Wageningen University & Research has worked with the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality to describe eight important lessons for comprehensive spatial development in an article titled ‘Vital futures with knowledge and research.’ The article points to practical opportunities for tackling the research questions that arise as part of attempts to future-proof rural areas.
An example of a practical opportunity
On the island of Schouwen-Duiveland in the province of Zeeland, there is concern about the future viability of agriculture because the sector is entirely dependent on rainwater and some areas are experiencing salinisation. On the high sandy plains of the Achterhoek and Twente regions, people are worried about low groundwater levels caused by drought, which is causing problems for farmers and environmental organisations alike. In the hills of South Limburg, erosion caused by rainfall is a problem for farmers, water boards and environmental organisations.
These are all problems that need to be solved and that have a lot in common. It’s all to do with fresh water or a lack of it. One of the lessons here is: speak to people in other areas, and learn from each other. In general, that isn't happening much yet.
In the Twente region, the researchers started working on a regional knowledge agenda. The idea was to collate the questions on agriculture and nature posed by local leaders and organisations in the area.
This became a list of questions that you couldn’t really make any headway with. Why was that? Little thought had been given in the region to producing a vision of the future that all those questions could contribute to. The lesson learned here is: start by working together on a future vision of a region, and then use that to work on the research questions.
Issues affecting rural areas in the Netherlands
Lots of new developments are having an impact on rural areas in the Netherlands, and these bring other issues with them. This is relevant to topics such as water safety, the climate, biodiversity, the circular economy, revenue models for farmers, quality of life and sustainable energy provision. And then there’s still the question: how are you supposed to tackle these issues anyway? Because lots of other issues will quickly come up too, and then it turns out there isn’t always enough expertise at hand.
Governments and civil society groups will all have their own ideas and responsibilities, which makes it tricky to reach a consensus on a targeted approach. Connecting research, enterprise and government policy also opens up a host of challenges. All of this makes it very complicated to stimulate rural development and tackle the issues mentioned above.
Nobody can solve challenges on their own
The Inter-administrative Programme on Vital Rural Development (IBP-VP) brings together a number of different governments and civil society groups to work together on future-proofing 15 rural areas of the Netherlands. They’re doing this through an area-focused approach and regional collaboration, acknowledging that no single group can solve the challenges described above on their own.
Researchers from Wageningen University & Research participated in some of these areas to provide support in tackling the research questions. Taking a hands-on research approach ('learning by doing') they worked together to identify groups in the area that might be able to help with formulating and tackling research questions. The basic principle was to work together on a research question and to help the areas with formulating an approach to tackle it.