Could Covid-19 save our rural communities?

Since its emergence at the start of the year, it has been striking to see how Covid-19 has caused city dwellers across Europe to head for the hills (and coastlines). Whether for a short visit or a lifetime of fresh air, the renewed interest in rural life could spark a long-term transformation of rural communities across Europe. Here’s why…

On the 7th March this year, 16 million people in northern Italy -among them over 3 million inhabitants of Milan found themselves living in designated ‘red zones’, as Europe’s first lockdown measures were imposed. The first reaction of thousands of Milanese was to be repeated as more and more cities across Europe were placed under lockdown: they packed their bags and rapidly headed out of town, to de-camp to second homes, friends and family throughout the country’s coast and countryside.

As nationwide lockdowns have been successively lifted since May, the pattern has been repeated on numerous occasions; our need for fresh air and open space has sparked our desire to reconnect with our rural areas; whether for a few days or even as part of a longer-term lifestyle change (in Germany for example, interest in rural property is soaring). Today, more nearly 40% of Europe’s population lives in cities (see chart below), however this trend appears to be changing.

Source: Eurostat 

Escaping the big city: an accelerated trend

Of course, we must recognise that the massive rise in remote working, greater concentration on physical and mental wellbeing and the steep rise in the urban cost of living were already driving people out of cities and towards suburbs and smaller towns. Now, Covid-19 has accelerated this movement in an unprecedented way. Partly in response to this, the World Tourism Organization has even designated this year’s World Tourism Day (this coming weekend, on 27th September) to focus on tourism and rural development.

Yet the process of creating sustainable economic development through attracting short and long term visitors to rural areas is a complex one. In recent years we’ve brought our expertise not just to Europe’s cities but to some of its most remote and beautiful areas too: our destination strategy for Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, the Tay Cities Regional Tourism Strategy, the Scotland Outlook 2030 Strategy and most recently, the revival of Vamvakou, a place making project supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. These are all good examples of our sensitive, integrated approach to building relationships in rural communities in order to develop a strategy for long-term economic development.

How to help rural communities thrive

Our experience from each of these unique projects has taught us five broad lessons that can help rural areas thrive in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis:
  • Just as in cities, tourism must be considered as an activity with costs and benefits that must be firmly integrated into a holistic agenda for social and economic development. That’s how we approached our project in Vamvakou, a small village in the Pelopponese, Greece. Throughout this year’s strategy sprint in the village, we recognised that visitors weren’t the immediate answer; first, the village infrastructure and community needed to be on board and be prepared to develop tourism as part of a wider series of actions to boost the village and region’s economy.
  • Again, just as in cities, rural areas can only thrive if residents come first. To start the process of rural placemaking, it’s important to create momentum first through engaging residents in an innovative community sentiment consultation, just as we did. To do this, we’ve used innovative consultation methods such as deliberative polls, stakeholder focus groups and design thinking sessions, consensus conferences and resident feedback panels. From start to finish, just as with all our projects, we also made sure our partners in Aberdeenshire, Tay Cities and Vamvakou were able to use upon a wide range of data  (such as site audits & visitor journey mapping and resident sentiment research) that would enhance their decision making and help them to address local disagreements if any arose.
  • As we observed when working in areas such as the Tay Cities Region, where local residents may see political boundaries between destinations, visitors usually don’t. When looking at a Google Map or an Instagram Post, they see a whole area that they’re curious about and want to explore, but may need help in understanding and exploring. Therefore, strong local partnerships between government, businesses and residents, and between communities are critical to creating and maintaining a coherent and impactful place brand, and to keep visitors touring the area rather than heading off elsewhere. We also recognise that every place, no matter how small it is, has a unique story to tell and build its brand around it.
  • The basics really do matter; good internet connections, basic public transport and digital wayfinding support are all practical ways to make rural living and touring a viable proposition. This is the thinking that has inspired the Slow Ways initiative which was launched in the UK by this year to connect the country’s towns and cities with more than 100,000km of walking routes.
  • Fresh thinking is needed to show that slower living equals better living. Stemming the steady stream of rural depopulation in favour of large urban areas is one of the less-talked about but major challenges facing the EU today, if the whole region is to avoid more ‘youth deserts’. To address this issue Spain even appointed a ‘demography minister’ earlier this year. Yet throughout the Covid-19 epidemic people of all ages have shown their ability to work remotely, and their desire to enjoy a better, more affordable quality of life than cities offer. To address this underlying trend will require fresh thinking, with villages and regions moving to offer remote ‘workations’, offer attractive terms for newcomers to reclaim, rent and restore buildings, and to find innovative solutions to shared transport and work spaces.

What TOPOSOPHY can do for you

We have been global thought leaders in destination development, management and marketing for the last 10 years. We transform places and destinations through the skills and international experience of 12 members of staff and a global network of 20+ experts. In total, we have undertaken projects and offered integrated solutions to trusted clients in 20+ countries across 4 continents. We’re ready to support you too.

Some of our services include:

  • Destination performance assessments
  • Destination management strategies & action plans
  • Place audits and experience design
  • Place making & branding strategies
  • Resident & consumer sentiment research
  • Research on key geo-demographic markets
  • COVID-19 response strategies
  • DMO assesments and organisational change
  • Stakeholder mapping
  • Community consultation
  • Advocacy planning and communications
  • Trendwatching, scenario planning, C-Suite briefing
  • Recovery Marketing
  • Insights presentations, strategy sprints & innovation workshops
Contact us

If you’d like to know more about what we’ve presented here, you’re always welcome to get in contact with us. Just drop us a line at or send us a note through our contact page.

Design thinking & strategy sprint methodologies for rural destinations and small communities





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