This essay presents and discusses a vast amount of the theoretical as well as empirical literature in the field of quality of life in rural vs urban local areas. Special attention is given to research literature with a quantitative approach and to the concept of subjective well-being as the primary dependent variable. In this way, the essay lays the ground for the five chapters in the section. The essay ends up with a short presentation of these chapters.
The chapter investigates differences in subjective well-being between urban and rural areas in Denmark. The analyses are undertaken on survey data from thirty-eight municipalities merged with individual-level panel register data. The main hypothesis is that in a small universal welfare state such as Denmark, there will be only minor differences in subjective well-being between urban and rural areas. If any overall significant difference exists, the expectation is that, in line with other results from empirical analyses in Western countries, subjective well-being will be higher in rural areas. This hypothesis is supported by the data. Multilevel regression analyses show only minor differences. However, for nearly all aspects of subjective well-being, the differences are statistically significant and with rural areas in the lead. Much of the higher overall level of subjective well-being in rural areas was explained by a lower level of experienced stress and a higher level of feeling meaning in life in these areas on average.
The 2020 World Happiness Report suggests that rural residents in Northern and Western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand are generally happier than their urban counterparts. Similar findings have been reported in country-level studies and broader regional research, especially in Europe. Such findings go against conventional wisdom in the field and represent something of a conundrum to researchers and policymakers alike: the rural–urban happiness paradox. Is quality of life really better in the countryside? How and under which circumstances is this the case? Did influential writers like Edward Glaeser get it all wrong when suggesting that the city had now triumphed? What can we learn from digging deeper in the rural–urban happiness paradox and which critical questions does this leave us with for the future? What might policymakers, planners, architects and other influential actors learn from such an exercise? The purpose of the proposed book is to delve deeper into these matters by asking what quality of life in rural areas is actually all about. Since 2018 a cross-disciplinary team of researchers from four research environments at three Danish universities has been carrying out an ambitious research project to do just that. In this edited volume their findings are presented alongside chapters written by specially commissioned international authors from across Europe, North America, Asia and Africa.
In this chapter the purpose, rationale and organisation of the book are explained, along with an introduction to the key questions which are at stake. It begins by introducing the rural–urban happiness paradox as the impetus for assembling the volume, focusing on how the spatial differentiation between urban and rural places in measurements of well-being in the global North has puzzled researchers. From this point of departure, the chapter goes on to question the viability of retaining a binary view, where places and the people who inhabit them are designated either as urban or as rural. Instead, a different road forward is offered, wherein the messy realities of contemporary everyday life are liberated from such simplistic distinction in favour of an approach that retains the complexities that matter for human well-being. Following a brief account of more than a century of research on quality of life, the remainder of the chapter introduces the organisation of the volume by posing the key questions that animate each part. The chapter ends by returning to the key concern of the book: the (im)possibility of attaining rural well-being for all and the many difficult questions that this entails.