I have lived in London and Manchester for something like 18 years and villages for about 15, and the rest of the time in towns of between 25,000 and 75,000. So I think that I have some rural- urban experience in the bank.
A problem right off the bat is that as ever these days the conversation quickly goes binary: rural versus urban: which is better and well rehearsed and inaccurate perceptions; none of which is helpful.
Art and culture can fall into similar patterns – small in the rural, big in the city, contemporary in the urban, ‘old fashioned’ in the rural.
The truth and the common sense is that both are part of a bigger picture and are linked by that interdependency. When we are open to the holistic interdependency we have healthy outcomes, when we close in on which ever one is ‘better’ we exacerbate problems such as rural ageing and the super gravity of urban places for the young.
I know from the periods when I lived in London that things like environment were far from my mind, certainly far from my direct experience, whereas living in flood hit Cumbria in 2015 meant that the conversations around climate were very immediate.
For many ‘urbanites’ the countryside is just that thing that you travel through on the train or car, I have heard people describe the UK as ‘post-agricultural’ (it isn’t). A survey conducted a few years ago found some young city people did not identify milk as coming from cows. In the rural I meet people who would ‘never’ go to London because they wouldn’t like it.
The fact is that rural and urban are aspects of the same thing – the nation – and each has much to offer to the inhabitants of the other.
If smaller towns are to survive as anything other than backwaters for ageing people, lacking the diversity that makes places healthy and rich (and with enough young people to do the jobs, be entrepreneurial etc.) then they need to have enough activity and interest to make people wish to come and live in them. If you think that this is just vague opinion I would cite that in Cumbria the Local Enterprise Partnership is suggesting that on the present curve in 10 years time there will be 20,000 too few people to do the jobs that need doing. Recruitment is already problematic – and this in one of the most beautiful parts of the UK.
Culture is part of the solution. While there will always be factors of scale there needs to be enough going on in places to keep them interesting and vibrant. We can’t all be Manchester with a constant offer but if we only have Christmas, Easter, a couple of parades and a few private galleries then rural towns can not begin to describe themselves as vibrant. There is no reason for places to be so limited in ambition, and when one factors in the immense experience of environment then smaller rural places become precisely where leadership in cultural activity belongs – and in the process help those places to stay interesting. By example I could give you the Eden Project, world leading, dynamic, visitable and helping the area be liveable as both an employer and an example.
Equally urban places can benefit from greater integration and encouragement of partnerships with rural based arts and culture. I recently saw the excellent Captain Boomer (Belgium) present a piece in Greenwich that was essentially a giant picture frame laid on the ground that served as an auditorium for the pastoral picture in the frame – ie actors dressed up as typical classical yokels interacting with a real live cow. The scale and the simple bringing of the countryside to the city needed no interpretation – people understood and loved it! On a simple level it was apparent that some of the attendees were just delighted to be in close proximity to a cow.
Small local places need to stay vibrant and play a role in leading culture, both for themselves and as a contribution to the bigger picture – forgive the pun! If not, the rural places can lose their populations, their vibrancy and diversity, and the urban becomes further removed and loses sight of the relevance of the countryside. Neither of these things can possibly be good.
Adrian Lochhead is the Director of Eden Arts. They deliver arts projects across the North of england and are currently working on The 66, a project to deliver and connect the Urban and Rural areas across a trans-pennine route along the A66.