One of the fun things about being an academic is not taking anything for granted. If you use a word, you need to really look at it: unpack it like a box of supplies. What does it really mean? How have different people used it? Is everybody using it the same way – or does it get pressed into service for all sorts of different things?
“Rural” is one of those words that can be used in lots of ways. Some people use it interchangeably with “agriculture”: what is “rural” is agricultural; what is “agricultural” is rural. To me that is a bit like using a spade when you want a hoe: it’s not quite the same thing. A rural region may rely on agriculture, but that doesn’t mean that agriculture is the only thing happening there. And what about regions with forestry, or fishing, or tourism? Are they not rural?
“Rural” is also often used to mean Not Urban. Cities are “urban”; places outside the cities are “rural”. This is a case of defining something as what it is not; a practice that doesn’t tell you a great deal about what it actually is. Further, this definition reinforces a worldview with cities at the centre, where rural places are, by definition, secondary or peripheral. It is worth considering how much of the urban bias in our economy and society is framed by this definition of rural as Not Urban.
To find a more useful definition of “rural”, I recommend the geographers. Geography is a field specialised in the study of physical places and people’s interaction with them. A geographical definition of “rural” looks to population density, or how many people are living in a certain amount of physical space. Rural areas are by definition less densely populated than urban areas. Geographers also consider other aspects of rurality, such as the importance of primary production; dependence on the natural environment; and the tendency for communities to self-organise to create what they need.
For me, the heart of what is “rural” is the closeness of people and the natural environment. Whether chocolate fields, ancient forests, dry plains or wild coastline, rural places define rural communities. The sense of belonging goes beyond streetscapes and town names. Seeing rural people and rural places in dialogue begins to suggest what sustainable Regional Development could look like.