Sustainable Rural Communities – what do we mean? Is this a pipedream?

Sustainability There are problems with the word ‘sustainable’. First of all, it’s just an adjective and can be stuck on the front of anything: sustainable living, sustainable funding, sustainable farming.

So to say: “We are sustainable” is so ambiguous as to be meaningless. Do you mean you are earning enough to keep yourself or your organisation afloat. Do you mean you can keep going on, as you are, forever – perpetual motion on the way to Shangri-la? Or are we talking about striving to balance economic, social and environmental considerations in everything we do?

ruralnet|uk is a charity working towards ‘Sustainable Rural Communities’. What do we mean? For us, sustainable rural communities are communities where there is a harmony between economic development and social cohesion and an on-going desire to reduce the impact of actions on the environment.

Even this will be interpreted in a spectrum of different ways according to who our audience is, and what they know about our work.

The term sustainability has become fashionable: it is used too broadly and is too complex to be useful in any practical way. It’s a worthy vision, a responsible-sounding strategy, but how do you actually do it? Is there a simple yardstick we can use to guide rural communities to make them more sustainable?

There are often tensions between economic development, social cohesion and the environment. There need not be. And, big, big opportunities are missed when one of the three objectives are pursued without due regard for the other two.

Let us look at a selection of ‘sustainable’ initiatives to see if we can identify the yardstick we need.

Community Broadband Network

In 2003, when it looked like large areas of rural Britain were going to be denied access to ADSL broadband. ruralnet|uk worked with the Phone Co-op to establish the Community Broadband Network (CBN). At that time, a small number of rural communities were determined not to be left out of this strategically crucial development and decided to take a DIY approach. These communities got together, linked themselves up using blisteringly fast wireless technology and then shared among themselves the cost of linking this community network to the wider internet. The idea of CBN was to help these communities share what they knew with other communities who aspired to do the same thing.

These broadband communities were ground-breaking in many ways. First of all they took a collective approach, not an individual approach to the issue. Without exception this strengthened the social cohesion of these communities, with significant, non-broadband-related spin-offs. People got to know each other better, other community initiatives were started in the can-do atmosphere created. And finally, it established in many rural areas a foundation stone for the new knowledge economy, supporting jobs where weightless information is mined, harvested and moved around, rather than more traditional rural commodities.

CBN was essentially an initiative that was driven by an economic development imperative, but which had significant social and environmental benefits.

Community Carbon Network

ruralnet|uk is now working with the Carnegie Rural Community Development Programme to look into replicating the principles of the CBN in a ‘Rural Community Carbon Network‘ (RCCN) to raise awareness of community approaches to increased efficiency in energy use, including local generation of energy from renewable sources. Like its predecessor, RCCN would also promote and fund knowledge transfer, including peer to peer support both online and face to face.


Another example: at the ruralnet|2006 conference last week in Sherwood Forest, John Grimshaw, CEO of Sustrans and mastermind of the National Cycle Network pointed out that the UK was the poor man of Europe when it comes to the use of the bicycle (See below: Percentage of trips by bicycle by country).

Figure 1: Percentage of trips by bicycle

He then went on to make an alarming link between the levels of cycling in the UK and childhood obesity (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Cycling and obesity

People in colder, wetter and hillier countries in Europe cycle more than we do in the UK.

Cycling ticks more of the ‘sustainability’ boxes than you first expect: yes, it is non-polluting, and uses renewable energy, but it also impacts on health; encourages community projects and involvement in building, signing and maintaining tracks; helps reclaim and restore natural environments; and with the right planning and incentives, encourages local economic stability. It could do much more. John argues that we need to move around less and invest more in our own localities: to make the Trussocks as attractive as Tuscany.

Why not give visitor discounts to those who arrive by bike? Employers should aim to reduce car miles of their employees by 10% year on year through the encouragement of decentralised working. He even suggests that it should be legal to use place of residence as a criteria when recruiting. Many factors make cycling more viable and more popular: building safe routes is just one, and Sustrans also works hard to encourage more women to cycle and to ensure children adopt a life-time habit to counter the worrying trends in obesity shown above.

Local food

Food Links projects and Farmers’ Markets are another example of activities that promote sustainability on a number of levels. They promote healthy eating, improve demand and markets for local food and reduce ‘food miles’ and the associated damage to the environment. Farmers’ markets are viable for the farmers who participate in them because they make a significantly larger margin on what they sell directly to the consumers, rather than to supermarkets.

Think global, act local

All of these initiatives seem ‘sustainable’. But they are initiated by different primary drivers: to improve living standards, services, or work prospects, a better environment, improved community cohesion or health. With just a little thought, planning, and the right incentives, many of these objectives can be combined, giving a triple bottom line: financial, social and environmental benefits. But what is at their heart? For me, what all these sustainable actions have in common is that they focus on the ‘local’: people getting together and harnessing both outside help and their own determination to make a difference. It is easy, when faced with seemingly huge and intractable problems – climate change; soaring energy prices; depleted communities – to feel disempowered, to think that small actions are worthless. But Patrick Geddes’ aphorism: ‘Think global, act local’ (Cities in Evolution, 1915), taken up by E F Shumacher in the 70s and by many others since, is perhaps still our best yardstick for rural sustainability.

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