Youth is breaking the myth of Danish rural territories

Reportatge originalment publicat a Blog Aarhus Universitet

A clear blue sky rarely frames the day-to-day life in Skive, a small Danish town in the west of Jutland. Emilie Louise De la Rosa Andersen, a young psychology student in Aarhus, has lived most of her life in a housing cooperative on the outskirts of this municipality. Despite having one of the rainiest climates in the country, she does not hesitate to evoke her birthplace with these terms: “comfortable”, “cozy”, “hyggelig”. She has a clear idea that she wants to go back. “Living there is definitely better, you almost know everyone. People are much more friendly”, explains.

The municipality of Skive was created in 2007 with the Midtjylland region, as part of a territorial reform to curb the depopulation of rural Denmark. As in almost the entire Europe, the urbanization of society is a clear demographic trend in the Scandinavian country. “It clearly indicates that the rural and peripheral areas have lost inhabitants over the past decades”, points Helle Nørgaard, from the Danish Building Research Institute, in her research Futures of rural and peripheral areas. “The industrial and manufacturing jobs, and the agricultural sector, which have traditionally been in rural areas, have been reduced dramatically in recent years”.

“The population of rural areas has stabilized in the last five years”

– Helle Nørgaard, researcher at SBi in Aalborg University

However, this demographic trend in concentration of people in large cities is beginning to reverse. If we focus on Denmark, it can be seen how, for the past five years, the percentage of rural population -12%- and the percentage of urban population -88%- has not changed, and the predictions go the same way. “In Denmark, regional policies have changed the direction and focus over the past 10 to 15 yeas, which have impacted on regional development patterns”, concludes Nørgaard.https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/REvQG/1/

According to Thomas Vestmark Larsen, born on a farm on the outskirts of Hjørring, it is “normal” that this is happening. From their point of view, young people have begun to value the lifestyle away from the stress of big cities. “For example, my hometown is a lot more peaceful and quiet. I knew almost all the people, and we had social gatherings in the neighborhood”, stands out. “Here [in Aarhus] you feel that you don’t want to be outside. There are a million things to do, but you don’t want to do them. It’s contradictory, but I feel more disconnected, here”.

Emilie agrees. Yet she points out that it is the cosmopolitan values that do not convince her about urban areas. “I don’t like the way a child grows up in a big city, is not what I want for my future family. The American way of living is so implemented, the competition is fierce, you have to wear the most stylish clothes to be someone”.

The ‘rotten banana’: a real concept?

Both Hjørring and Skive are part of western Denmark, the rural area known as the ‘rotten banana’ (rådne banan). This concept was coined by the media during the 2008 economic crisis. Nevertheless, the stigmatizing social imaginary began in the 90s, when the journalist Ulrik Høy evoked ‘Peripheral Denmark’ (Udkantsdanmark) as a picturesque and isolated place, where the young were moving out, factories and shops were shutting down, farms were facing closure, and public services were dwindling.

This was the reaction to the decade when Denmark was experiencing the economic decline and the impact of welfare cutbacks of conservative government policies. Similarly, in 2008, when the economic downturn affected the country, the public opinion began to talk more widely about the less industrial parts of the country in pejorative adjectives. But, overall, what’s left of all this, if we look at the data?

“The rotten banana is a myth. It is impossible to create a shape or a pattern”

– Rolf Lyneborg, researcher at University of Aalborg

Focusing on numbers, in 2018 the sociologist Rolf Lyneborg Lund from Aalborg University developed a software that could cluster geographical data together, and found out that the so-called rotten banana doesn’t exist: there are large areas in both Aarhus and Copenhagen that are among the poorest in the whole country. “The reason why the term appeared was a general misunderstanding of how to measure the local development. If one examines the geographical data closely, it becomes clear that the overall deprivation is dispersed way too much to talk about actual shapes”, assesses Rolf Lyneborg. “And this happened in the 90s, as well”.

Rural stereotypes: The stigma and the youth

When asked about how to combat this stigma, Rolf Lyneborg points out that “the first overall way to fight against this negative public view of rural areas is in changing the way we portray them”. In addition, he explains that “there are actually a lot of healthy things going on there, both on business development and cultural activities”. The Rural Support Act, for example, is an initiative of government funding that aims to help rural development. “It supports the local repopulation and different projects against stigmatization”.

Regarding stereotypes, Martin Als, an IT design student from Farsø, a tiny village in the north-west of Jutland, agrees. “We have always been seen as young people from the rotten areas of Denmark, because we came to study in Aarhus or Copenhagen”, points out. So, it is not only the romanticization of nature that pushes him to consider a life in rural areas, but also the fact that “it has been shown that there are no rich urban areas and ‘the rest’; there are also opportunities elsewhere”.

The difficulties and advantages of rural repopulation

The sense of community, the bonds, and the grassroots affectivity. Martin Als highlights personal relationships and the sense of belonging as the fundamental pillars of non-urban areas. “You know your neighbor, the shop owner, your classmates. These are people you can access if you have problems, if you need something”, explains. And Thomas Vestmark agrees. “All my family and most of my friends are up there [in the north of Jutland]. This is an important thing for me, to build up an affection network. I really value being part of something bigger”.

Emilie Louise de la Rosa, in her opinion, points to social and environmental awareness as two reasons for rejecting urban life. “In the midst of a global pandemic framed in a climate crisis, living in the countryside is a pursuit of well-being. In addition, we are on the verge of an unprecedented economic and social crisis”, she says. And, although Denmark will not be the country most affected for it, “looking for peripheral spaces is also mental health”. And the wave of centralization has generally meant an overheating of the centers of the main cities, which are, also, “much more polluted”.

“This is an important thing for me, to build up an affection network”

– Thomas Vestmark, chemistry student

But it’s not just lifestyle and political choices when it comes to well-being, what drives young people to feel drawn back to non-urban areas. According to Emilie, she knows she will live “wherever I get a job”. At least until she decides to create a family. And that’s because one of the main reasons to live in big cities are the labor options. All of them have studied University degrees in fields that are difficult to find work in small and sparsely populated places. Martin Als, for his part, has studied IT, and this conditions him a lot when it comes to seeing him living in a village or returning to his hometown, Farsø.

Klitmøller, a village on the Denmark’s west coast. Marc Najera.

However, technological development and the digitization of rural areas are opening new doors to the non-traditional labor market. It has enabled new forms of business, and many feared decentralized employment opportunities. “It can shift the familiar boundaries between countryside and city. We are facing a technological break”, explains the chairman of the Rural Joint Council (Landdistrikternes Fællesråd), Steffen Damsgaard, in an article regarding digitization. The Danish rural municipalities have a completely unique opportunity to take advantage of the fact that they “can offer offices with sea views at a fraction of the price that can be found in the big cities”.

“The youth does not give the same importance to the ‘American dream’ as previous generations”

– Emilie Louise de la Rosa, psychology student

This is precisely the other trigger for the preference for non-urban areas. The price of housing and life in general in big cities is driving out young people who don’t see their life expectations realized. “I think it is easier for the people to build a proper house outside Aarhus or Copenhagen, because you cannot afford that or because you don’t have enough space in the city center”, explains Emilie Louise.

Nevertheless, she explains that youth does not give the same importance to the ‘American dream’ as previous generations have given to it. “It is perhaps for this reason that people no longer see the city as an area in which to enrich themselves and ascend socially. It is no longer the well of opportunities that our parents or grandparents conceived”.

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