting building added to integrate buildings and serve as common space. Non-profit, local organisation initiated, implemented, owns and runs the centre. Sports, concerts, public talks, local fetes, small private businesses, second-hand shop. Users pay rent. Sustaining social life. New and redirected networks, broader than just the village. New architectural landmark as point of identity.
5 Frøstrup: Citizens’ Inn, renewable energy centre, new public space.Renovation, transformation, demolition, public space, 2015, DKK 6 million. Revival of old inn as multipurpose cultural centre. Renewable energy exhibition centre, new public spaces. Inn renovated with bar, meeting space and ballroom. Fodder storage turned into exhibition hall. Houses demolished to form new public spaces connecting vital functions in the village. Initiated, owned and operated by citizens’ association. Friday bar, meeting rooms, citizens’ library, concerts, summer fetes. Sustaining social life and community-building. ‘Houses are now sold and plots are hard to get, two food stores. The school avoided closure, and there is a rich sports scene’ (project website).
6 Klitmøller: new footpath and green public spaces.New construction, landscape project, 2020, DKK 4.8 million. Connect the village’s main public spaces for pedestrians and create public access to the Klitmøller Stream. New footpath along the Klitmøller Stream connecting village centre with school. New green spaces and pedestrian bridges across river. Initiated, built and owned by municipality in cooperation with local community. Schoolchildren, locals and tourists, walkers/cyclists. New school path is essential for traffic safety. New bridges connect two parts of the town. Better access to nature. Supports identity and history.
7 Astrup village: Faster Dairy.Transformation, renovation, demolition, public space, 2015, DKK 4.8 million. Reuse large derelict dairy for private business, shop and new public space. Inside and outside renovation, a large building removed, new public space created in front of building. Owned by citizens’ association, run on commercial terms. Supermarket, space for start-ups, exhibition space, petrol station. Regional use. Provides private services and creates workspaces. Refers to industrial past and creates pride and identity.
8 Øster Hurup: new public space and spatial connections.New construction, public space, landscape project, 2018, DKK 4.6 million. Establish new central public space and better connections between town centre, harbour and beach. New square with lookout tower forms end point of new promenade between town and harbour. Road redirected. New parking, boardwalk through wetland. Municipality implemented and now owns project. Long co-creation process. Use is organised by local citizens. Common activities for locals and tourists. Crabbing, morning coffee, concerts, singing. Town structure ‘turned around’ to accentuate connection to sea. New spaces used for public events. Better access to nature. Supports identity and history.
9 Ejerslev: marina and visitor centre.Transformation, new construction, landscape project, 2015, DKK 3.4 million. Former diatomic soil shipping harbour transformed into marina, public access by footpath to former quarries. Repair of harbour, turning it into marina with new service buildings. New restaurant. New public footpath in quarries. Municipality owns harbour and public part of quarry. Users run marina. Restaurant is leased. Sailors (local and incoming). Popular destination for lunch or walks. Small museum. Derelict place opened and used by many regional locals and tourists. Better access to nature. Supports identity and history.
10 Glyngøre: Salling aqua park.New construction, 2013, DKK 3 million. Sea diving facilities for amateurs in the region, creating a new underwater park. Two shipwrecks, tank, artificial grotto, two artificial stone reefs placed near Glyngøre harbour at depths up to 24 metres. Initiated, planned, built and operated by local sea diving club. Municipality owns harbour. Use is free. Divers come from near and far. Good for divers, but some conflict with other harbour users. Plan for whole area is underway. Facility helps local biodiversity.
11 Lyø Island: cultural and visitor centre.Transformation, 2015, DKK 2.4 million. Transform closed school into restaurant and visitors’/cultural centre for locals and tourists. School building transformed into summer cafe, meeting rooms, small museum, open picnic room. Citizens’ association initiated, owns and operates it. Running of cafe is leased. Many tourists visit cafe in summer. Restaurant seems to be most active. Instead of empty school building, cultural and visitors’ centre forms lively node in the middle of Lyø.
12 Junget: new village green.Demolition, new construction, public space, 2017, DKK 1.6 million. Create a new meeting place to enhance quality of life and community feeling in a challenged village. Village green created on empty plots after demolition of houses on high street, with functional artworks built with bricks from the houses. Initiated by local residents’ association and artists. Managed by local residents on voluntary basis. Resting place for tourists. Used for barbecues and meetings for local people. Sustained social life. The reuse of bricks from demolished houses in this central public space is a reminder of history and creates place identity.
13 Østerby Bakery Museum.Renovation, 2016, DKK 0.8 million. A group of people wished to renovate former bakery and turn it into a museum. House renovated; funding secured for roof renovation. Private owner. Local association supports museum activities. Museum open by appointment. Visited by schoolchildren and tourists. Place identity, awareness of history.

What rural people do to improve community well-being through placemaking and changes in the built environment

The thirteen projects we examined were motivated by challenges ranging from population decline and waning public services (especially school closures) to empty or underused buildings and building decay. They were initiated because the built environment – or important specific buildings – were experienced as outdated, inadequate and unattractive. The built environment is seen both as a symptom and a cause of crises; hence, creating attractive built environments where meetings, joint activities or services can occur is seen as helping to solve such problems. Another, albeit less acknowledged, issue is the lack of access to landscapes and nature – or to put it more positively, the desire for better access to the landscape and better opportunities to experience nature, which was the goal of several projects.

In general, the projects rethink space to develop new meeting places and activity spaces for contemporary rural life that are open to a wider public or used by a larger community. They are created and/or operated by residents; they transform existing built structures; they are based on sites’ existing qualities, resources and potentials, such as architecture, cultural heritage or natural features; they create new relationships and actor networks across multiple scales, for example by reaching out to users from beyond the local area, including tourists. Across these characteristics, we found four strategies for building community well-being and broader quality of life through new public spaces.

Strategy 1: New common spaces for new communities of interest

Population decline means there are fewer people to participate in the local community, initiate and foster activities, or create social life. Simultaneously, there is a concentration of people in the somewhat larger villages with better levels of service, as well as in some particularly attractive villages. The first strategy we found transforms existing built spaces (indoors and outdoors) for activities or public functions that reach out beyond the local community: to neighbouring villages, the regional area, or tourists. This strategy encompasses multipurpose cultural centres or new types of public spaces, often created through the transformation of existing buildings or public space.

Almost all cases pertain to this strategy, but we found two different models for new meeting spaces. Model 1, which is mostly used in small towns or larger villages, concentrates many different activities (sports, culture, community centre etc.) under one roof (or in one place). In addition to local users, this model attracts external users, including tourists in some cases (1, 4, 5, 7, 8 and 12). By contrast, model 2 differentiates and distributes activities across multiple locations within a larger geographical area (mainly case 2, although case 12 is also part of a larger village cluster in the region). Both models aim to concentrate users in selected locations and thus to create the basis for the maintenance, strengthening and development of local activities, informal and formal meetings and social life. Both models create new communities by providing a material framework for them.

In Balling (case 1), local project organisers successfully expanded the village sports hall into a professionally managed sports and community centre for the rural part of the Salling region, with many new users and a wide variety of activities. In addition to sports, there is wellness, physiotherapy, a lecture hall and ballroom, meeting rooms, a cafe and, most importantly, a new medical centre (Figure 8.2, bottom right). In Frøstrup (case 5), the renovated inn became more of a local meeting place, a community and cultural centre for villagers and wider local residents, managed by the local civic association (Figure 8.2, top left). The inn’s remodelling strengthened existing activities and enabled new ones, such as concerts and other cultural events in the ballroom. With Horbelev’s multipurpose cultural centre (case 4), an elliptical extension to the former school buildings included a spacious atrium to connect the previously separate buildings into one complex (Figure 8.2, top right). According to key actors, it ‘should be the centre of all the villages in north-east Falster – but it was difficult’. Three years since its opening, the centre mainly attracts a local audience to events such as concerts organised by the residents’ association. On the island of Mors, nine villages have clustered as the ‘Village of Seven Parishes’ (case 2) – an example of model 2. In collaboration with the municipality, residents have redistributed their facilities for sports, nature-based activities, cultural activities and community centres among the nine villages, redesigning them for common use in the village cluster (Figure 8.2, bottom left). Key actors in the project and selected residents indicate that the new shared facilities are well received and that people from all nine villages use the new meeting places.

According to key actors, all these projects have strengthened the local community, increased identifications with place and had a positive effect on external perceptions, helping to put the places ‘on the map’. In Frøstrup (case 5) and the Village of Seven Parishes (case 2), key actors indicate that the number of families with children is increasing. The projects, they say, have created new social relationships beyond one’s own village: relationships among the new facilities’ users, collaborative relationships between project makers and operators, and new friendships. They have also created new mental maps that form the basis of new communities. Particularly in the Village of Seven Parishes, the new shared facilities have expanded the boundaries of the place where residents feel ‘at home’.

Strategy 2: Innovative use of cultural heritage

The projects examined were often triggered by challenges in the local built environment. Cases 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 12 and 13 are examples. These projects worked on the environment’s existing qualities and potentials to preserve, strengthen or develop community well-being, renovating or transforming existing buildings, built structures or landscapes. Site-specific potentials, such as cultural heritage, special landscapes or natural features, played an important role in several projects. This was not only about preserving a valuable building or historical milieu, but also about continuing and renewing local cultural traditions under new conditions.

For example, Frøstrup’s Citizens’ Inn (case 5) continued the historical use of a culturally, architecturally and spatially valuable building in a new context. The Faster Dairy project (case 7) restored a historically valuable building and associated public space that had lost its function; the sponsoring association was proud that in addition to a new shop and business functions, the project had also succeeded in restoring the dairy function, if only in the form of cheese storage. On the island of Ærø, the old shipyard (case 3) was preserved for DIY ship repair, and the cultural heritage of maritime buildings and functions was transformed into a tourist destination that also provided job training opportunities for local youngsters with special needs. In Junget (case 12), stones from former houses in the village centre were recycled into functional artworks in a new park on the demolished site, evoking the lost built environment and village history while forming part of a beautiful new public space. The port of Ejerslev (case 9) is another example of innovative cultural heritage development. Here, preserved industrial heritage related to the extraction and shipping of diatomic clay was combined with a new recreational landscape. The last example, Østerby’s Bakery Museum (case 13), is a more traditional museum, albeit created by local people as part of the village’s cultural heritage.

In other words, this strategy is about utilising and creating ‘living cultural heritage’ where transformed buildings and built environments are not only preserved but contribute to placemaking, functioning as links to the past as well as successful transformations into new ways of life.

Strategy 3: Strengthened access to landscapes and nature

Proximity and access to nature – preferably recreational nature – is important to long-term residents and incomers in Denmark’s rural areas (Ærø et al., 2005). However, access to rural landscapes is often poor and continues to diminish (Caspersen & Karlsson Nyed, 2017), mainly because of intensive farming. New demands and methods for access to nature are emerging and the desire to create better quality of life through closer proximity to landscapes and nature is reflected in many projects (cases 2, 6, 8, 9, 10 and 12). New green meeting places and activity spaces create or enhance connections between the built environment and the landscape, focusing on access to and experiences of nature, informal outdoor activities and the landscape as a connecting and identity-forming element within and between villages.

In the Village of Seven Parishes (case 2), a public footpath connecting the villages through the landscape was an important part of the project. The public path project in the village of Klitmøller (case 6) combined traffic safety with public access to the Klitmøller Stream: a new green space was created and the village reconnected with its local landscape. The public space project in the small town of Øster Hurup (case 8) not only changed the organisation of the urban structure, but connected a central public space (surrounded by artificial dunes) to the harbour and beach. The diatomic clay quarry in Ejerslev (case 9) provides access to walks in a very special type of nature (Figure 8.3, top right). Even Salling’s aqua park (case 10) provides access to nature, albeit for a limited interest group of divers. In case 12, a new green space for picnics and gatherings was established in the leftover space in Junget village centre (Figure 8.3, bottom left). Our broader study found a large number of wild camping sites and other ‘entryways’ into experiences of nature for locals and tourists, all pointing in the same direction: access to nature is an important asset for life in rural areas.

Architectural design can support the experience of new public spaces as landscapes or natural spaces. The new green meeting points along Klitmøller Stream, for example, are marked with sculptural architectural elements that invite one to linger and conduct non-programmed outdoor activities in the otherwise ‘wild’ riverside landscape (Figure 8.3, bottom right). In Øster Hurup’s town square, which is surrounded by an artificial dune landscape, one feels as if one is ‘sitting in nature’ (Figure 8.3, top left). The individual interventions may be small, but together they define a larger spatial context and evoke nature, physically or psychologically. New paths for pedestrians or cyclists literally create new physical connections between people and the landscape.

Strategy 4: New connections to create new mental maps

The fourth strategy reshapes places by making new connections and nodes in villages, small towns or landscapes. All the cases in this group (2, 5, 6, 8, 9 and 12) also pertain to one of the other groups, but the focus here is on rethinking the village’s or town’s overall spatial structure to forge new mental and tangible connections and new – sometimes unexpected – understandings of place.

The projects in Øster Hurup, Frøstrup and Klitmøller are outstanding examples. In Øster Hurup (case 8), a new public space, together with an upgrade of the road to the marina and a viewing tower as a central landmark, ‘turned the town around’, strengthening the connection to the sea and to the port as the historical common space in the old fishing village. This intervention was thus also a framework for strategies 1, 2 and 3. In Frøstrup (case 5), new open spaces were established in front of the Citizens’ Inn, and the demolition of two derelict houses on the high street created a new central public space, connecting the all-important public functions of shopping and football with a small park and playground. In the coastal village of Klitmøller (case 6), the pathway alongside the river opens the village up to its landscape, connects two parts of the village via bridges over the river, provides a new short-cut for schoolchildren – thus mentally moving the school closer to the centre – and emphasises the new public space in front of the village’s only supermarket. In the Village of Seven Parishes (case 2), the new connecting footpath not only provides access to nature, but also visualises and makes tangible the new relations between the villages. The new village green changes tiny Junget’s self-image and internal spatial relations (case 12).

While other projects were mainly conceived and initiated by local citizens, this more overall spatial thinking required the conception and implementation of ideas at the larger scale. Seeing the spatial potential of demolishing houses, changing paths and roads and creating larger public spaces is a competency of design professionals, and architects or planners were involved in the collaborative planning process in all six cases.

Project communities and long-term placemaking: a fifth strategy, or an outcome?

The projects described above required strong cooperation and project organisation to succeed. Most project owners were not professionals in project management or architecture; they were local people from all walks of life, some with educations or work experience to support the process, others learning by doing. The larger projects were very demanding; they ran for several years as the project group concretised the initial ideas, applied for funding from many sources, negotiated with authorities and implemented the project (with professional help), all while maintaining the local community’s ownership and enthusiasm.

Thousands upon thousands of unpaid working hours went into these placemaking processes, from applications and negotiations to practical demolition, co-building and caretaking. All types of competencies were useful, from lawyers and businesspeople to dishwashers and lawnmowers. Hence, projects created strong communities that often extended beyond the project period, leading to new projects and sometimes to long-term collaborative place development. In several of our cases, the project was linked to others in the same location over a longer period, and we found that local key actors were involved in other projects before and after the case project. Thus, projects can become springboards for follow-ups and create the basis for more extensive change. Some projects were also linked to others in a larger geographical area, and important local actors belonged to project communities that went beyond the case project’s location, for example in connection with urban renewal projects or other strategic municipal planning initiatives. The collaborative development and implementation of physical projects was also a way of creating lasting social communities (‘we have become firm friends’ was a phrase we heard repeatedly).

In some places, project communities have developed into permanent placemaking communities that are constantly working on new projects. In Frøstrup (case 5), the transformation of the old inn was the first of several placemaking projects initiated and implemented over fifteen years. Among other things, a demonstration centre for green energy solutions has been established in a former fodder storage, together with a new traffic playground by the building. Opposite the village supermarket, two abandoned houses have been demolished and the site converted into a sensory garden, which also connects the village’s central meeting places: the supermarket, the football fields, the green energy demonstration centre and the Citizens’ Inn. The ‘Pulsen’ multipurpose cultural centre in Balling (case 1) was initiated and implemented by the local sports club and local community in cooperation with three other villages. The idea originally emerged during an experimental village renewal project for several villages on the Salling peninsula in 2005 and the cultural centre was inaugurated in 2014. In Klitmøller (case 6), the public footpath along the stream was created as an extension of an existing path along the beach, which dated from 2012 and was part of the transformation of the historical landing place for fishing boats into a common space for outdoor activities, especially windsurfing, making Klitmøller the capital of North Jutland’s ‘Cold Hawaii’. A subproject of the current area renewal in Klitmøller, the new path has harnessed the momentum of Cold Hawaii, supporting the many citizens who were already involved in local development and expanding the project community to include more citizens and more interests besides surfing. The Village of Seven Parishes (case 2) has brought together a wide variety of local actors and associations over many years, developing through several interconnected projects including municipality-driven area renewals and a local church development project in collaboration with the Church of Denmark. According to key actors, the realisation that the villages had to renounce competition for cooperation was an eye-opener and has fuelled new and lasting groups of actors (and friendships).

In many cases, a smaller group (between three and twelve people) formed the core of the project community. The responsibilities of project financing and implementation sometimes placed a heavy burden on core members. In most cases, however, many more people were involved in larger or smaller roles, often as volunteers for practical work. Our impression was that this voluntary work for the community was valuable to those who performed it – often senior citizens for whom it provided meaning and social networks.

It is debatable whether this type of community-building is a strategy, or whether it is rather an outcome for which neither public authorities, private funders nor local organisations can plan. But since we know that such long-term placemaking efforts can happen, and how valuable they are for making and caring for places that support community well-being, it is important that the political and administrative framework recognises and supports them. In most places, the municipality does support people’s efforts and help local activity groups through a sort of ‘metagovernance’ coordination (Sørensen & Torfing, 2009) whereby typically one municipal planner takes a project under their wing. In most of our case projects, the local project owners were content with this help and requested that the planner participate in the interview/site visit. As we walked around with this ‘authority person’, they would often be greeted by local people.

Placemaking, rural development and community well-being

What can we learn from these examples about relations between placemaking, rural development and community well-being, and about the reality of life in peripheral rural areas today?

The built environment is a valuable tool

While changes in the built environment are obviously not the only way to improve community well-being, our case studies underscore that the built environment is an important tool for communities to make desired changes in functional and social structures to enhance community well-being (as defined by Cox et al., 2010). This is in line with other research findings on the spatial component of well-being: community well-being is co-shaped by the spatial environments in which people exist (Cattell et al., 2008), but social networks and relationships are just as important in community development (Blunsdon & Davern, 2007).

Indeed, we find that collectively shaping the built environment sustains community-building. This finding is strengthened and supported by the impressive amount of time, energy and sometimes private investment that community members put into changes in their shared built environments in our thirteen cases. Our broader inventory of smaller and larger projects also reiterates that common places are essential for relationship-building in communities.

Place-based or generic approaches?

From a regional and economic development perspective, Barca et al. (2012, p. 130) note that place-based approaches can take account of unique spatial contexts – understood as ‘social, cultural, and institutional characteristics’ – and that they often activate local knowledge and promote new knowledge and ideas through interactions between local and external actors. Others, such as Gill (2010), argue for non-place-based or generic ‘people-centred’ approaches to regional development, focusing, for example, on equity regarding infrastructure, mobility among central and peripheral regions, education etc. Gill (2010) juxtaposes the two approaches, arguing that place-based development fosters inequity between stronger and weaker places. Olfert and Partridge (2010), on the other hand, state that one-size-fits-all policies are inappropriate because of the vast differences among rural communities.

In our experience, this juxtaposition is not valid. Place-based approaches and placemaking are effective for changing the mental maps and functions of vulnerable places, but the lack of more general infrastructure (e.g. schools) can also be an important (albeit negative) starting point for place-based local initiatives. Place-based approaches may involve a degree of inequity. We did indeed find that the ‘density’ of projects was higher in some rural, peripheral municipalities. Places that are rich in resources – such as potentially attractive heritage, or people who are able to develop ideas, plan, apply for funding, gather a community, communicate with authorities and implement changes in the built environment – can ‘raise themselves up by their bootstraps’ to maintain or create community well-being. Such places seem to be project-making champions; some of our thirteen cases count among them. However, community development is not a zero-sum game, and champions probably also inspire others to start project development.

A relational view of rural space

Our study confirms the complexity and the relational and multiscalar character of contemporary rurality. Although rural places have traditionally been viewed as remote, local and inward-looking, today they are often the opposite: they are increasingly urbanised and globalised (Woods, 2019), and a relational view of rural places is predominant (e.g. Heley & Jones, 2012). This means that rural spaces are not secluded, self-fulfilling or inward-looking, but influenced by and in constant contact with wider society, near and far. The cases in our study reveal what this can look like at the small, concrete scale. In Denmark, the traditional village hall was mainly meant for the villagers and their immediate environs – part of the ‘traditional’ view of the rural. What we see in our cases (and in the broader inventory) is a flourishing trend of making places for non-locals as well as locals: activity or cultural centres for a wider regional catchment area or community of interest; points of interest or new open public spaces for locals and tourists alike, including both groups in common activities; projects to access nature that extend into neighbouring landscapes and are meant to be used by both locals and tourists. Last, but not least, the large number of projects in the inventory, together with the case studies, points to local communities’ ability to reach out to external actors (funding partners, authorities) and activate them in community development. Such relational thinking within projects is often a precondition for winning funds; thus, relational rural thinking not only comes from within the community but is also prompted from outside.

Peripherality in Denmark

Denmark has a relatively high degree of social and educational homogeneity among social groups and between rural and urban populations, and all its peripheral rural areas are less than three hours’ drive from one of the five largest cities. There is a strong tradition of private–public partnerships, which are also at work in community development projects. The society is highly digitalised, with a large share of the population using the Internet to deal with authorities, shop and work, which makes rural life easier. Taken together, all this endows rural communities in Denmark with the potential to overcome the problems posed by urbanisation, the centralisation of services and the apparently widespread wish among young people to move to cities. Rural communities that build places together for sustained community well-being and quality of life are competent and energetic, reaching out to wider society in relational built structures. They are aware of local amenities in the form of heritage and nature; they look for place-based solutions to problems caused by general urban–rural development and centralisation policies; they are able to develop large, complex spatial innovation projects. While the general development of peripheral rural areas does not seem to be at a turning point, and general rural policies demonstrate little efficiency, these community-driven projects give hope for the future of communities in Denmark’s rural periphery.

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