Sustainability dialogue on the urban-rural divide

During the Utrecht Science Week researchers, practitioners and other interested individuals met to discuss the topic of the urban-rural divide in the Netherlands. The urban-rural divide is of all times, but seems to be increasingly mentioned in diverse discussions in recent years. During this dialogue we wanted to have a closer look at this supposed separation between city and countryside. Evert Meijers (associate professor in Economic  Geography), Sybe de Vries (professor of Public Economic Law) and Lucie Jeandrain (Amped) examined the urban-rural divide in the Netherlands from different angles and discussed these with the audience.

Evert Meijers examined the political aspects of the urban-rural divide in the Netherlands, as the rise of the BBB and its connection to rural voters’ feelings that their perspective is ignored by the government is closely linked to the urban-rural divide. In the allocation of funds—economically, culturally, and in terms of public infrastructure such as public transport—there is a clear concentration on the Randstad. However, while rural regions are also underrepresented when considering the origins of members of parliament, this does not show in the questions asked in government. Instead, the more urban and closer to the Hague, the less a region is mentioned in questions; the further away (Groningen, Friesland & Noord-Holland), the more attention. In terms of explicit political attention, there is therefore no urban-rural divide: however, this does not mean that rural areas get more funding or structural support because of this attention.

Sybe de Vries examined the legal side of the urban-rural divide. He focused specifically on Europe as an institutional level, in order to address the (often political) narrative that the EU (European Union) functions as a central force which does not sufficiently consider local solutions and areas in its law-making. Surprisingly, the EU does not: its regulations are often designed to set the outer limits within which there is room for member states to manage their own affairs. This includes matters such as the Bird and Habitat directives for the Natura 2000 areas which lie at the heart of the Dutch nitrogen crisis: while the directives transcend Dutch law, the choice for suitable measures to address nitrogen surplus is up to the national government. The EU also pays attention to rural areas specifically by providing funds to support long-term visions for rural areas’ financial support, digitalisation and transport, and has specific flexibility provisions for local food producers to account for small producers’ limited capacity to adhere to food safety rules. While the EU therefore has put in place several measures to limit the urban-rural divide, its connection to divisive matters makes it a political lightning rod.

Lucie Jeandrain presented a local solution for the urban-rural divide in food currently used in the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area. To connect the city and its surrounding countryside, food hubs in the region were created by bringing together local farmers. These food hubs were explicitly set up as a bottom-up initiative with much attention to local needs and connected to businesses in the city. Their collaboration, based on what local farmers have and wish to offer and what the city needs and has to offer, is therefore placed on a level playing field and allows city and countryside to co-create in a just way. In this way, the traditional narrative of rural areas producing and urban areas consuming is made more healthy and sustainable through equal collaboration.

The urban-rural divide is more heavily present in spirit than in practice. More attention for rural issues does not translate to the amount of financial means awarded to rural issues, and while the EU has several financial arrangements for regional development, its translation to the national level cannot truly be ensured. It is up to the national governments to address these discrepancies: not only financially or in infrastructure, but also socio-culturally. The latter bleeds into tangible issues such as lack of funding for local libraries and care centres, and thus makes the divide seem both larger and less easily solvable than it in practice might be.

The dialogue on the urban-rural divide was organised by the communities Transforming Cities, Future Food and Water, Climate and Future Deltas. These communities are part of Utrecht University's strategic theme Pathways to Sustainability.