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How can farmers be better supported by our urban centres?

Alma Clavin and Carla M. Kayanan

19/9/2022

Present Tense

Recent debates around farming and climate action have, at their core, an imagined divide between rural and urban areas. Rather than perpetuate this urban-rural binary in policy, a just transition will be most effective when we adopt a more integrated regional-scale understanding of city and country. Only then can we determine how best to support farmers as food producers and custodians of our landscapes.

Map of the Northern and Western Regional Assembly Sub-Regions. Source: 'Northern and Western Regional Assembly Regional Spatial and Economic Strategy 2020-2032' (2018), p. 3

To have a just transition means to put in place the framework to support workers and communities susceptible to risk as we move towards a low carbon economy. Deciding what structures to put in place necessitates rupturing the rural-urban binary to achieve fresh thinking on the connection between rural spaces and urban centres.

Recent debates around farmers, food production, and climate action have, at their core, a plethora of varying and conflicting imaginaries about rural landscapes, rural livelihoods, and an imagined divide with rural areas pitted against urban areas. In the provocatively titled article, ‘Townies v culchies’, Flynn and Lavin reference the culture wars unfurling around agricultural emissions reduction in Ireland in our preparation for a just transition [1]. Similar debates are happening right across Europe with media in the Netherlands recently drawing attention to this perceived binary. To have a just transition means to put in place the framework to support workers and communities susceptible to risk as we move towards a low carbon economy. Deciding what structures to put in place necessitates rupturing the rural-urban binary to achieve fresh thinking on the connection between rural spaces and urban centres. Problematically, as Flynn and Lavin astutely conclude, ‘the urban rural divide may only deepen in years to come’.


Whether we recognise it or not, people’s ideas about cities and urban centres are shaped by grievances, desires, and fears. Farmers travel to Dublin to protest in front of the government buildings they see as staunch representations of centralised power. Understandings of the urban are often reduced to ideas about high-density inner-cities juxtaposed with ‘remote’ rural towns and villages. And even though the ‘rural idyll’ is not accepted by all rural dwellers (nor all urban dwellers), it remains a strong geographical imagination that impacts where people choose to live, visit, and locate themselves.


Inherently, these bifurcated imaginaries are not a bad thing. Place and our surroundings shape who we are as human beings traversing variegated landscapes. However, what is problematic is the influence the rural-urban binary is having on shaping policies that impact our potential for a just transition. A just transition that incorporates decent jobs and a better quality of life appears to be a ‘no brainer’. Yet accomplishing this requires a paradigmatic shift in our historically entrenched and collective imagination about ‘the rural’ and ‘the urban’. It means accepting that, fundamentally, the rural and urban are inextricably linked and deeply interconnected. To negate and deny this complex relationship opens the possibility for problematic, fragmented policies. Alternatively, accepting this relationship and seeking ways to strengthen it will result in policies that enhance livelihoods and wellbeing for all.


This is already happening in some places. The Northern and Western Regional Assembly’s (NWRA) Regional Spatial and Economic Strategy (2018) embraces thinking beyond the traditional rural-urban divide to consider enhanced forms of interconnection. NWRA’s map of their sub-regions acknowledges existing links to Dublin as an urban centre and draws on them as potential ‘catchment’ areas to enable economic opportunities. While we would push for greater balance between the sub-regions and nearer, smaller urban centres (i.e. Donegal Town, Sligo, Letterkenny, etc.), the point is that regional flows exist – from our most rural spaces to urban centres – and these can and should be leveraged to produce more just futures.


At county level, there may be erroneous sentiments that ‘urban’ measures are foisted upon rural areas. For example, urban containment policies can be seen to be ‘anti-rural’, and yet, urban centres are key for farmers and food enterprises to access local markets and sell and produce locally. Pathways for a just transition involve diversification and re-localisation, to view interlinkages and value chains for farmers first in their local area, then in their nearest urban centres, and later larger metropolitan areas. Re-localising and focusing on value-added and shorter value chains requires integrated thinking, rather than silo thinking.


Examples of dependencies on the rural-urban continuum include: enhancing the dynamism and attractiveness of urban living to contain urban centres and maintain their vibrancy; improving broadband connection to expand remote working options and revive small towns and villages; and creating strong farm-to-city table access links through shared food processing units, farm shops, farmers markets, and market gardening to widen the farmer’s economic reach and sustain urban centres. However, enhancing and availing of this continuum requires appropriate policy, vision, finance, and placemaking support at both the local authority and central government level to attract people into towns and villages and open up markets and spaces.

Oat in the City, an oat milk from Co. Westmeath. The Lynam family have been living and farming in the townland of Ballybroder, on the border of Westmeath and Offaly with each generation passing it onto to the next. After much research, they decided to take a step back from intensive commercial farming to farm alternative, low-input, sustainable crops such as oats. They are now retailing in urban centres across the midlands, Galway, and Dublin


To think about and foster a cohesive regional imaginary and bring the above examples to fruition, we need to acknowledge that urban and rural areas are both products and shapers of economic, political, and social processes that operate at varying scales. Yes, just transition solutions grow from place and, yes, local place-based solutions are important, but we need new imaginaries that also go beyond the ‘local’. Place is important in identifying just transition solutions but all parts of Ireland – rural, villages, small towns, and metropolitan areas – have different existing relationships to each other. New and existing organisations focusing on novel models of food production, forestry, and agriculture need flexible forms of support to cater for growth and creativity [2].


The scholar Yi-Fu Tuan (1977) has likened space to movement and place to pauses – stops along the way [3]. Our locations, locales, and our sense of place are hugely significant in supporting a just transition, but equally significant are the spatial flows of transport, infrastructures and investments. Rather than perpetuating an urban-rural binary in policy and identity, a just transition will be most effective when we adopt more dynamic and integrated approaches. Only then are we able to effectively answer the question of how farmers can be better supported by our urban centres. In doing this, we can also determine how best to support farmers as food producers and their continued identity as custodians of our landscapes.

... fundamentally, the rural and urban are inextricably linked and deeply interconnected. To negate and deny this complex relationship opens the possibility for problematic, fragmented policies.

Present Tense is an article series aimed at uncovering perspectives and opinions from experts in their respective fields on the key issues/opportunities facing Ireland's built environment. For all enquiries and potential contributors, please contact info@type.ie.

Present Tense is supported by the Arts Council through the Architecture Project Award Round 2 2022.

References

1. V. Flynn and R. Lavin, ‘Townies v culchies: the new culture war in politics’, The Times, 31 July 2022. Available at: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/townies-v-culchies-the-new-culture-war-in-politics-p6f6v6x99

2. N. Moore-Cherry, A. Clavin, T. Krawchenko, and J. Tomaney, Exploring Place-based Opportunities for Policy and Practice in Transition, National Economic and Social Council Research Report no. 24, July 2022. Available at: https://www.nesc.ie/publications/exploring-place-based-opportunities-for-policy-and-practice-in-transition/

3. Emeritus Professor Yi-Fu Tuan (University of Wisconsin-Madison) passed away in August 2022. Tuan has profoundly influenced the way scholars think about the relationship between people and their environment.

Contributors

Alma Clavin

Alma Clavin is an urban geographer and social sciences researcher. Alma works within the Cities, Governance and Sustainability group in the School of Geography, University College Dublin. Most recently, Alma has undertaken research funded by the National Economic and Social Council (NESC) to examine place-based approaches for Just Transitions – decent jobs and quality of life as we move to a lower carbon economy. In collaboration with artist and academic, Teresa Dillon and Westmeath County Council, Alma is in receipt of a Creative Ireland, Climate Action grant, which focuses on pasts, presents, and futures of repair narratives and imaginaries in Ireland.

Carla M. Kayanan

Carla Maria Kayanan is a political-economic geographer with strong interests in the spatial division of labour and its impacts on social justice, inclusivity, and territorial inequality. Recent work includes examining how Dublin’s tech-sector development contributes to issues of housing affordability, accessibility, and rising homelessness; studying new emergent metropolitan governance structures resulting from Ireland’s National Planning Framework; and disentangling the detrimental impacts of Ireland’s urban-rural binary. Carla holds a PhD in urban and regional planning from the University of Michigan, an MA in social sciences from the University of Chicago, and a BA in sociology and Spanish language and literature from the University of Maryland. She is currently a Postdoctoral Researcher in the School of Geography at University College Dublin.

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