The Estonian state has ascribed to a strategy of low-density territorial urbanised space. The idea of a scattered City-Estonia has been conceived, where settlements are liveable and interconnected with each other and with the outside world. The extent of the daily reality can be perceived differently, characterised by a population constituently concentrated in large urban areas, or having relocated to the outside world. The rural (settlement), denoted as the ‘other’ is becoming an assemblage of unwanted uses, that fall outside of a normative framework created to support the scattered urban landscape. This recent idea is composed and sustained by logistics spaces and data centres, landfills and rare earth metal mines, and, most distressingly, expendable populations forced to commute because of the implementation of placemaking strategies.
These tendencies allow us to assume that the meaning of rural living has changed. Municipalities near regional centres, while previously considered rural, are in fact more than urban. For instance, land use near cities is no longer dominated by feeding the urban population ; – agricultural holdings have diminished and a proportion of rurality is experiencing urban recreational colonization. This has led to a rise in the ambiguities of how one also understands suburbanization (Oja, 2020). Some segments of the rural realm, such as coastal villages and culturally valued landscapes, have been transformed into imaginary respites from a hectic city life. They have been deemed a status; as locations for ostensibly non-capitalist ideals of self-realization, where engaged community experience can still be realized. Yet clearly there are social costs and structural ramifications of this urban-rural divide. How, and to what extent, can regional planning and architecture address rural conditions without succumbing to the promotion of idylls of the rustic, the pastoral, or the wild? What forms and typologies have perpetuated the rural idyll , and what forms and typologies can work with the real rather than the wishful expectations as we move towards rural futures?
The city as hinterland? (The rural as co-constitutive)
There have been discussions to create two zones in Estonia, one in the more developed Harju county which includes the capital Tallinn, and the other constitutes the rest of Estonia. This demarcation would help distinguish the need for EU-funding.What would the city-state of Tallinn do, if there was not this other side of Estonia? My rhetorical question here is – can the rural be regarded as co-constitutive when it exceeds the urban? Can we perceive the city as the hinterland of the countryside? A contemporary fascination for the changing countryside – with experimental robotic farmlands, pipelines and data centres – has gone beyond its antidote for the urbanite anxiety remedied by a rustic-romantic retreat and brings out the rural question, irreducible in the gaze of urban dwellers. If the urbanites dream living environment is being structurally adapted to algorithms’ through technologies and intelligent engineering, then this is mutually constitutive to urban.
Limits of competitiveness
Regional policy in Estonian is propelled by principles of regional innovation and competitiveness , which has led many small towns and rural areas to search for ways to foster local development in a globalised world (Loewen, B, 2018). Given the decreasing importance of agriculture and heavy industry, one strategy supported by EU funding since the early 2000’s (e.g. LEADER) (1), has been the diversification of the rural economy. This has been shown through the implementation of placemaking strategies that have represented material investments in tourism capitalism, destination branding and nature economies. Historically, Estonian identity has been rooted in farming and agriculture, generating positive images of rurality and its landscape. However, the downward spiral of post-socialist shrinkage in Estonian rural areas and small towns shows a deterioration of rural images culminating . today, whereby rural areas and small towns are less associated with agriculture and more with recreation and tourism consumption (Raagmaa, Kõiv, 2013).
While these interactions cultivate the self-marketing of idealised rural life and nature to attract visitors and/or second homeowners, the post-socialist reality of small towns manifests in increasingly negative ascriptions equating rurality with peripherality (Plüschke-Altof, 2017). These settlements in rural centres are fixed, with their deteriorated property and land with low market value (2) – inhabiting half-empty housing in outdated public space. One can argue that the impact of rapid urbanisation and suburbanisation processes within Baltic countries affects rural communities in more pressing ways than the effect of out-migration or low birth-rates at a state level. As a result, Baltics flux internal communities are losing population, jobs and services at a varying pace (depending on their size and location). Smaller communities that are farther away from the capitals are likely to shrink more quickly, than the average settlements. Would this imply that EU-funded place-marketing has been counterproductive in rural areas, as it does not really invest in the needs and desires of who/what? By fostering the discussion of something stigmatized such as the periphery, seen as under-developed, depressed thereby neglecting the fact that this all in all is privilege of the urban centres is indicating uneven development.
I will bring attention to two examples of spatial interventions that are related to urban-rural dialectics of semi-rural regional development and planning issues based on my observations while working with medium scale communities and municipalities (3).