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Danish Centre for Rural Research - CLF

Strategic rural planning will ensure viable villages in the future

As we move towards a future where energy is a high priority, municipalities need to think much more about the sectors together, says the author of this article.

By Kasper Friis Bavnbæk, PhD student at the Danish Centre for Rural Research

In times like these, the future seems unclear and unpredictable for an increasing number of people. This is also true in rural areas, which are often more affected by the current energy crisis due to rising prices for heating fuel, whether it's oil, gas or wood. The crisis is also putting pressure on local businesses, especially small local merchants, which unfortunately were already an endangered species.

With that said, the future may not be so unpredictable for rural areas after all. While we can't predict tomorrow, there is room for a cautious forecast and there is light at the end of the tunnel.

In the municipalities, there are people who have made a plan to ensure the continued good life in the rural areas.

Since June 2019, municipalities have been required to make strategic village planning in their upcoming municipal plans. The goal is to ensure viable villages in the future. This means that many municipalities already have strategies in place for what will happen to their villages over the next 12 years.

The requirement for strategic village planning is inherently vague in its formulation. However, the vague wording is certainly intentional, so that municipalities can adapt the strategies to their unique context, based on local challenges and opportunities. 

Some municipalities plan for increased growth around highways and other infrastructure, while others focus on preserving cultural environments and nature. Some municipalities see great tourism potential, especially for coastal towns, where strategies for healthy development can be prioritized, while others allow civil society to have a voice through local councils or other forms of citizen groups to drive local development.

The tools and strategies are many, and the image above may be a bit of a caricature. The reality is always more nuanced than the representation. Often, however, the focus of planning is on the village itself and rarely on the space around it, unless it's about natural potentials that can attract tourists or city dwellers. But to plan a village according to the same logic as planning a larger city is to miss the mark.

While life in the big cities is centered on the space within the urban zone, the living conditions of people in the rural areas have always been conditioned by the space around the village. In the past, it was agriculture - no fields, no village. This is still partly true, but today, fewer and fewer people actually work directly or indirectly in agriculture in the villages.

For many, it is now instead the distance to nature, space and high ceilings that make living in the rural area attractive. In other words, the space around the village has gone from being an important profession to a consumer good for most people. But there are signs that a shift is underway again.

We are looking into a future where large solar parks and more wind turbines are being planned in the open land. An eagerness that is largely driven by both business and politicians. The question is whether villages will benefit from this green transition, because with the construction of large-scale renewable energy plants, there is a risk that natural beauty will deteriorate - and that nature as a consumer good will diminish.

If we are not careful, we risk the space that villages live off of becoming commercialized to the extent that it no longer "belongs" to the village or contributes to the good life in the village.

But green transition projects don't have to mean the death of local villages. The space around the village will simply be redeveloped - as long as we involve local citizens and take villages into account in strategic village planning.

For villagers to retain ownership and belonging to the space around them, it requires that what is built in the space is also owned by those who live there.

"Not in my backyard" is about the Danish people's relationship with renewable energy. While the majority of Danes recognize the value of renewable energy, we don't want the plants right in our backyard.

"However, the 'not in my backyard' effect is not a problem where villages have joined forces on energy projects. Instead, the projects are a local pride and income opportunity. Not an eyesore, but a focal point for local identity. Just as agriculture has been for many years.

As we move towards a future where energy is at the top of the agenda, it requires municipalities to think about the sectors together to a much greater extent. Because when private companies are allowed to build large energy projects, whether it's solar, wind or biogas, it affects the surrounding villages.

Municipalities have been asked to create strategies for viable villages, but for villages to be viable, municipalities need to include the local identity and sense of belonging to the space around the village in their planning - and then there must be room for the green transition.

And with plenty of energy in the villages, the future might look a little bright after all.

The chronicle was published in Jysk Fynske Medier in Erhverv+ on Thursday, October 20, 2022.

Here you can read the article as a pdf
Meet the researcher

Kasper Friis Bavnbæk is a PhD student and researcher in municipal strategic village planning.

Read about the project

Editing was completed: 20.10.2022