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Return to the land: empowering new generations to rejuvenate the countryside

The RURALIZATION project brings about a refreshing take on arresting the decline of rural areas. Based on targeted interviews with young people across Europe, it offers insights and key solutions for policymakers. The work can help Member States attract a new generation of countryside-dwellers.

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Since the industrial revolution, there has been a steady migration of European citizens from rural areas to urban zones. This shows no signs of stopping, with levels of urbanisation expected to increase to 83.7 % by 2050. Rural regions are suffering greatly from this loss of inhabitants, with greater levels of poverty and social decay.

To solve this problem, the RURALIZATION project has set out to turn our rural regions into a vibrant and viable home for the newer generations. It starts with understanding the needs and aspirations of young people. Project coordinator Willem Korthals Altes explains: “We asked over 2 000 young people in 20 regions about their dream future 15 years from now. We asked them where they want to live, how they want to make a living, what their preferred lifestyle is, and so on.” 

By juxtaposing these aspirations against existing policies and the challenges that hinder their fulfilment, this project has designed a roadmap to attract young people to rural areas that is realistic, inclusive and achievable.

Megatrends and weak signals

One of the project’s greatest achievements lies in its 60 trendcards covering megatrends (affecting most of the 20 regions covered), trends (developments in specific regions) and weak signals (symptoms of change in specific regions). 

A real inventory of young people’s dreams, the trendcards largely debunk the myth of young people not wanting to live in rural regions. “It’s not true that most young people dream only of urban living, and although some trends have disadvantaged rural areas, we see new opportunities which can be boosted with the right policies and incentives,” says Korthals Altes.

While megatrends might seem to be dominating the greater picture, Korthals Altes points out how they do not always reflect the full picture: “Many of the weak signals we have spotted are much more promising than the megatrends. So, in relation to trend analysis, it is good to consider weak signals,” he explains. 

Policy tools for rural regeneration

Researchers found that novel land tools are needed for the new challenges that rural areas face. Thirty case studies were conducted to identify promising access to land practices, covering rural newcomers, new farming entrants and those inheriting land.

Korthals Altes and his team have also formulated a set of 12 policy recommendations that focus on welcoming generational change, recognising weak signals, promoting agroecology and improving access to land. Local authorities also have a handbook dedicated to them, specifically discussing access to land as pivotal for rural revitalisation.

The RURALIZATION team spent a lot of time pushing for actual change on the ground. “All outcomes have been discussed with relevant stakeholders,” Korthals Altes remarks. “Through collaborations, especially with networks such as the Access To Land network, the project outcomes are being actively disseminated.”

The project team launched 10 pilot actions related to access to land and land stewardship, investigating how to address issues such as inheritance, agricultural intensification, land speculation, biodiversity, and innovative ownership structures.

The team also developed a massive open online course hosted by Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. Designed for rural development professionals, this course helps students analyse trends and dynamics of rural regions and learn to formulate ideas, strategies and actions to boost rural development, with a particular focus on younger generations.

While the consortium doesn’t have plans for a follow-up project, individual partners are taking the vision forward. The Access to Land network and the University of Galway’s project on female-led initiatives in agriculture and rural areas are just a couple of examples.

In conclusion, the RURALIZATION project’s approach offers a glimmer of hope for rejuvenating rural areas. By placing the aspirations of young generations at the forefront, this project might just be the beacon of change the countryside needs.

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Project details

Project acronym
Project number
Project coordinator: The Netherlands
Project participants:
United Kingdom
Total cost
€ 5 995 904
EU Contribution
€ 5 995 904
Project duration

See also

More information about project RURALIZATION

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