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Danish Centre for Rural Research - CLF

We put results into action for strategic village planning

In this note, researchers put the results of two publications into practice in relation to strategic village planning.

By Annette Aagaard Thuesen og Karoline Lautrup-Nielsen, , 12/12/2022

One of the focus areas in recent years at the Danish Centre for Rural Research has been a research project on strategic village planning, which aims to provide the country's municipalities with tools to solve the task.

But what is strategic village planning? What publications and guidelines are available? And what results can you use to create an attractive life in rural areas?

In this note, Associate Professor Annette Aagaard Thuesen and student assistant Karoline Lautrup-Nielsen summarize the work so far and put the research results from two publications into play in relation to strategic village planning.

Strategic village planning: Available publications 

As a research area, strategic planning for villages falls under the focus areas of Institutional frameworks and local organization and self-organization in the strategy of the Danish Centre for Rural Research. Strategic village planning emerged as part of the Planning Act in 2018/2019 as a follow-up to a recommendation from the Committee for Viable Villages to approach village development more coherently to ensure viable villages (Committee for Viable Villages, 2018). Subsequently, municipalities have worked to implement strategic village planning in their planning and rural district work. For this, it has been possible to use a method developed by Realdania/Hjortkær (2021), an inspiration catalogue prepared by the Danish Centre for Rural Research and a guide published by the Danish Agency for Housing and Planning (2021). Overall, however, there is freedom of method for the municipalities. An example of a fairly well-developed approach to the new legal requirements can be found in Randers Municipality (2021) in the municipality's strategy for rural development in Randers Municipality. 

The legal requirement suggests that municipalities must map the development potential and challenges facing their villages. They must support the development of viable villages, promote a differentiated and targeted development of villages and decide on objectives and initiatives for the development of villages.

The inspiration catalogue compiled in 2021 showed that there is a big difference between the municipalities' implementation of the legal requirement and how far they have come, and that there may therefore be good reason to follow up with data collection from the municipalities in the coming years to uncover which models are emerging.

Useful knowledge for strategic village planning from already published reports

Here we will focus on data from:

  1. A survey with local councils and citizens' associations across the country conducted by the Danish Centre for Rural Research in 2020 (Thuesen et al., 2022) and published under the title "Lokale med på råd og borgere i forening - Kortlægning af lokalsamfundsforeningers udbredelse, karakteristika, aktiviteter og samarbejde"
  2. A survey with citizens living in rural areas in the Region of Southern Denmark on "The attractive life in rural areas" conducted in 2021 by the Region of Southern Denmark (2022) in collaboration with employees at the Danish Centre for Rural Research.

We do this because, in order to achieve the goal of strategic planning for villages, municipalities can benefit from knowledge about the views and actions of local councils/civic associations and villagers. We also do so because it can be related to a PhD project being conducted on strategic village planning at the Danish Centre for Rural Research. The approach in the PhD project focuses on the village perspective on strategic planning for viable villages and active citizen involvement in municipal planning.

For example, what can the study " Locals in Council and Citizens in Association" contribute?

Data can reveal patterns that can be taken into account in the work to realize strategic village planning in Denmark. This mainly applies to the part of strategic village planning that is about supporting, collaborating with and building the capacity of local communities and municipalities.

One of the key roles in promoting the development of the local community, and thereby ensuring a good everyday life in the rural areas, is the volunteer citizens who spend their time and resources in the local associations. It is therefore relevant for the municipality to know some of the challenges that local associations face, especially those that involve the municipality. Furthermore, it is important that the municipality is aware of how and when the associations show satisfaction with their volunteer work. Challenges and satisfaction can influence volunteers' motivation to get involved in the local community.

The above is highlighted in the survey released in 2022. Here, two main challenges are identified. The first challenge is that the surveyed association representatives find it difficult to recruit new members to the board. The second challenge is that respondents find it difficult to influence municipal decisions. In addition, in line with the first challenge, difficulties are also experienced in getting local people to get involved.

Despite these challenges, the majority of association representatives surveyed are satisfied or very satisfied with the association's results, with only 9% stating that they are either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied. This is positive and shows that challenges such as getting volunteers and influencing the municipality do not demotivate the surveyed association representatives as such - it takes more than that, so to speak.

What is strategic planning?

The word 'strategy' originates from a military context, and approaches from the military have characterized planning in the 1970s (Albrects, 2018). Here, the focus was on accurate analysis of the situation, setting realistic goals and focused orientation of the available force and persistence of action. This was followed by a period in the 1980s where inspiration was drawn from corporate strategic planning, with a focus on engaging stakeholders and senior leaders to build a long-term vision. This was followed by more participatory strategic planning inspired by urban development processes in Barcelona and later spread through UN publications (Albrects, 2018).

Today, aspects of strategic planning can be seen from all of these time periods, but strategic village planning can be said to have emerged in an era in which the involvement of stakeholders and citizens is considered an integral part of strategic planning to "mobilize for action and in some cases build a new culture of governance" (Albrechts et al., 2003). Strategic planning today is thus "...a social process in which people in different institutional relationships and positions come together to design planning processes and develop content and strategies for managing spatial change" (Healey, 1997).

The same survey data provides more in-depth knowledge about the interaction between the local association and the municipality. Here we see that more than half of the respondents say that their association participates in regular meetings with the municipality. However, there is a difference in who participates in such meetings in relation to the degree of urbanization and the distance to the nearest town hall.

In densely populated areas, 87% of associations participate in regular meetings with the municipality, while only 51% of associations in sparsely populated areas do so. Similar trends are also seen in relation to the distance to the nearest town hall. Among local associations with a distance of 0 - 5 km, 74% of them participate in regular meetings with the municipality, while only 53% of local associations with a distance of 16 km or more do so.

This may be because local associations in less populated areas may experience some sort of obstacle, which can be both physical and/or mental. It can be both geographically far to the center of the community and feel like a distance.

These aspects related to degree of urbanization and distance are important to consider in the municipality's approach to strategic village planning.

It is also interesting to know whether it is mainly the municipality, the association or a mix that initiates these meetings. Here it can be seen that more than half of the respondents believe that it is to a great or very great extent the municipality, while about a third believe that it is the local associations that initiate these meetings.

When it comes to who sets the agenda for these meetings, it is more evenly distributed, with 31% of association representatives stating that it is to a great or very great extent the municipality, while 28% state that it is the associations that set the agenda.

Finally, half of the association representatives believe that the meetings are to a high or very high degree characterized by the municipality informing the local community associations, however, the other half state that it is the local associations that inform the municipality.

The village as an important player

The publication "At løfte blikket" (Thuesen and Feddersen, 2020) suggests that a distinction should be made between strategic planning for villages and strategic village planning and concludes that:

"Words create direction, and it is therefore interesting that the new legal requirement is often referred to as 'strategic planning for villages', while we (...) have chosen to use the term 'strategic village planning'. We believe that the term strategic village planning is more open to the fact that villages themselves can also be strategic village planners" (Thuesen and Feddersen, 2022: 50).

In a recently published book, leading planning researcher Healey (2022) also describes what strategic planning for villages often is, but wants to focus on what strategic village planning from the perspective of local areas themselves can be and is. Here she focuses on a planning perspective that deals with how and to what extent bottom-up community activism can contribute to local revitalization and also influence the way more formal governance actors act. She argues that a bottom-up approach, where civil society actions are the basis for planning, will be more cost-effective than top-down efforts.

There is a remarkable pattern in the answers given by the respondents in relation to the above data. The community association representatives who believe that it is the municipality that initiates the meetings also believe that it is the municipality that sets the agenda and that it is the municipality that informs the association. The same pattern applies in reverse for the local community associations that state that they take the initiative for the meetings. These associations also state that they help set the agenda and that they are the ones who inform the municipality.

In this way, it is conceivable that both the association and the municipality are assigned a certain role by the other party - either consciously or unconsciously. And it it can be difficult to break out of those roles. For example, if it has always been always been the municipality that has had the leading role, it can be challenging for a local association to change this.

Despite the above, 72% of the surveyed association representatives are satisfied or very satisfied with the interaction with the municipality. However, there is a correlation between the associations' satisfaction with the interaction and whether the associations are consulted on decisions of importance to the local community. And the result is clear: The more an association is consulted, the more satisfied it is with the interaction with the municipality. This shows that it is important to prioritize and allocate resources to involve local community associations, as it seems to be money well spent in the end.

Finally, it is important for municipalities to keep in mind that in the vast majority of cases, volunteers are responsible for a large part of the development in the local community. Therefore, it can have an impact on the volunteers' motivation to get involved if they feel that the municipality appreciates their work. This suggests that the respondents feel that the municipality does, as almost half of the respondents state that they experience recognition from the municipality to a high or very high degree. However, more than a third of the respondents feel the opposite. It can therefore be argued that there is room for improvement in this area and that it could be a possible focus point for a municipality in determining its approach to strategic village planning.

What can data from the Region of Southern Denmark's "Attractive life in rural areas" contribute?

The study focuses on how to increase citizens' quality of life in rural areas by examining citizens' sense of community and sense of place, and thus how a rural area can be attractive and viable. The report defines rural areas as a collective term for areas with fewer than 200 inhabitants and towns with 200-3,000 inhabitants.

The Region of Southern Denmark's report shows that the feeling of belonging to a community is essential to the attractiveness of a local community. Of the 901 citizens surveyed, 57% stated that they feel very or very much part of a community in their local area. However, 15% state that they feel part of a community to a lesser extent or not at all.

The lack of belonging to a community can affect whether you consider moving - and a declining population is not the best sign of a viable village. The survey found that 34% of respondents who feel less or not at all part of a community are considering moving. In contrast, only 10% of respondents who feel a very high or high sense of community are considering moving.

When you feel part of a community, you tend to have a connection to the local area. The survey shows that 74% of respondents who feel a very high or high degree of belonging to a community also have a very high or high degree of attachment to the local area. However, if you turn this around and look at the respondents who feel less connected or not connected at all, only 17% feel a very high or high degree of belonging to a community. Thus, there is a clear correlation between sense of community and sense of place.

The data also shows that having family and friends close by has an impact on the sense of belonging to the local area. Whether you're a lifelong resident, a returnee or a newcomer to the area also affects whether you feel part of a community. Newcomers are slightly less likely to feel part of the local community.

If you feel connected to the local area, you are more likely to be involved in creating a good community in the local area and more likely to be involved in volunteering.

In relation to all the above data, the municipality can get involved by interacting with the local areas to increase the opportunities to meet and thereby form communities in the individual rural areas, which will increase citizens' sense of place.

Further processing of data

Both datasets behind the two mentioned surveys will be further processed as part of the PhD project on strategic village planning.

Data from the national survey of local councils and citizens' associations will be analyzed in relation to the associations' tendency to build binding, bridging and linking social capital.

Data from the Region of Southern Denmark's survey will be analyzed in the context of data on the presence of services and institutions in the local area.

Follow CLF's newsletter for new updates on the PhD project on strategic village planning!

Meet the researcher

Annette Aagaard Thuesen is a rural researcher and researches, among other things, village development, local council organization and democracy.


Meet the researcher

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


About the student assistant

Karoline Lautrup-Nielsen is a student assistant at the Danish Centre for Rural Research, working on topics such as strategic village planning.


Editing was completed: 12.12.2022