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Defining rural areas in Europe

BLOG – 25/04/2020

Author: Samuel Féret, CIHEAM-IAMM

The definition of rural and rurality is a longstanding issue which has been the subject of debates in the scientific literature for a while. While endeavouring to define ‘rurality’, attempts have been made -and still continue- to understand rurality, leading to various typologies of areas based on different quantifiable criteria. In that respect, demography, employment, and accessibility are used as main criteria in statistical categories, which are then used to map the boundaries of the EU rural areas.

To date, rural was not properly defined through its own characteristics, features and patterns, but was rather defined as the opposite of urban. The conceptualisation of functional junction’s interfaces between urban and rural (i.e. peri-urban, urban influence) contribute to think of territories as a rural-urban continuum.

More than definitions, typologies (and related criteria) of the rural, reflect a need for specific and complementary policy interventions, such as the territorial cohesion, the agricultural or the environmental policies of the EU.

Our literature review on institutional and related policy developments has identified specific EU and OECD documents and declarations which have had a significant impact on the ‘policy fabric’ of rural areas as a category for public policies.

From this review conducted on EU thematic sub-strategies, our report points out three types of EU strategies dealing with rural areas since 2000:

  1. Natural resources-oriented strategies ­– Biodiversity, forests, green infrastructures, adaptation to climate change and soils have a scope on natural resources management and on land use in rural areas. Rural areas as physical spaces are considered as a geographical support for policy intervention focused on environment and natural resources.
  2. Socio-economic strategies – These strategies scoped some of the trends and challenges facing rural areas: depopulation, unemployment, diversification of the rural economy, new rural jobs, remoteness, digital gap due to poor broadband deployment, bioeconomy opportunities, etc.
  3. Geographic strategies – Remoteness and long commuting distances shape the way rural areas are experienced. This is particularly the case in mountainous areas where accessibility to urban centres and employment basins are considered as a physical handicap.

The key messages of this review on definitions, typologies and review of EU strategies dealing with rural are:

  • Rural policy responses do not mean those of Rural Development policy only. Cohesion and Regional funds and their synergies should be made more explicit beyond their respective policy boundaries.
  • Rural Development policy does not mean supporting mainly the agricultural sector and farm incomes but should, equally, focus on rural society more broadly, the rural economy and rural environment.
  • An EU long-term vision for rural areas should be based upon the overarching objective of well-being in rural areas.

You can read the full SHERPA report on ‘Framework providing definitions, review and operational typology of rural areas in Europe’.

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