The theme is highly transversal because the urban/rural relationship has, as we know and shall see below, a huge environmental and social value and is totally dependent on the power relations (urban-rural, northern-southern classes, articulation of the economic power groups) and on the pattern of production and consumption.
Moreover, the theme also brings into play urban planning, life styles, the relation between humankind and nature, etc.
A. City vs. countryside. The causes.
The phenomenon behind the choice of this theme is the growing share of the world population that lives in cities (more than 50%, and 200,000 people leaving the countryside every day) and the serious problems of suburban areas and the world of the farmer.
The causes of this phenomenon are socio-economic, ecological and cultural:
1. Socio-economic because farm work is poorly remunerated, and in the city one hopes to find more opportunities to escape poverty and more possibilities to find a “social elevator”.
2. Ecological because climate changes (with their change of seasonal cycles, of migration of animal and plant species, of accentuated extreme events like drought and desertification on the one hand, and floods and landslides on the other) cause loss of fertile soil and growing numbers of environmental refugees increasing the temporary or permanent migratory flow within each country and between countries.
Climate changes combine with a situation that is already compromised by deforestation, habitat destruction, pollution, impoverishment of the soil due to chemical and mechanization, use of land for infrastructures, housing, entertainment areas (e. g golf courses), etc.. On the other hand, the farming sector is itself responsible for the pollution of food, water and soil and a significant proportion of CO2 emissions (as Rachel Carson taught us 50 years ago in Silent Spring).
3. Cultural because the city also offers more stimuli and opportunities at the cultural level and the farming condition is perceived as an inferior status. The “profession” of farmer (or shepherd or forestry worker) does not enjoy great prestige in the eyes of “citizens” and therefore of the dominant culture (and not only today, but also in distant times in the past).
B. The consequences
Most large towns and cities are concentrated in developing and emerging countries, although the percentage of urban population reaches the highest peaks in continents like Europe.
This urbanization and sub-urbanization translates into congestion of urban areas, where violence and pollution are growing, and there is an increase in commuting between home and city as a place of work, consumption or cultural opportunities (the masses of the so-called “city users”). For those who are more fortunate, urban sprawl as an “American” model of a global phenomenon that has also been expanding across the various continents is a way to find in the distant suburbs and satellite-cities a home that costs less, a quieter life, or better environmental conditions, perhaps in the illusion of being closer to nature.
For masses of hundreds of millions of poor people, urban drift means crowding favelas, shanty towns, villages characterized by a lack of services of any kind, violence, degradation, crime, poor living conditions (in 2010 there were 827.6 million inhabitants of the slums, an increase of 55 million since 2000 - UN-HABITAT, 2010).
In the rural areas we are seeing an aging population due to the lack of a generational change in farming (young people prefer to migrate within the country or abroad), a decrease in the rural population that parallels an increase in urban depopulation or even abandonment of villages.
Often this neglect contributes to soil degradation, with less care of the forests, the rivers and streams, the terraces, etc...
C. The great challenges
The question of the relationship between urbanized areas, rural areas and natural areas should be differentiated in partially different terms in various parts of the planet, but it is nevertheless a central issue since the three great challenges facing humanity today are:
These three challenges are won or lost both in and outside of the city and the rural world is called on to make a strong commitment. However, it cannot cope with this without clear, overall policies capable of grasping the interconnections between all the aspects and the need for an integrated approach.
The urgency is to:
- stop (and reverse if possible) the exodus from the countryside, by attaching value and quality of life to the condition of the farmer struggling against the poverty of the rural populations, protecting the countryside and stopping the consumption of the land;
- improve the quality of life and the sustainability of cities.
The solutions are primarily achieved through:
1. a rethinking and radical transformation of cities: the environmental response is “density” instead of sprawl; development of social capital and participation; good public services that make cities “sustainable”; development of farming activities in cities as well (urban and peri-urban gardens as a form of partial alimentary self-sufficiency, and the participation and reappropriation of the spaces);
2. a profound change in the use of the territory and in the organization of the food system (where “food system” means the entire chain of production, processing, distribution and consumption of food and the whole complex network of relations that food activates at all levels - ecological, social, cultural and economic);
3. the development of an “agro-ecology”, i.e. an agro- food system that respects the limits and balances of the planet;
4. a different and stricter system of relations between urban and extra-urban areas. There are, for example, various forms in which urban and rural areas relate to each other, such as regarding food or tourism.
D. The “educational” response
The educational-environmental response is:
1. On the ecological level:
promoting “sustainable” cities;
promoting agro-ecology and the preservation of biodiversity, of "genetic rights," of the forests and the wetlands, etc.;
Improving the security and resilience of populations in the face of climate change, natural disasters, hydro-geological instability, etc.
2. On the socio-economic level:
promoting sustainable patterns of consumption and consumer-producer networks that improve the material conditions of rural populations;
encouraging, where possible, the multi-functionality of farms (which can also be Bed and Breakfasts; structures for farm holidays, farm camping, farm nursery schools, farm retirement homes for the elderly, social farms for disadvantaged people, sport farms, “nature” wellness centers, etc..).
3. On the cultural level:
enhancing local, traditional, and indigenous knowledge and cultural diversity;
enhancing the culture and social image of rural populations;
promoting fair, supportive and cooperative relations among urban and rural populations;
enhancing the role of women and always keeping in mind the questions of gender.
E. The tools of Education
1. Promotion of sustainable lifestyles in the cities.
2. Empowerment and capacity building of urban populations to increase participation, “urban creativity”, “green” economic activities and cooperation.
3. Use of food as a factor of urban social aggregation (thanks to food, networks of citizens, for example, can be formed to purchase products directly from farmers, bypassing the long chains of intermediaries; groups of citizens who care for urban and peri-urban gardens; communities that are committed to their consumption and reflect on their lifestyles) and urban-rural connection (remember that without natural processes we cannot live; remember "who" produces the food we eat) both in terms of social practices and economic relations, and thought patterns and cultural values.
4. Greater awareness of the relationship between environment and health and the importance of healthy nutrition resulting from correct lifestyles and sustainable agricultural and agro-industrial practices.
5. Making decision makers and public opinion more sensitive to the importance of the landscape, of stopping soil consumption, of protecting the territory, of the functions performed by rural populations for the benefit of all.
6. For rural communities, education means:
• knowing how to better defend their identity and increase their sense of self-esteem;
• knowing how to revive traditional techniques and practices for collecting and storing water, for crops and livestock, and for the care of forests;
• knowing how to defend or revitalize practices of community management of resources (pastures, forests, water, ..);
• increasing the capacity of developing eco-friendly farming practices, of establishing direct relations with the markets and with citizens who are more responsible and sensitive, of making a “local system” by strengthening the capacity of synergies and integration between the various social-economic-cultural activities of the rural territory;
• Increasing the capacity of developing eco-compatible farming practices, of establishing direct relations with the markets and with more responsible and sensitive citizens, of “local network building” by strengthening the capacity of synergies and integration between the various social-economic-cultural activities of the rural territory;
• learning how to maximize the use of organic methods of cultivation and raising livestock that is also respectful of animal welfare, as well as the environment;
• defending one’s own health and the environment by avoiding harmful agricultural practices;
• developing new professional figures and new skills; accompanying existing ones in the transition to a green economy; ensuring new job opportunities to those figures destined to disappear because they are not compatible with the environment;
• promoting gender equality and merging environmentally-compatible objectives with developmental objectives of the new millennium;
• developing the ability to use and produce energy from renewable sources;
• developing the ability to diversify the functions of farms;
• enhancing the ability to attract tourism in “sustainable” ways;
• developing the ability to participate in the political life of one’s own territory.
F. A wide range of interlocutors
The theme lends itself to engaging new subjects in the WEEC (e.g. NGOs of international cooperation, agricultural organizations, farming movements, movements of critical and responsible food consumption like, various fair trade and critical consumption networks, etc.), new disciplinary fields and new institutions.
Mario Salomone, WEEC secretary-general.