How to revitalise your rural community

Rural communities have faced nearly a century of slow decline. Agriculture first mechanised, then consolidated and is now being automated. Towns that were built around a local mine or factory lost the economic engines at the heart of their community. Talent was drawn to the bigger cities seeking employment.

Faced with an ageing and declining population, many rural communities today are having to fight to preserve their economies. But rather than competing against major cities on an unfair playing field, rural areas are recognising that there is an opportunity to capitalise on their own assets. By promoting the quality-of-life ideal of the rural community and collaborating together with neighbouring towns, teams implementing rural place branding strategies are able to revitalise their communities and reverse decades of decline.

Preserve the appeal of rural life

In 2018, data from Gallup suggested that while 80% of Americans live in urban areas, the majority of Americans would prefer to live in a rural area. There are a number of reasons why people are choosing to live in urban areas despite this – access to education, career opportunities, housing – but it’s also clear that the brain drain is reversing.   The evidence shows that across America, a talented, experienced and educated workforce is beginning to move back to second-tier cities and rural communities.  Is this a pattern that is replicated around the world?

One factor is undoubtedly affordability. As cities grow, the demand for real estate rises and so does the costs of living. But we’re also seeing a growing appeal for “living off the grid,” for seeking sustainable and balanced lifestyles. And as Generation Z start leaving the nest, these desires could drive them back to more idyllic rural pastures.

But how are rural municipalities and communities promoting these ideals? Cammarata and Idanha-a-Nova are two innovative examples from Europe of how rural destinations are revitalising their communities.

Cammarate & Idanha-a-Nova: two examples of transforming rural identities

Cammarata, a small town in Italy, has set about reversing decades of decline by offering homes in the town centre for free. All prospective homeowners have to do is submit a proposal on how they will renovate the abandoned property. "The owners are oblivious to the damage they cause when they ditch their homes and refuse to restyle their ancient dwellings,” said Mayor Vincenzo Giambrone. “It leaves a deep scar on the townscape with the risk of dangerous collapses." By prioritising younger couples, Cammarata is not only allowing people to get their foot on the property ladder. They’re also encouraging people to consider Cammarata as the perfect place to start a family – far from the dusty smog and noise of the city. It’s also an ideal solution to the town’s aging population.

Idanha-a-Nova, a rural municipality in central-interior Portugal has taken a different approach. In 40 years, Idanha had lost around 70% of their population. Faced with a stereotype that rural life was negative and dated, they set about positioning the region as a rural-innovative destination.

As a definitive place brand strategy, Idanha’s strategy reaches beyond an economic offering to touch on all aspects of community life. While attraction of innovative agri-business is key, Idanha also launched a conference on rural life and re-opened communication with their city-based diaspora in order to promote their municipality not just as a place of opportunity, but one where you can enjoy a more sustainable life. The repositioning was highly commended at the 2018 City Nation Place Awards for managing to reverse decades of decline – for the first time since the 1950s, the migratory balance was about to reach a positive level.

Both communities have created a turn-around in their fortunes. They not only highlighted the positives of living in a rural area, they also addressed some of their greatest challenges. What were once vacant town centres are now becoming vibrant hubs of the community once more.

Be bold – and don’t be afraid to collaborate

Rural communities can’t be blamed for believing that they don’t have the resources or the attractions to compete with major cities. However, by pooling resources smaller places can create a greater impact and have a louder voice.

Take the Great West Way, a collaborative programme by over 30 different destination marketing organisations in Britain. With so many competing voices, promotion of the iconic tourism route west of London was fragmented and confusing for visitors. However, by creating a new place brand, “The Great West Way”, and jointly promoting the area as “England Concentrated,” curious visitors were encouraged to go deeper and stay longer. Despite limited funding, this collaborative approach to place branding was a huge success: one hotel contracted £20,000 worth of new business as a direct result of the route.

This is not to say that collaboration is always easy. John Molinaro, CEO of the Appalachian Partnership in Southeastern Ohio, says that “rural revitalisation rarely works well one community at a time. [However,] regional efforts at rural revitalisation require a strong intermediary to serve as the glue to pull all the disparate threads of a viable revitalisation effort together.”

The Utrecht Region in the heart of the Netherlands faced a similar challenge. To compete on the world stage, the local marketing teams of 26 very diverse municipalities agreed that it would be helpful to form an alliance. Overcoming natural competitiveness between regions is complicated, particularly as the smaller municipalities tend to interpret the City of Utrecht as an authority. The strategy was launched by uniting the region behind one new brand design identity – which enabled the development of a more cohesive communication strategy.

Revitalising your rural community

In an experience-based tourism economy, rural towns and regions are sitting on a wealth of opportunity. Andrew Redden, tourism and economic development manager for Hastings County in Ontario, suggests that “It’s more than simply marketing to people to come and explore our area – now we’re inviting people to come and ‘experience’.” This could mean, for example, ensuring that your B&Bs offer free trail passes and snowshoes for visitors.  Building an experience-based rural place brand also works for economic development, combined with a strategy that supports and promotes the opportunities for remote working.

Having a clear vision, shared by the community and its leadership, for economic and tourism development is the first step for a successful rural place brand strategy.  The time appears to be right for rural communities to work together to preserve and celebrate the rural lifestyle – not by competing with major cities, but providing an attractive, sustainable alternative.

Interested in learning more? Check out our latest place branding articles.

The Place Brand Portfolio is City Nation Place's searchable portfolio of Awards case studies from the past five years.