Time to reopen village playgrounds

While this post is clouded by personal views, it is also a reflection about how external (urban) views about rural places directly impacts our lives and communities.

Most of our town and city parks have remained opened throughout the Lockdown (albeit with play equipment and other facilities closed) to provide much needed space for exercise and the therapeutic benefit that green space provides. However, in smaller villages, there is often only a playground and their closure is increasingly detrimental to the social, physical and emotional detriment wellbeing of young children.  I am not exaggerating – my son actually cries if we walk past it (so I try to avoid those routes) and he asks us every night when he can go to the playground again.

There is perhaps a mistaken assumption that all of the countryside is one big “playground”.  From an urban perspective, this is quite understandable as their interaction with rural places is principally for recreation and the enjoyment of nature and the escape of the city environment.  There are many areas around Britain that fulfil such roles but these equate to just a tiny proportion of rural England.   It is quite sensible to leave the larger attractions closed for a little longer as they will pose a greater risk due to the scale of visitor numbers from a range of origins but this should not cloud the decision-making concerning smaller local attractions and village-based amenities that serve a relatively small number of people from a tightly-bounded area.

The sad irony for many villagers is that without playgrounds and sports-fields they do not have access to safe spaces for playing outdoors.  I have been driving 5 miles to a nearby park to allow my son the freedom and space to run around, something that he cannot do along a country lane, farm track or in our small garden.  I believe this is within the rules but with our village playground reopened, it would be unnecessary. For those adhering strictly to the “no non-essential travel” rules, they have been able to take advantage of the quieter village roads and heightened awareness of drivers that have resulted from lockdown.  As Britain gets back to work, many of these exercise routes will become more dangerous and very young children will not be afforded the same freedom to cycle or run along our village paths.  A lot of the most remote rural villages have very few pavements and while the landscape is aesthetically appealing, it is of course not open access to all.

Therefore, on the grounds on urban-rural equality and for children living in rural areas without million-pound mansions and the equivalent garden, duck ponds and swimming pools enjoyed by a tiny elite, PLEASE RE-OPEN OUR LOCAL PLAYGROUNDS.

Seeking rural refuge in times of crisis

As Coronavirus took over our lives, we saw thousands of people flock to the countryside, risking an even more alarming spread of the virus. I am not here to comment on the rights or wrongs of these people’s activities, merely to reflect on the eternal allure of rural places in a time of crisis.

A week into lockdown and our daily ration of exercise continues to see people searching for natural spaces to take refuge from the prevailing fears and uncertainties. This highlights humanity’s need for nature, green spaces and, here in Britain, the cultural safety blanket that we call the countryside.

Simon Schama, in Landscape and Memory, talks about the primeval forests as sources of refuge. Moving through history we see the monarchy hiding in oak trees (Charles II) or fleeing to remote Hebridean islands (Bonnie Prince Charlie) and then wartime evacuees parachuted into rural communities across Britain.

Historically, the presence of natural resources combined with the remoteness from pursuers make rural places attractive hideaways. With Coronavirus, it’s not a game of hide and seek because the act of ‘hiding’ or seeking rural refuge can also be the act of transmission. The comparison today also fails because few of us in the modern world could survive on nature alone.

Nevertheless, the innate connection of humanity with nature endures. The benefits of cleaner air and opportunity for physical exercise may enhance the appeal of a rural escape – a ‘constitutional’ walk for example might be perceived to strengthen our ability to fight off illness. But, I argue that it is a less rational and a more instinctive or sub-conscious reaction that perpetuates through our culture.

To most people’s view, the coronavirus is not “natural” – it is a mutation and all the images that we see are straight from a science laboratory with none of the colours that we associate with nature. Even though its origin may be animal-related, it was “un-natural” assemblages of animals and humans in confined spaces that appear to be at the centre of the pandemic.

Now that we are in “lockdown”, access to open spaces and nature is further restricted. For many people, the wellbeing effects of being outdoors in green space is essential to their mental and physical health. In these cases, the knock-on impacts of lengthy periods of lockdown will surely be more detrimental in the long run.

Perhaps it’s selfish of me to want to continue to play pooh-sticks with my son on the quiet little bridge down the road and to bemoan the closure of our village playground. Perhaps I really only should venture beyond the front door to buy essential food and medication but it is very hard to reconcile the idea that our best strategy should be to segregate ourselves away from nature, at a time when we crave a return to a more ‘natural’ (or do we just mean normal?) state of affairs.

This brings to the fore the age-old sociological dualism of nature and society. Whether the urban refugee or the rural isolationist, recent events are making us think about our relationship with nature. When things are working, we crave the fast pace and cultural richness of modernity and urban living (even if we also like to combine this with a rural home and lifestyle for part of the time) but crises like coronavirus highlight the precarity of the globalised world that we have created. When it’s over, I wonder where nature and rural space will feature as we return to the lifestyles we’ve become accustomed to?

Rural Research Methods

In the second meeting of Rural Visions, we discussed some of the distinct challenges and opportunities for carrying out research in rural contexts. Gary Bosworth (School of Geography) began by discussing the value of mixed methods to capture a full understanding of rural issues.  Despite funding calls promoting mixed methods, there has been only limited progress in the number of publications in the main rural journals using mixed methods.  It was argued that this could relate to word-count limitations, prejudices within journals or the inevitable problems that arise from multiple reviewers favouring either qualitative or quantitative methods.

Mixed methods can help to overcome some of the limitations of secondary datasets, which often only give the “bigger picture” perspective and lack the quantity of data when compared to urban regions. It was noted that smaller numbers in rural areas also give rise to ethical considerations and confidentiality concerns.

A further advantage of mixed methods approaches is that researchers can overcome problems of different definitions and representations of rurality. Combining statistical and policy-based delineation of rural places (more likely applied in quantitative data) with alternative socio-cultural interpretations of rurality (requiring a more qualitative lens) can draw out the true influences that rurality may have on the issues being studies.

The second presentation, from Fen Kipley (School of Social and Political Sciences), drew on her personal experiences of community-based research in former military housing estates in rural Lincolnshire. Fen emphasises the extra need to engage with ALL members of the community in order to gain their trust.  In a rural setting, the researcher quickly becomes known to the community and attending all sorts of events is an important way to be seen as impartial.  In Fen’s case this included sessions with the pre-school, with pensioners, with parish councillors and other voluntary associations and even going to church. Combined with the distances that can be involved and poor transport infrastructure and often limited places to stay, this all adds to the time required to gather robust qualitative data in rural areas.

Building trust with residents empowered people to engage in workshops and speak passionately and positively about how they could improve their communities. Fen’s use of “Appreciative Inquiry”, borrowed from business research, proved particularly effective at overcoming stigma attached to certain aspects of the local community too. As well as trust-building, immersion in the local community is also critical for understanding the internal power relations and identifying (and maybe circumventing) gatekeepers to give a voice to all people in rural communities.

In summary, we concluded that rural research is not just distinguished by small numbers and practical challenges of remoteness. Researchers must also be attuned to local community dynamics and avoid making assumptions about what the rural means to people living and working there.  Entering the rural territory with an open mind and a willingness to listen, understand and give voice to residents will deliver the most meaningful insights… but this takes time and commitment.

Rural Visions and our Civic Mission

Last week saw the official launch of Rural Visions, the University of Lincoln’s new research group focusing on economic and social geography of rural areas. We began with a discussion about Rural Visions’ role in contributing to Lincoln’s mission to be a New Civic University.

Having been established with the backing of major institutions in Lincoln and Lincolnshire, the University has a responsibility to contribute to economic growth and prosperity, cultural enrichment and social wellbeing across the region, alongside enhancing education and skills.

Although “civic” can denote urban areas, we stress the importance of the wider meaning of the term: “relating to the duties or activities of people in relation to their town, city, or local area.”[1]

For our work to provide a platform for informing activities that sustain a civic mission across the largely rural county of Lincolnshire, we must draw on a blend of international research and local engagement, especially with rural businesses and communities.

At Lincoln, we already have established research centres and institutes covering environmental and climatic threats (Lincoln Centre for Water and Planetary Health), public health (Institute For Health) and innovation in the Agri-food sector (LIAT). Rural Visions focuses on social science, economic and community issues to fill a critical void for the wellbeing of people in our region.

Although we aim to collectively assemble beneath three specific research strands, i.e. Economic Visions, Cultural Visions and Policy Visions, in order to encompass and indicate the vast wealth and range of diverse rural subject areas and research activities, we also acknowledge, appreciate and welcome the vast opportunities for further interaction between and across the strands.

The University is rightly proud of its contribution to supporting economic development. Rural Visions aims to strengthen this further through its “Economic Vision” strand of activities. This includes work to investigate the role of new technologies in creating economic opportunities in the region (e.g. CORA), studies of rural innovation (RUN-IN; SalFar), evaluation projects to influence rural funding initiatives (LEADER) and new research to investigate the role of changing population and migration dynamics across the region (CEERA; Boston).

These projects all draw from local and international dimensions. Working with European partners, the team is advancing theory on Social Innovation in rural areas (Bosworth et al., 2016) and projects from other parts of the UK as well as China are exploring how best to capitalise on rural tourism potential within the limits of sustainability (FeiFei Xu, 2018). Although not always considered “rural”, the significant impact of military land uses in the county, and new uses for redundant sites is another specialist area where the University must continue to play a leading advocacy role (Kipley, 2016).

A common themes across much of this work is the role of the Community – whether as research participants or as enactors of change themselves. As Rural Visions develops, we recognise the importance of building multi-actor networks to ground our activities in the real challenges and needs of local populations.  We also aim to showcase our innovative and broad-ranging methods tailored to rural research as these can set us apart from other research teams. This will attract the best postgraduate students and ensure that we can apply the most effective tools and techniques to carry out the research that can make a real difference to rural communities, wherever in the world that research takes place.

Rural Visions next event, on 4th April will bring together some short presentations of these innovative rural methods as the starting point from which to build a Rural Research Methods handbook. A full list of our upcoming events is here: https://www.lincoln.ac.uk/home/geography/research/ruralvisions/events/

[1] https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/

Rural Visions

 This month sees the launch of Rural Visions, the University of Lincoln’s interdisciplinary research group drawing together academics working on a range of rural issues.

In our first event we will explore the contribution of rural research to the University’s civic mission.  Details of this and future events can be downloaded in our poster which can be downloaded here:        Rural Visions Poster