Re- Re-thinking Commercial Counterurbanisation

I was very pleased to see that some new research into “commercial counterurbanisation” has been published in Rural Studies in Canada by Claire Mitchell and Michelle Madden from the University of Waterloo in Ontario. The authors build on an earlier paper that I published in Environment and Planning A (Bosworth, 2010) where I introduced the concept of “commercial counterurbanisation” and I welcome their critique as well as their additions to the academic debate.

Mitchell and Madden conducted detailed qualitative analysis of a number of interviews, survey responses and ethnographic accounts drawn from St Peter’s, a very small settlement in Nova Scotia. Their results showed commercial counterurbanites to be contributing to the territorial identity of St Peter’s as well as to its economic vibrancy.  The strength of family and friendship bonds were found to be particularly important in drawing in-migrants to St Peter’s and as a result of this, a lot of their subsequent activity was motivated by community outcomes.  As a popular tourist destination, it is possible that this increases the scope for new businesses through higher footfall and creates a higher number of social ties to that community from return visitors who build friendships through tourism but the findings remain highly significant as evidence that commercial counterurbanisation has a resonance outside of the UK context.

While the findings are valuable in supporting the common trends, Mitchell and Madden raise some questions about the true meaning of “commercial counterurbanisation” as a concept. I defined it as “the growth of rural economies stimulated by inward migration”, adding, “This may take the form of business creation by rural in-migrants, their employment in other rural firms or their promotion of other businesses through local trade, knowledge exchange and co-operative working.”  The definition intentionally allows for the process of commercial counterurbanisation to include more than one stage where some in-migrants will see a considerable time passing before engaging in entrepreneurial activity.

Mitchell and Madden challenge this, suggesting that it should refer either to the movement of commercial activity from larger to smaller places (their preference) or the negative relationship between population size and economic growth (2014, p146). I would argue that their preference has already been written about since the 1980s, with literature dating back to Tyler’s work on the “urban-rural shift of manufacturing” (e,g, Keeble and Tyler, 1985).  If we are solely concerned with businesses moving to rural areas, the demographic terminology seems inappropriate.  Alternatively, if we are examining the relationship between population size and economic activity, which is closer to my initial research objectives, we need to focus on the factors that might strengthen or weaken the negative relationship among rural settlements.  Their assumption that commercial counterurbanisation would describe a negative relationship between population size and economic growth in somewhat confusing as this phenomenon sees rural populations increasing and economic activity increasing, thus a positive relationship appears more logical.  If the contrast is between urban and rural areas and the suggestion is that the negative relationship is due to economic growth in rural areas, this overestimates the scale of the phenomenon, certainly in economic terms.

I therefore feel that Mitchell and Madden are overlooking the additional nuance of commercial counterurbanisation where the migration and business activities are heavily socialised. In Mitchell and Madden’s critique, they set out reservations about my use of embeddedness, which if I was referring to people becoming embedded into local communities, I would agree with. However, I was starting from Granovetter’s perspective where embeddedness describes “the argument that the behavior and institutions to be analyzed are so constrained by ongoing social relations that to construe them as independent is a grievous misunderstanding” (Granovetter 1985, pp481-482). Where economic actions (i.e. the business activities of people moving to rural areas) are so constrained by social relations, it seems appropriate to draw on a social theory of rural demographic change as the basis for understanding the implications for rural economies.

This links to a second critique, suggesting that my conceptualisation of commercial counterurbanisation was not in keeping with traditional counterurbanisation discourses. In my original paper, I explained that the choice of the term was intended to open up new questions about whether the business activity of commercial counterurbanisers might be explored along similar lines to other research into residential counterurbanisation but equally, I recognise that this is not a straightforward connection to make and thus requires further research and deeper thinking.

To illustrate one possible line of enquiry, Champion spoke of ‘counterurbanisers’ adopting a rural way of life so perhaps we could think about whether ‘commercial counterurbanites’ should adopt a business style or establish a type of business that, ‘if not identical with the traditional rural way of life, should essentially be the modern equivalent of it’ (Champion, 1989, page 27). If a commercial counterurbaniser is not engaging with other actors in his or her local rural economy, one might argue that it is no different to somebody who has moved to a rural home but continued to be part of an urban labour market.

In taking forward the debates around commercial counterurbanisation, Mitchell and Madden have very helpfully elaborated upon the complexity of the socio-economic and lifestyle choices that are shaping contemporary rural societies and their local economies. They also highlight the need for greater clarity on the origin of rural in-migrants to truly understand how residential moves and rural enterprise creation relate to the settlement hierarchy.

Finally, in terms of neo-endogenous development, this research once again confirms the importance of both local and extra-local networks as well as the cross-over between purely economic growth and a more holistic understanding of rural development. Drawing on the Dutch notion of “liveability”, which is commonly used to refer to the quality of life that a settlement offers, I think this whole body of research can help us to move away from approaches that treat economic and non-economic goals as being separate and even conflicting.  Instead, I think we are arguing that multiple benefits can be identified from commercial counterurbanisation: Commercial counterurbanisers can create for themselves a better lifestyle combined with a secure income; rural communities can benefit from additional services and more social activity; and the local economy can benefit from employment creation, new demand and new productivity.

This may sounds over-idealised but it does provide a framework for thinking about the types of impacts that can occur and should encourage a more joined-up way of thinking about rural development. I therefore invite the authors, and others who are researching in this area, to co-ordinate wider research across other rural Europe and North America to settle the theoretical debate and to provide useful evidence to inform future policy for rural communities and their local economies.


Bosworth, G. (2010). “Commercial Counterurbanisation: An emerging force in Rural Economic Development.” Environment and Planning A 42(4):966-981.

Champion A. G.(ed.) (1989) Counterurbanisation: The Changing Pace and Nature of Population Deconcentration. Edward Arnold, London

Granovetter, M. (1985) Economic Action and Social Structure: The Problem of Embeddedness. American Journal of Sociology 91(3), pp481-510

Keeble, D. & Tyler, P. (1995) Enterprising behaviour and the urban-rural shift. Urban Studies 32(6), pp975-998

Mitchell, C. and Madden, M. (2014) Re-thinking commercial counterurbanisation: Evidence from Rural Nova Scotia, Canada. Journal of Rural Studies 36, pp137-148

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