44% of the global population live in rural areas, which amounts to 3.43 billion people. And yet rural planning is not as much in the spotlight of citizen engagement policies and research as urban areas, despite rural inhabitants being affected by the climate crisis, socioeconomic challenges, and digital transformations.
Proper rural planning that takes into account the needs of local communities will help mitigate the challenges and ensure equitable transitions. But how do you engage rural communities in planning?
Below, we’ll discuss the need for citizen engagement in rural areas, as well as the challenges of engaging rural communities and how to overcome them. You’ll also find multiple ideas and examples of civic engagement projects.
Why Citizen Engagement in Rural Areas?
Although citizen engagement is often arranged by planners in urban areas, it is essential to engage rural communities in planning and decision-making as well. For example, transportation planning, rural tourism, and resource management projects rely more and more on public participation, but the application of citizen participation in rural areas is much wider.
Although there are several challenges specific to rural areas (like anonymity concerns and distances discussed below), the crucial aim of public participation is the same — to give the local population a channel to voice their ideas and experiences and use this data in rural planning. Citizen engagement activities, especially when done early in the project timeline, increase awareness about acute problems and how planning can mitigate them.
The information that planners and policymakers can gather from rural communities can well complement other datasets that are used in the process. While datasets like population density or transportation routes don’t convey human experiences, citizen engagement data helps you gather exactly this “soft data” about certain places, namely how locals feel, what they value, and what they want to change in their local environments.
Challenges of Citizen Engagement in Rural Planning (and How to Overcome Them)
As mentioned, there are several challenges of engaging rural communities that planners should take into account when setting up a community engagement plan.
Due to the vast distances between housing units, facilities, or settlements, it is hard to arrange in-person events. Locals simply don’t have enough time and/or motivation to travel somewhere to attend a community meeting.
Digital asynchronous citizen engagement with surveys and informative webpages can help overcome these problems.
Bad internet connectivity
Although it’s not an issue in some countries due to the rapid development of coverage, it is still a challenge in most rural areas.
In this case, digital tools should be as lightweight as possible (although complicated metaverses won’t work, compact mobile surveys still can be accessed with minimal connectivity).
It’s also advised to provide analog alternatives for data collection. For example, the municipality of Jalisco combined Maptionnaire’s digital surveys with in-person interviews.
In sparsely populated areas, it is easier to identify a person based on their home location, sociodemographic data, or certain answers given in surveys. That’s why rural communities might have concerns about their anonymity, especially if the engagement results will be published as open data.
This issue requires a lot of attention in the survey design: do you really need to ask respondents to mark their home location or precise commute routes? If yes, make sure you anonymize the resulting data when sharing it. Also, the tools you’re using must comply with data protection legislation (for example, Maptionnaire surveys are GDPR-compliant).
Places without a physical address
A city is defined by a network of streets and squares that make it easy to locate a place. In rural areas, however, it is harder to pinpoint a location by using the address only, while some remote areas might even lack a traditional address. This makes it difficult for planners and survey respondents to communicate about specific areas.
Use map-based citizen engagement tools that help planners and residents mark a precise location, even if it lacks an address or a name. In Maptionnaire, respondents can mark points, lines, and polygons as an answer in a digital map-based survey. What’s more, you can bring various background maps — including satellite maps or your own map layers — that will help respondents to recognize and mark places on a digital map. All of these answers are available as GIS data, simplifying the subsequent data analysis.
Accessibility & digital divide
While digital tools are by far superior to in-person engagement in rural settings, not everyone has the means and devices to access online surveys and pages.
Provide alternative ways of participating or assistance for those who need it. For example, arrange time slots in public places (at a library or town hall) to help those who want to participate with assistance.
This blog post is based on guidelines developed by the RUSTIK project that enables rural communities and policymakers to design better actions for accelerating sustainability transitions. This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon Europe research and innovation programme under grant agreement No GA 101061051. The work developed under this project is also supported by Innovate UK through the Horizon Europe Guarantee scheme. Follow RUSTIK and Maptionnaire on LinkedIn for more insights into engaging rural communities in climate mitigation and planning projects.
Spatial Community Engagement Tools for Rural Areas
Especially in rural areas, citizen engagement activities should be spatial (that is, map-based) — it helps locals to pinpoint specific places and convey information about them. Planners, on the other hand, will receive all these responses as an extensive GIS dataset with attribute information about spaces and respondents. Planners are able to integrate this data into their work in a few clicks.
What these participatory GIS datasets can look like? The collected locations can be fixed or static, or illustrate flows and mobility patterns. The information collected on a map has also a temporal character: it can be related to the current situation, to the future, or to the past. What’s more, each location comes with attribute data – the quality of space, the frequency of use, a development suggestion – as well as socio-demographic data about the respondent. It all depends on the project goals and the survey design.
What’s more, it’s proven that digital engagement brings the voices of a larger audience and produces more representative data as compared to in-person meetings. Not that face-to-face meetings are to be abolished — they are effective for in-depth conversations and helping non-tech-savvy respondents. But these face-to-face forms of engagement should complement more efficient and large-scale activities set up through a digital citizen engagement platform.
The types of citizen engagement data obtained for rural planning:
- Activities in the rural area: which places, routes, and areas people use in their everyday life;
- Opinions and values about the living environment: how the locals and stakeholders perceive the existing places, routes, and areas;
- Memories and experiences connected to these places, routes, and areas;
- New ideas and suggestions: how to make the area more welcoming, sustainable, or citizen-friendly;
- Routes and mobility patterns: for example, why they use or don’t use public transport routes;
- Feedback on plans and drafts, organization of public hearings: whether locals approve of the suggested plans and how they want to modify them.
Maptionnaire is a GIS-based citizen engagement platform with which you can obtain participation data mentioned above. Planners from over 40 countries value it for the soft data collected directly from people (be it residents, stakeholders, or focus groups) that complements the hard data traditionally used in planning and decision-making.
Examples of Citizen Engagement in Rural Areas
Citizen engagement can and should be a part of multiple development projects in rural areas to ensure that locals are involved in the mitigation of climate change and socio-demographic challenges. Here are a few examples of how rural community engagement can be organized.
Accessibility of health and recreational services
Due to vast distances and longer commutes, the rural population might not enjoy the level of accessibility of health and recreational services that city dwellers have. It has dramatic effects on the health and well-being of rural residents (here is related data for the US context), although it can be mitigated by smart and citizen-centric planners.
Locals can identify important sights that benefit their well-being and health and how accessible these places are. Planners can then evaluate whether more recreational and health facilities are needed or, on the contrary, they should increase local awareness about existing opportunities.
This was the case of a Danish national health and mobility survey, where Maptionnaire has been used to evaluate which fitness facilities are known and in use by locals. Based on the data, the research group created recommendations for each municipality to alleviate disparities and promote equal access to well-being and health.
Transportation and mobility planning
The car has traditionally been the most common mode of transport in rural areas. However, the global goal is to accelerate the choice of more sustainable mobility options, such as public transport, cycling, and carpooling.
Rural planners require experience-based data about how rural communities currently move and why cars are preferred. This information will help planners nudge rural dwellers in the right direction.
For example, using Maptionnaire map-based platform, Luxplan surveyed mobility preferences in a predominantly rural municipality in Luxemburg and came up with a proposal for expanding a public transportation network, alongside other solutions. Ariane from Luxplan discusses this case in more detail in our joint webinar on sustainable transportation planning — you can watch a recording here.
Climate change mitigation and adaptation
Climate change poses many hazards to rural areas, and these vulnerabilities need to be studied more in detail — also how they affect the local population. Engaging rural communities in planning and solution ideation helps specialists to understand which areas and groups are especially vulnerable and how they can be helped.
At the same time, rural dwellers are the ones who often carry the burden of the climate change solution, like onshore wind farms. With a map-based citizen engagement platform, locals can point out the possible places of turbine sittings. Also, they can map the areas they use for various recreational and cultural activities or consider important in any other way.
Planners are not necessarily aware of these spaces — and why they are of such a high value for residents. But equipped with these local insights, planners can consider them in their planning projects and come up with mutually beneficial solutions. You can read more about a similar project about siting of wind turbines in Switzerland.
Cultural heritage and protected sights management
Public participation is also common for understanding the social and cultural values of protected landscapes and sights. For example, a project on studying the values attached to Green Belts in England used Maptionnaire for surveying local dwellers. Researchers managed to collect information about how and why people use Green Belt, revealing that this area is far more than a protective measure against urban sprawl, and the policies on Green Belts should be revised to reflect its multi-functional status.
Agriculture and farming, hazard mitigation, and natural resource management
Participation methods are also used for engaging rural businesses and farmers in collecting information on natural resources and addressing ecological challenges. Stakeholders can partake in data collection before the hazard takes place or in a post-study, evaluating the extent and impact of the hazards, as well as suggesting how the impact can be mitigated.
For example, the Natural Institute of Agriculture Botany used Maptionnaire to collect data on crop damage directly from more than a thousand farmers. In an online survey, farmers could mark where they experience crop damage due to the beetle and how they tackle it. The institute received invaluable data on the geographic spread and intensity of the damage, as well as agronomic practices used to fight the disease.
In a somewhat similar manner, fishers from the Kainuu region in Finland marked places of fish spawning to ensure better ecosystem management. Altogether, crowdsourcing provides real-time data and experiences related to agriculture, fishing, and resource management that enables researchers and policymakers to design relevant solutions.
Summary: Citizen Engagement in Rural Areas
- Engaging the local population in rural planning is essential due to the specific challenges they endure (depopulation, aging population, health problems, climate change, car-dependency, and so on).
- Digital map-based engagement tools like Maptionnaire are especially relevant in the rural context as they help overcome vast distances, protect anonymity, and gather precise locations. To assist those who need help (due to accessibility issues or bad connectivity), digital engagement tools can be supplemented by in-person meetings.
- Rural community engagement is practiced in land use planning, energy and climate mitigation projects, health and well-being studies, transportation planning, and cultural heritage and natural resource management.