We need a new design discipline that shares and amplifies the innovative, radical thinking of the countryside, writes Hana Loftus of HAT Projects
The countryside occupies the vast majority of our land area but a shrinking proportion of our population – 17% in England. Rural dwellers are marginalised through a democracy where only certain numbers count – the numbers of people as a mass, not the number of communities, sparsely populated and dispersed. But our challenges are disproportionate to our population numbers, and disproportionately expensive to address across such huge areas. We are neglected because policy-makers don’t trip over us on their daily business. It is time that this changed.
Rural citizens have few of the services or opportunities that urbanites take for granted. A shop open past lunchtime, or in walking distance; childcare so that parents can access work; an evening class; a choice of jobs within an affordable distance from home: only a tiny proportion of our villages have any of these in the UK. We have our precarious gig economy – in small communities, almost everyone juggles many odd jobs through necessity and income is pitifully low. Our housing is unaffordable – the ratio of rural income to house prices in the UK is nearly 20% worse than in urban areas. In the wealthiest country in the world, the US, building a decent sewage system for a hamlet of a dozen homes in the outback is unattractive to the privatized utilities and unaffordable to the local municipality with its pitiful tax base. In the Global South, the development gap between rural and urban is even starker, driving young people to migrate to their nearest city as soon as they have the chance.
Our rural areas are at the frontline of climate change, which can literally mean life or death. Flooding, droughts and the collapse of biodiversity are very real. Cities leverage their real estate values to fund ever more expensive infrastructure to keep the climate at bay. But the cost of embedding climate resilience in communities spread out along a coastline, or scattered across remote mountain regions, is, we are told, unaffordable.
If our challenges are disproportionate to our population, we also innovate far more than is acknowledged. We create self-build low-impact housing, radical dairies, rewilding, community internet providers, parent-led childcare clubs and complex webs of support for our neighbours that outdo the limited bubbles of city activism. These are actions that would in an urban area be celebrated as proof of our cutting-edge thinking – but we just do it, without having well-funded ‘catapults’ to help us scale and share our learning.
The huge amounts of money and intellect that go into cities institutes, urban studies programmes and urban design manifesta are in no way matched for the intensive study of rural areas and rural challenges. We are unexamined – perhaps even deemed unworthy of examination, unless it is in relation to agricultural productivity. The crucible of ideas and debate that cities offer ferments exchange and amplifies the ideas they create, while in rural areas we still find it difficult – even in the age of the internet – to coalesce as a critical mass and stand up for our concerns in the public arena.
Planning happens to us, not with us – the assumption being that our communities are conservative, because the only rural voices that are heard are those of the privileged. The work I have been doing with rural communities as a designer and public planner shows that conservatism is far from the prevailing view. Our rural communities want radical change – but we want it in a way that grows from the understanding we have of our own places and communities, not a set of patronizing assumptions about how we are told we should develop.
Rural communities want rural design, not an adaptation of urban design. We see change differently already. We understand how the scars of past development are regenerated by the ruthless energy of nature - how coalpits become wild; airfields become home to owls and voles. And we also see how quickly a small village can become a dormitory, destroying the mesh of interactions that could make it self-reliant; how road-building – and even train lines - sever communities and serve to worsen, not solve, our ability to move around without a car.
A new discipline of rural design would be one founded in a deep understanding of cyclical systems and awareness of the impact of present-day decisions in the next century. We should talk about how sparseness and dispersal of communities can create opportunities for distinctive, different lifestyles; the conditions for non-conformism to flourish peacefully; and encourage particularity. We should build networks nationally and internationally, allowing one clay-soil region to learn from another halfway across the world.
Cities depend on rural areas. We feed you. Your electricity comes from turbines and reactors on our land. Our rocks are mined to give you smartphones. Our water is pumped into your pipes. Your waste is buried and burnt next to our homes. We give you our best and brightest young people. You buy our best houses and leave them empty.
Let’s start to reverse this one-way trade by listening to what our unheard voices have to say.