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Danish Centre for Rural Research - CLF

Do we need a rural-urban investigation?

Recent research in economic geography talks about the geography of discontent when it comes to explaining why we protest through the ballot box.

By Steffen Korsgaard, Head of Department and Board Member of the Centre for Rural Research at the University of Southern Denmark

"Denmark is too small a country for there to be geographical differences" is a statement I often come across when talking about centralisation, regionalisation and the difference between rural and urban areas. Although this seems obviously true if one compares the physical distances in Denmark with those in our neighbouring countries, there is much evidence to suggest that we do in fact have significant rural-urban differences. Voting patterns in recent Danish elections tell a story of major differences between the provinces - and between rural and urban areas - that cannot be reduced to voting red in the cities and blue in the countryside. Rather, people in the countryside use the ballot box to protest against the established or the system.

The geography of discontent

There is good reason to take the protest seriously. Recent research in economic geography talks about the geography of discontent to explain why we protest through the ballot box. The examples are many, including most notably the UK Brexit and the rise of right-wing populism in the US, Hungary, Italy and many other countries. Thus, the Spanish geographer Andrés Rodriguez-Pose and colleagues point through their research to how the geography of discontent shows up in the fact that the distribution of votes largely follows regional or territorial lines rather than social patterns exemplified by class, income and education. It is therefore regional inequality rather than social inequality that triggers the protests.

The geography of discontent, according to the researchers, is due to a combination of objective differences in living conditions and a perception that development is passing one by. Objectively, there are regional differences in access to public services in health, education, childcare and infrastructure. These differences translate into regional variations in life expectancy, income, educational attainment and other concrete indicators of living conditions and quality of life, with rural areas often lagging behind urban areas. There are also regional differences in employment opportunities and framework conditions for starting up new businesses, including access to finance and labour.

Own experience

The measurable differences, however, are only a part of the picture. Equally important is the place-based experience that development has stalled 'here in the rural area', while it is continuing apace in the big cities - that the place you live in is 'left behind' or 'abandoned'. British political adviser Fiona Hill, in her recent book on the rise of populism and her own childhood in an old mining district in the north of England, writes that the infrastructure of opportunity has eroded in the places left behind and that you have to move to the bigger cities if you want to have the chance to improve your living conditions.

A threat to stability

According to the researchers, geographical discontent is a major threat to the economic and social stability of the western democracies. Brexit, Trump and the 'Yellow Vests' are thus potentially just the beginning if the regional inequality continues or increases. To this can be added that discontent may well stand in the way of the societal transformations needed in a climate perspective, if the climate agenda is seen as yet another example of how rural industries, infrastructure and landscapes are being eroded to meet the needs of cities and elites.

What is the situation in Denmark?

Most of the research on the geography of inequality has been done in Western countries other than Denmark, and Danish society as a whole is characterised by a high level of equality. So how bad is it in Denmark? To what extent, for example, does the Danish Democratic Party's identification of rural-urban differences matter? Are we heading for our own version of the Yellow Vests or Brexit?

When rural-urban differences are framed as a cultural battle between Copenhagen salons and farmers in Jutland, we may lose sight of the real nature and scale of the challenges. This is of course entertaining and generates lots of newspaper headlines, but it is also a potentially unfortunate development if it overshadows a proper discussion of rural-urban differences and inequalities.

An investigation is needed

If we want to move on from the superficial debate about salons and cafe lattes, I think we need a deeper and more thorough exploration and understanding of the relationship between rural and urban areas - an investigation that, like the power inquiry that took the temperature of our national government, examines where and how big the inequalities are between rural and urban areas. In the health field, we are getting there, but to understand what is at stake, we need a deep investigation into the dynamics that create and counteract regional inequalities. This should be done not just in the health field, but across all policy areas.

Based on recent international research on regional inequalities, it is likely that such an investigation would show that we have significant challenges. Including that across a wide range of policy areas we are making policy that accelerates centralisation and urbanisation far beyond what is necessary and appropriate. In the two areas I deal with on a daily basis, education and business promotion, it is not difficult to see how our structures and reforms over recent years have helped to underpin centralisation. This is true across the board, from the taximeter system and differences in the allocation of basic research funds that favour the universities of Copenhagen and Aarhus, to the consolidation of our cluster efforts and the centralisation of business promotion funds in a national board. Studies in the UK and elsewhere show that public funding for research and development is more centralised than private funding. Are we in Denmark also using public investment in a way that accelerates centralisation and urbanisation? Does the way funds are distributed erode the opportunities for improving living conditions if you live in the rural areas? I think that this is worthy of a proper investigation, so that the discussion is not limited to a cultural battle for and against the Copenhagen salons.

The column was published in Jysk Fynske Medier in Erhverv+ on Thursday 15 December 2022.

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Editing was completed: 01.02.2023