City to Country: Creative Rural Disruption
A slick design co-operative in Central Glasgow is not the place I would have expected to be having a juicy discussion about rural issues.
The folk around me sported asymmetrical haircuts, statement jewelry and angular handbags and for a second I wondered if I’d come to the wrong event. But sure enough, as the screen above me confirmed, this was a mini-conference on ‘Creative Rural Disruption’ at Graven Studios. As part of the Firestarter festival, the aim of the event was to explore ways of disrupting the more undesirable issues that seem to have become a fact of living in the Scottish countryside.
I had ventured into this intimidating venue because I am from a rural community and have watched the space I love become de-populated and neglected. I also intend to move back there, and have become newly aware of the challenges that may face me in transferring my urban life into a rural sphere. I wanted to hear what designers, entrepreneurs and other thinkers had to say about how we might support rural regeneration and support thriving rural communities.
The conference began by stating that about 30% of Scotland’s population inhabit our rural landscape, which comprises over 90% of Scotland’s landmass. This population is often cut off from resources and support services considered vital for engagement in wider society and economy, such as good broadband and general infrastructure.
What I hadn’t considered before was that the urban workforce and economy – severely restricted by prohibitively high rates and rents – would also benefit from the opening of rural spaces.
Typically, such discussions begin with the preconception that rural spaces are inherently disadvantaged, that they need to be ‘brought up to speed’, or that they represent an ‘untapped resource’. I was very pleased to hear thoughtful, alternative interpretations coming from speakers such as Sam Cassels of the Scottish Futures Trust, and Davy McCracken of SRUC, as well as audience members representing Community Land Scotland.
People want to live in our rural landscapes for many different reasons. But as modern life progresses at breakneck speed, transforming with every technological innovation, rural living becomes increasingly distinct from and - according to some – irrelevant to the increasingly concentrated urban centres. With such a sparse population in Scotland’s countryside, rural communities can rarely support themselves in isolation and, the conventional wisdom dictates, have to 'keep up' with urban economy and business. But the solution is not, as one lady from East Kilbride vehemently interjected, to build countless 4-bed executive homes on agricultural land and hope that the increased population will somehow boost the local economy.
We were presented with numerous ideas for how this gap might be bridged: virtual working spaces sited in strategically placed multipurpose buildings, (somewhat vague) plans to roll out super-fast fibre connections across rural regions, low-tech radio-transmitter solutions for capturing and conveying information in remote locations (while waiting for the super-fast fibre), ways of transforming historic buildings into innovative multifaceted businesses. It was all incredibly positive and seemingly doable. But it was Sam Cassels and a representative of Community Land Scotland (CLS) who contributed the greatest wisdom, in my opinion.
Sam pointed out that, so often, outsiders adopt an imperial attitude towards solving the problems of ‘disadvantaged’ communities and their spaces. In this instance, he cautioned against presuming that ‘we’ could creatively disrupt where others live. In fact, there is a collaborative action that needs to occur, where the complex stories, needs and desires of a community are listened to – both by outsiders and amongst the community itself. Before anything is ‘disrupted’, the full story of a people and their place needs to be understood and respected. The gentleman from CLS concurred, adding that the greatest and most effective rural change occurs when a community stops asking ‘Who is going to do this for us?’, and starts to say ‘How can we do this?’.
We discussed the possibility that well-meaning, urban-led ‘improvement’ of rural spaces could ultimately disrupt the very qualities we appreciate about it, and which make it unique.
Rural living is different. People typically live in the countryside because it is not the city. Rural spaces and communities operate with different dynamics and values unique to place and circumstance. Therefore, perhaps the most useful ‘disruption’ we can effect, is to alter the thinking that demands rural communities operate in the same way as their urban counterparts. Certainly, those living in the countryside should not be denied the possibility to engage with commerce, culture and opportunity, when providing the infrastructure to do so is possible. But assuming rural communities need and want everything a city has, is neither logical nor helpful and does not respect the differences that make those places what they are. Perhaps thriving rural communities can be better supported by disrupting our model of rural life, to one that works for, and is created by, people and their place.