Rural-Urban Partnerships: An Integrated Approach to Economic Development

Ivan Tosics

By Ivan Tosics, on November 12th, 2013

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Research and publications of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development  (OECD) are usually of high quality. Correspondingly, I had high expectations when arriving to Bologna to participate in the OECD 9th Rural Development Policy Conference  on Rural-Urban partnerships: an integrated approach to economic development.


No doubt, the topic is of high importance. European policies and funds are sharply split between urban and rural areas. Money from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) has to be spent in urban areas while money from the European Rural Development Fund (EAFRD) in rural areas.

A well-known illustration of that is the map of a rural area which has a city in the middle: the area of the city is ’white’ as no EAFRD money can be used there – even if this is the market town of the rural area, from which the future of the villages depend to a large extent.
The European Commission is aware of this split and the proposed regulation for the 2014-2020 programming period include a range of new tools to overcome the problems. The new buzz-word is the integration of the funds – to allow that the different funds finance the same integrated programme. New tools, such as Integrated Territorial Investments (ITI) and Community-Led Local Development (CLLD) have been defined – the latter as transfer of rural know-how into urban areas. Besides all this, the idea of rural-urban partnership (RURBAN) has been raised a few years ago. On the initiative of the European Parliament a research has been carried out by OECD and the Bologna conference was the launching of the final report of this research.


Rural-Urban Partnerships: An Integrated Approach to Economic Development – Presentation of the New OECD Research

In the opening plenary Mr Popens (Deputy Director General of DG Regio) talked about meetings organized every week in the European Commission between the different directorates to create links between urban and rural programmes. Even so, it is still only a hope that the rural development fund will contribute with financing to the joint efforts. Thus he asked the Member States to push for the cooperation between the Managing Authorities of ERDF and the Rural Development Fund.
The OECD report on Rural-Urban partnerships is the result of a two years research project, co-financed by the European Commission and the European Parliament. The starting point is that in order to restore economic growth, which has to be environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive, the growth potentials of every territories have to be tapped. If urban and rural areas link better to each other their growth potentials, also the outcomes will be better. 11 case studies have been completed, of which 9 comprise European areas, one is Australian and one American. The European case studies include Nürnberg, Rennes, Brabantstad, Castelo Branco (Portugal), Prague, Extremadura, Forli-Cesena (Italy), West Pomerania (Poland) and Central Finland.

As Yves Leterne (OECD) emphasized, the governance of rural-urban linkages, including the level of formality, can be very different, according to local circumstances. There is no place here to go into the details of the individual cases – of which some seem to be innovative approaches to overcome the urban-rural divide. Just for illustration: Rennes is before creating a directly elected metropolitan council, in which the core city is ready to accept much lower voting power than it would get proportionally, on the basis of population numbers. This kind of generousity, and the visionary views of the political leaders can create good basis for cooperation across territorial boundaries. This is, however, not at all the situation in all case study areas.

In the closing panel Ms Vitcheva (DG Regio) highlighted functional areas as the best way to tackle territorial challenges. Data collection, evidence base has to be created on the correct territorial level. The exchange of good practices will become even more important, this is what URBACT and UDN is aiming for. „I am hoping that urban and rural will work better together in this programming period” – she said.
According to Mr Cropper (DG Agri) urban-rural is a network issue in which all partners have to fit their role (even if some are much larger than the others). All such discussions have to include explicitly agriculture, as well. Mr Martins (OECD) considered RURBAN as a policy tool what OECD has to use in the future in policy analysis, similarly to the well-being indicators, land use, tradeable sectors, renewable energy.


How can the rural areas relate to areas under direct or indirect urban influence? 

For me, having been interested since long in functional urban areas around cities, the main question was, how the surrounding rural areas could be related to the areas under direct or indirect urban influence? The case studies have shown that RURBAN areas are much broader territories than metropolitan areas. For example in the case of Rennes the administrative area of the city and the area of Rennes Metropole (formal intermunicipal structure) are much smaller than the RURBAN area. It is a difficult question what kind of planning framework and governance mechanism would be needed on the broad territory of RURBAN?

No clear answers were given to these questions during the conference, only some hints. National signals, political directions are needed to awake cooperation between the rural and urban partners which would otherwise not cooperate. The RURBAN governance must be different, staying only on strategic and visionary level, allowing for municipalities to go in and out of the partnership. If flexibiity is assured, the loose cooperation forms will become attractive for a wide range of settlements.


RURBAN is a weak attempt to mask the fact that there is in reality no cooperation between European Regional Development Funds and European Agricultural Funds for Rural Development

All in all, for me the RURBAN approach is not convincing. I think RURBAN is a weak attempt to mask the fact that there is in reality no cooperation between ERDF and EAFRD. The new tools of ITI and CLLD will probably initiate some integrated planning, but only within the metropolitan areas, not having large effect on the surrounding rural areas. The separated use of the two funds will probably continue and RURBAN will only be lip service about the importance of rural-urban cooperation, without overarching effect.


To sum up: this was a high-level conference which raised some interesting ideas, but I was not convinced by the answers and by the form of the conference, which did not allow enough exchange between high ranking officials and all the experts present.


By Iván Tosics, Expert

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