Decline of rural areas are also a significant issue for people living in urban areas
Issues including the lower birthrate and aging population, the outflow of population from the countryside to cities, and the consequent rural depopulation and growing regional disparities, are issues which not only Japanese society is facing but also ones which are becoming a major challenge in Europe.
In Japan, especially in rural areas, the marginal village issue, where local community has become difficult to maintain owing to depopulation and aging, has been pointed out for some time. Also, recently, discussions about cities which might “disappear” have drawn attention.
Amidst such discussions, focus on the compact city concept is also increasing, where the urban function or infrastructure is concentrated by letting the residents who are distributed in peripheral areas migrate and live together in a certain central district. In fact, from the perspective of economic efficiency, such measures seem to be effective.
However, if it could lead to “cutting-off” rural areas and peripheral areas, we need to pay attention to the significance of what might be lost by that.
From the perspective of food security, the significance of the agricultural production function is obvious. In addition, the roles which the farmers and rural areas have played are not limited to something related to agricultural products. Because the residents of the area took good care of the land, such as through forestation and thinning, beautiful forests and the natural environment have been maintained. If that is lost, disasters such as landslides will increase, leading to the deterioration of land conditions.
For example, people who live in the city sometimes visit mountains, rivers, and the sea because they want to be in contact with nature in different seasons.
At these places, we see cherry blossoms, green leaves, autumn leaves, we feel the fresh wind from the fields and murmuring river, and hear the sound of surf. Such beautiful Japanese natural environments are not untouched natural landscapes but something that has been taken care of and maintained by people.
In fact, by disrespecting rural areas, we might run the risk of losing the rich natural environment and land conservation. That might lead to the loss of a safe and rich life which we have obtained by living everyday life in a city, and we feel taken for granted.
In fact, maintaining the rural area is not only an issue for the rural area, but also an issue for all of us.
How do they confront this reality in Europe? In many European countries, various efforts have been underway for years. In terms of the EU as a whole, measures have been implemented which have rural population maintenance as an important policy agenda since around 30 years ago.
Certainly, there are successful cases among those efforts as well as many cases of failure. The difference between them is ultimately thought to be whether it is a measure which will lead to sustainable development of the rural area.
For example, if the measure entails a subsidy which is offered for a one-off project, municipalities will work on it once to apply for the subsidies, but it is often the case that when the subsidy payment ends, the activity also stops. It seems that something similar to this is happening in Japan too.
Now, if we investigate what kind of measures will lead to sustainable rural development, there are two points which are noteworthy: One is rural development measures which promotes multi-local living and the other is local scale bottom-up-style rural development.
The Tyrol region, where multi-local living is spreading
Japanese people who live in a city are often seen visiting the suburbs or the countryside at the weekends to enjoy nature in the different seasons. European people also have similar feelings.
However, in Europe, the social system is arranged in such a way that it is easier to take long holidays. Thus, some spend a week in a rural village or spend about a month in summer in a mountainous region with a cool climate.
During that time, they will not only use the local shops and facilities, but also blend into the local community, and quite a few people also participate in local events and volunteer activities.
Moreover, even after they go back to the city after their holidays, they visit the town at the weekends or spend their next holidays and further deepen their existing relationship with that region. Such a movement leads to a ripple effect for the regional economy and revitalization of the region.
In recent years in Japan as well, using the concept of nonresident population or related population, there is a movement to institutionalize such movements of people from outside the region as part of regional revitalization efforts. In Europe, there are already a certain number of people who regard it as a part of their personal lifestyle.
For example, Tyrol in Austria, where I have been conducting field surveys, is a mountainous region in the Alps, and each valley has its own sphere of life, and the region has developed communities called valley communities. Because of the steep topography, large-scale intensive agriculture is impossible and rough grazing is central. It is a so-called disadvantageous area.
Nevertheless, in Tyrol, after the World War II, the population consistently grew, and if we look at economic indicators such as the unemployment rate and GDP per capita, they show a better level than the national average. When we indeed walk through the villages in Tyrol, we can hardly see any run-down impoverished rural landscape, which we Japanese would associate with a disadvantageous area. In general, in any small village, the windows of the houses are beautifully decorated with flowers and squares and roads are neatly organized.
It has to be considered that not only activities such as skiing and climbing at the base of the Alps, but also because the residents have continued to take care and maintained such a beautiful landscape, Tyrol has become a leading tourist destination in Europe. That is why its tourism industry developed and the regional economy is stable.
Since Austria joined the EU in 1995, there has been no border control, and people are able to travel freely. Such factors have also accelerated the number of people visiting from neighboring Germany.
Some of them do not stay in a traditional hotel or luxurious villa but purchase an empty house or unused farming cottage from the local farmers and intentionally take time to renovate it by themselves and live in it with the feeling of a holiday house. As this lifestyle has become more popular, quite a few people enjoy such renovation work itself during the weekend and holidays.
Through this, crumbling old farmers cottages and empty houses will be brought back to life, and it also leads to the improvement of the village landscape. During that process, a network between migrants from outside and local residents will be generated, and the migrants will start participating in the local community.
Tyrol region is two to three hours away by car from Munich, a large city in Germany. It is not so unusual to work in the city in South Germany on weekdays and spend one’s weekend in the nature-rich holiday house in Tyrol.
This is indeed a multi-local living style, which is part of ordinary life, where one can enjoy daily life by combining urban life for work and rural life for appreciating one’s free time.
In the meantime, rural municipalities have proceeded with measures to arrange the roads, water supply, sewerage, cultural facilities, without neglecting the administrative services to the residents, and to prevent decreasing the educational and medical institutions so that the residents can continue to live there even if it is surrounded by steep mountains and access is relatively poor.
It is also noteworthy that during this process, the system of local scale bottom-up-style rural development has been arranged. In this system, not only the administration but also various local actors work together and examine what the issues are in the region and what is needed, and design and implement the project.
As a result, such rural development efforts attract urban people from outside the area. Such movements from urban areas to rural area has also termed “amenity migration” in recent years. It is not a standard migration which seeks for economic factors such as employment and high wages but rather a migration focused on non-economic factors such as a rich natural environment, comfort, and livability, which is attracting attention.
On the other hand, as the comfort of multi-local living in the Tyrol region became widely known, property prices in the region rose, and the original land usage is being disturbed. Such adverse effects are also being generated. Against such a situation, the administration is working on the regulation of property acquisition to prevent disorganized development.
Although it is beneficial for the area to have the related population increase, the basic principle is to consider the lives of the local residents first.
Thinking about a rich and diverse life for oneself
Something similar to the compact city concept, which is being discussed in Japan, is also being discussed in Europe. However, it is not always combined with “cutting-off” of peripheral areas.
They would rather try to maintain the roads, water supply and sewerage, and public transportation system such as buses, even if there are very few residents in remote mountainous areas such as Tyrol. The underlying idea is that as long as there are residents living there, it is necessary to spend public funds to maintain infrastructure.
It is not the case that the municipalities are aiming to increase the related population. However, a town which is comfortable to live in for local residents will also be comfortable for people from outside the area.
Also, through not only the administration but also relevant local and diverse people from the area cooperating and proceeding with the bottom-up-style rural development, sustainable development will follow.
Certainly, the European way might not immediately suit Japan, where the social system and environment is different.
For example, Austria is a federal state, so originally, the regional authority is very strong. Therefore, EU or national policy can be substantiated as measures according to the real situation of the area and be implemented.
Considering this, Japan also might need to further strengthen the regional authority and advance the system so that it can implement its own measures according to the regional situation.
Moreover, the lifestyle in which people have connections with the region by enjoying such multi-local living will provide ideas for Japan too.
Indeed, many of the young generation are very interested in such a lifestyle. Municipalities cultivating the young generation is one way to do this.
In this sense, the “empty house bank” makes for an interesting initiative. It is effective to proceed with such an initiative by gaining consensus from the local residents.
By living in a place one likes or selected, an attachment will be generated, and such feelings should lead to regional revitalization and consequently to national land conservation. I would like to ask all of you who are living in a city, why not consider the possibility of multi-local living as a form of enriching your life?
* The information contained herein is current as of March 2021.
* The contents of articles on Meiji.net are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.
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