Multi-locality and variable scales

Beautiful sunrise at Mathildedal ironworks village, 1st December 2019.
(Photo Kaisa Lähteenmäki-Smith)

Where are we?

Our global condition puts us in a position where we need to constantly re-position ourselves in the face of increasing digital, functional and cultural interconnectivity. Digital solutions and technological advances have compressed time and space by reducing the distance between potential localities and the time that it is takes to travel or work in mobile settings. Multi-locality is thus a condition that is partly forced upon us as mobile labour or immigrants on the move, but is also something that has a more positive side, at least in developed economies where people make choices about living and working that are more flexible, multi-locational and voluntary. In the Finnish case we generally think of multi-locality as a potential source of increased quality of life on the individual level and of vitality and sense of community for rural regions.   

Welcome to the Club!

Our purpose in the “Phenomenon Club” context is that we want to better understand the systems and causalities moving and shaping our society. This was once again the case, as our expert speakers provided us with their insights and engaged us in a fruitful dialogue and to discuss this Finnish phenomenon with global roots, at the heart of urban-rural interaction.  

Multi-locality is a perennially reoccurring topic on the Finnish agenda. In the recent ’phenomenon club’ meeting, we welcomed presentations from two experts on the topic, each approaching it from quite different angles: Hilkka Vihinen, a leading rural expert from the Natural Resources Institute of Finland and Pauliina Seppälä, an entrepreneur and co-founder of Mesenaatti.me, the biggest Finnish crowdfunding platform. As is customary to our phenomenon club, we were interested in the root causes and interesting processes of emergent trends and topics, and ought to approach them through multi-focal lenses and, in so doing engage in building bridges between expert communities approaching similar questions through divergent disciplinary or professional frameworks.

 

What’s it all about? As mentioned above, the core theme was multi-locality. Increased mobility, changing conditions and the realities of working life, ageing population and demographic change, increased free time, as well as ongoing shifts in the values and priority structures of our societies and communities are changing the way we think about rural and urban environments and their interaction. Climate change and digital solutions place human interaction, dialogue and empathy, but also a shared sense of urgency, into sharper focus. Our very understanding of the phenomenon of multi-locality is therefore shifting.

On the move

Mobility is increasing both globally and nationally. We as a species are on the move. This mobility is reflected in all human activity, from work and services to how we choose to spend our time (free time and hobbies), how we choose to spend our money (consumption and ownership) and how we live our lives and interact. The share of potentially mobile and ‘multi-local’ workers accounts for an estimated 3.6% of the entire workforce while seasonal mobility within Finland affects an estimated 2.4 million people. In areas classified as ‘rural’, the seasonal population is 1.3 million larger than the population for these categories as a whole.

Whilst on the macro, snap-shot level (e.g. based on the December 2019 data, collected by Statistics Finland), the picture is one of an increasingly concentrated population and demographic change favouring only a few urban centres. Approaching the data at a more detailed level however often reveals a quite different picture. During July, Finland’s rural areas are populated by 1.5 million people more than in January. (Source: Olli Lehtonen, LUKE & Hilkka Vihinen’s presentation) Seasonal shifts are caused for instance by the high degree of seasonal living and large number of holiday homes in the countryside: in a country of only 5 million people, there are over 500 000 holiday homes and in a country of 310 municipalities there are 65 municipalities with more seasonal than permanent inhabitants. This obviously has an impact on how services are used, resources dispersed and infrastructure needs addressed. With resources largely dependent on the size of the permanent population, the financial burden faced by many small communities is considerable and the degree of service utilisation varies considerably.

None of this is news. Regular debates on multi-local citizenship and the necessary preconditions to enable flexible, multi-local, living have reached the national policy agenda before. Thus far however few concrete measures have emerged. In may however be that the convergence of the shrinkage debate and calls for smart shrinking strategies, climate change and contested demands for carbon neutrality, as well as the ongoing shifts in political identity have this time succeeded in finally delivering the issue of multi-locality onto the mainstream agenda.  

Sharper focus required

The nuances of the situation are coming increasingly into focus. As Hilkka discussed in her presentation, even if one describes regional development with traditional variables such as population development, employment and commuting, once you take the seasonal variation into consideration, seasonally growing areas are more common than declining ones. What this more contextualised focus reveals is that growth is taking place in many localities and that the growth network extends across the country from southern Finland to Lapland.

Whether growth is desirable as such, is another issue (perhaps for another phenomenon club). New areas of seasonal growth are characterised not only by seasonal use but also by the increased intensity of use. This may be a concern for the service structure and both the social and environmental aspects of sustainability.

It is noteworthy that the demographic decline of the regional structure may be narrower and considerably more fragmented than previously assumed. Taking into account the seasonal population shifts which remain under radar, only a quarter of Finland can really be classified as ‘declining.’  

As Hilkka so elegantly put it, the ways in which centralised and decentralised solutions are balanced and how we place ourselves in the national space is undergoing major change. This implies not only the distribution of population, but also the time, space and intensity of our human presence, interaction, consumption and community.

Enter the scene: Citymaalaiset

Another perspective into multi-locality and mobility was provided by Pauliina Seppälä, who is one of the founders of the group Citymaalaiset (Cityruralites), a working group set up by Pauliina, together with Heli Mäenpää and Sirkku Varjonen (More on the working group Citymaalaiset/Cityruralites, here: https://medium.com/@citymaalaiset/citymaalaiset-ovat-t%C3%A4%C3%A4ll%C3%A4-72249e7fb117, https://www.facebook.com/citymaalaiset/, pauliinaseppala.com)

While Citymaalaiset as a working group has a specific mandate and goal of collaborating for a better collaboration and interaction between rural and urban areas and finding new solutions for doing this, “Cityruralities” may be a larger group or potential type of community who often are (in Pauliina’s words) middle-aged representatives of the creative classes, artists or entrepreneurs that are not tied to any particular place for professional reasons and have, or are, considering’ escape’ from the over-priced urban living of the capital region and swapping or complementing it with rural living choices.

Finland is famous for its late urbanisation with many people still retaining close ties to the countryside, despite living in urban areas. A barometer from 2011 showed that 38% of the Finnish population felt they were both urban and rural in their identity. This closeness may in fact be one of the factors behind the seemingly traumatic and tense relationship between urban and rural dwellers and identities. Would it not instead make sense to make the most of this potential duality of identity, as for instance the Cityruralites group are doing?

Pauliina reminded us of the drivers behind the Cityruralities -phenomenon and the reasons are largely similar to those behind the multi-locality issue, explored by Hilkka in her presentation: Digitalisation (and all that it entails for distance working, e-commerce, social media communities etc.); High living costs (especially in the capital region); demographic changes (increasing retired population, adult children caring for their elderly parents living in different parts of Finland); Changes in lifestyles and living situations; Nature trends and appreciation of nearness to nature (often cited as a particularly Finnish trait). 

The city as a place, phenomenon and as the dominant narrative of the late 20th century is changing and these changes resonate with some of the changes in the rural sphere. While in 1978, the hottest new architects (including household names such as Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid) opened “the sparkling metropolis” exhibition at New York’s iconic Guggenheim Museum, Koolhaas has recently opened a new exhibition entitled ‘the Countryside’, aiming to turn the spotlight, as he put it “on the 98 percent of the planet not yet occupied by cities” (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/arts/design/rem-koolhaas-guggenheim.html). While the creative classes have been expected to sprawl and flourish in urban environments and the dominant narrative of growth has equally been built around the utilisation of the rural areas for the benefit of the urban, the climate agenda and the changing economic logics of the post-industrial market economy have seen an attention shift back to “the rural 98%”. The rural areas and the new combinations and meetings of the two may just be where it’s at.    

The stories we shared remain poignant in their universality: the Finnish countryside is not alone in its’ desire to survive despite the logic of exploitation and monetisation. While the sustainability agenda has remained secondary to the growth agenda, the urgency of the climate change paradigm has finally forced us to think anew about what constitutes interaction between urban and rural areas. We’ve only scratched the surface and only just begun to map out this dialogue.   

In our systems-driven debates we always seek to end with a positive note of engagement and activity, identifying action points rather than remaining at the theoretical level. We are not helpless in the face of even the most fundamental societal changes. What can and should be done? How could local authorities and local communities benefit from these on-going trends of multi-locality and re-thinking the rural?

Despite their divergent starting points Hilkka and Pauliina finished with similar conclusions. Promoting a circular economy favours decentralised solutions – boosting them, and at the same time strengthening local economies. Scalable and sustainable solutions and systems (for infrastructure, energy, food, waste, co-ownership-based new transport or housing solutions) can and must be re-designed. Local solutions for ‘Plan B’ strategies should allow for more variation in life choices and mobile and flexible service solutions. Choosing your health provider (as one example) could be more flexible to reflect the emergence of multi-local living. But mobility and functionality are areas where the sky really is the limit.

Municipalities should also stop thinking in terms of zero-sum competition and find new ways of becoming attractive, in collaboration with each other. If every municipality builds on cheap housing for families with children or cheap (and potentially less than sustainable) planning solutions to ensure industrial facilities locate to their municipality, they may be missing out on market segments that could be the key drivers of future vitality and sustainable attractiveness, such as the creative classes, artists and artisanal workers. 

The most vibrant communities of the future may be those who dare to be open, think differently and allow for temporality and experimentation. The city of tomorrow may be the rural community of today. The urban activist of today may be the rural entrepreneur of tomorrow. Spatiality, urbanity and rurality are increasingly conjoined; the shift towards multi-locality has only just begun. WATCH THIS SPACE!   

Published by phenomenalfinland

A political scientist, living in Helsinki, passionate about the future of our welfare state and curious about new phenomena and new ways, methods and practices capable of making our society better. Aspiration in life: to become the person my dog already thinks I am.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: