When I first moved to Belgium in 2018, little did I know that fast forward to 2022, I would have co-animated a Multi-Actor Platform…in Wallonia! First, because of language constraints and, secondly, because I was not very aware of the rural context of this country. In fact, the notion of “rurality” is intrinsically linked to the geographical context attached to it and it is nuanced according to the specificities of the area. That being so, although my education revolved around agriculture and rural development, I could not really qualify myself as a “connoisseur” of Walloon rural areas.
However, as time was passing by and as I was feeling more at ease with the language; I felt a strong interest and curiosity to understand better the rural context of the country hosting me. It goes without saying that when a role in the SHERPA Wallonia MAP appeared, it seemed the best occasion to do so. Allez, c’est parti!
During our first MAP meeting, we presented the Discussion Paper prepared by the SHERPA team on the social dimension of rural areas. While doing so, one topic sparked particular interest among participants and stimulated an interesting debate: the definition of well-being in rural areas. How can we grasp a concept that is so intangible, multifaceted and, as mentioned by one MAP member, “plural”? And more importantly, what does well-being mean for rural communities of Wallonia and how can we measure it?
When we tried to break down the notion of “well-being” into smaller components, housing and mobility were highlighted, among others, as crucial aspects to reflect on. Thanks to the expertise of our MAP members, we nuanced the discussion by using a historical lens, which allowed us to “read” the present through the legacy of the past.
The availability (and adequateness) of housing solutions appears as a basic need for Walloon rural areas, especially in the light of new emerging needs such as remote working. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increased demand for accommodation in rural areas, yet with the supply often not meeting the demand for rental, shared and “flexible” accommodations. Moreover, this may also lead to a competition with local rural communities in terms of accommodation, which in turn, can initiate phenomena of internal migration among rural areas. In this sense, the availability of housing solutions can be considered as one of the factors determining movements from, to and among rural areas. The roots of this generalised problem with accommodation in Wallonia can be also found in the choices and strategies put in place by policy-makers over the past, which incentivised the population to buy properties rather than renting. Ultimately, this has influenced the quantity and type of housing solutions available nowadays in Wallonia, including a rather low availability of rental accommodations.
Linked to the availability of accommodation, the topic of mobility has been brought up during the discussion. In this context, the railway network of Wallonia («réseau des chemins de fer») was mentioned as a prime example of public infrastructure, which played a key role in the shaping the rural areas of Wallonia enabling the movements mentioned above. However, MAP members also agreed that there is a clear need to develop new types of eco-friendly, public and shared solutions for mobility, as well as to better exploit the existing ones. Notably, the so-called “greenways”, in Wallonia referred to as RAVeL («réseau autonome des voies lentes») were mentioned as a potential flywheel for this paradigm change in mobility. With all these interesting inputs, we will continue to work within the MAP to produce our Position Paper reflecting on all the topics highlighted. One thing is sure, though: I am even more intrigued to learn about rural areas in Wallonia!
Giulia Martino is a consultant at Ecorys in Brussels, where she carries out studies and policy evaluations in the field of agriculture and rural development. She is an agronomist by education and completed her studies in Agricultural Science and Technologies at University of Foggia (Italy) and at Cranfield University (UK). Within SHERPA, she covers the role of monitor for the Belgian MAP in Wallonia and regularly collaborates with the Ecorys team on the preparation of SHERPA Discussion and Position Papers. Find out more about the SHERPA MAP in Wallonia!