Rural proofing – do it future-wise

April 2022

Most territories of the EU are rural areas and about 30% of the EU population lives in rural areas, i.e. municipalities with low population numbers and density. Europe’s rural areas are very diverse. Variations in natural and climatic conditions, geographic features, historic and cultural developments, demographic and social changes, national and regional specificities and economic prosperity mean that no two rural areas are alike. This has among others been pointed out in various ESPON studies on rural areas.

Despite this diversity, the social and economic changes of the last decades put a particular stress on many rural areas. This includes e.g. the risks of erosion of rural infrastructure, declining provision of services of general interest, as well as shrinking population figures and employment opportunities. However, rural areas hold also many potential, which deserve more attention.

Rural proofing could offer an opportunity to increase the awareness of (spatially blind) policies concerning their potential impacts on rural areas. In the long run, this would help making policies more fit for rural areas.

In this light, the Long-term Vision for the EU's Rural Areas highlights the idea of rural proofing as a mechanism to assess the impact of major legislation and initiatives on rural areas. It would screen major legislation and initiatives through a ‘rural lens’. In doing so, rural proofing could help revitalising rural areas and close the rural-urban gap by ensuring relevant policies are aligned with rural needs and realities.

What is rural proofing ?

Still, there is no one definition of and methodology for rural proofing, neither at EU level nor in the member states.

National experience shows considerable variations of rural proofing practices. Rural proofing is used in various forms in a number of countries. In some countries it is a voluntary practice, and in other countries it is a mandatory part of the policy making process. Also the approaches range from specific methodologies to inclusion in broader impact assessments for policies.

EU mechanisms for rural proofing are still to emerge. At EU level there are various calls for the development and implementation of a rural proofing mechanisms in the context of the Better Regulation Agenda. For instance, the Long-term Vision for the EU's Rural Areas argues that in the context of the Treaties aim for economic, social and territorial cohesion, there is a need to review EU policies through a rural lens, considering their potential impacts and implications on rural jobs and growth as well as development prospects, environmental quality, social well-being and equal opportunities for all in rural areas.

In more general terms, ENRD, the European Network for Rural Development, describes rural proofing as a systematic approach to reviewing likely impacts of policies, programmes and initiatives on rural areas because of their socioeconomic circumstances or needs (e.g. dispersed populations and poorer infrastructure networks). This raises of course the question what rural needs are, considering the above mentioned diversity of rural areas. Indeed, most likely, rural needs cannot be defined per se, but will depend on the legislative, geographical and socio-economic background of regions affected by a specific policy. So, more work on developing suitable typologies of rural areas is needed.

Despite the struggles of defining the needs of rural areas and the approach to rural proofing, the idea and ambition is worthwhile more debate. As pointed out in an earlier blog post, this development can benefit substantially from the lessons learned from establishing territorial impact assessment. In the long run, it should help making policy makers to ‘think rural’ when designing policy interventions in order to prevent negative outcomes for rural areas and communities.

Do not forget about the future

Shaping a European approach to rural proofing, one cannot only learn from territorial impact assessment. Including elements of territorial foresight, could help to ensure that rural proofing also becomes more future-wise. By exploring different possibilities, it allows to deal with high complexity and uncertainty. This helps in avoiding big surprises in the future and rather think and consider them from the very beginning to be not only rural, but also future proof. Territorial foresight helps to see the wider picture of different possible future pathways and their implications for the policy discussed.

An advantage of territorial foresight is that it can deal with high complexity and uncertainty, by exploring different possibilities. This helps in avoiding big surprises in the future and rather think and consider them from the very beginning to be not only rural, but also future proof. The territorial foresight approach to rural proofing can help to overcome the bias of the present (right now/right here). By considering different possible future developments it helps to see how a policy may affect rural areas in different possible futures.

Currently the European Committee of the Regions is exploring the potential of rural proofing as foresight framework for resilient rural communities. A report to be published in spring 2022 will offer more insights.

by Kai Böhme & Maria Toptsidou

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