On 29 November 2022, the project “Regional population diversity and social cohesion in the local context” invited eminent experts from science, policy and civil society to discuss social cohesion and sense of belonging as meaningful achievements to counter demographic challenges of depopulation and ageing and prevent their negative social effects. The workshop participants exchanged their views and experiences on local cultural initiatives and regions in transition in two thematic panels:
- Panel I: Local belonging and ties: Festivals, cultural activities, local traditions
- Panel II: Regions in transition: Strategies of creating new local identities and diversifying economic means
Three key takeaways from the rounds of engaging conversations in two panels and the plenary discussion were as follows: (1) capacity building on the ground: local administrations should be open to support local initiatives with long-term funding and to work with new actors in economic, cultural and green transition processes; (2) the more the merrier: inclusion of newcomers and younger people and allowing more perspectives are important to strengthen the sense of belonging at the local level and keep strong local ties; (3) local communities are not alone: regional and wider European networks can help local communities to exchange ideas, experiences and funding opportunities.
Following, the outcomes of the transdisciplinary exchange are presented in more detail:
Local identity and cultural heritage: Representing the community and promoting engagement
- Local identity and cultural heritage are fundamental in keeping local communities vivid and regions attractive for newcomers as well as returnees.
- Top-down approaches to cultural policies that do not pay attention to the specific particularities of a place may alienate local inhabitants since they usually aim to attract tourists. The policies applying general formulas and disregarding the local culture and traditions might end up promoting the commodification of local practices and their performative display. For instance, local festivals and fabricated tourist attractions not initiated or supported by locals might disenfranchise them. Locals don’t feel a sense of belonging to these projects because they don’t feel represented or they’ve got no say in them.
- Bottom-up initiatives to encourage cultural activities and increase the attractiveness of a place can be valuable to unite communities around shared development visions. More locals will feel represented and embrace the cultural activities and initiatives when more people are involved in designing and implementing them. It is equally important that local authorities support local initiatives and participatory processes where local communities can be more involved in cultural policies and decision-making processes.
- Yet, even if a bottom-up initiative or an idea was successful in a place, it doesn’t mean the same initiative or idea will work for another. However, if a community or region comes up with successful examples, their neighbours will be motivated and encouraged to initiate cultural processes. Therefore, the success of cultural actions and policies must be considered in the long-term.
- Local authorities and communities should be open to new ideas and collaborations: Cultural initiatives and activities should include and start a discussion about the local identity and cultural heritage, how to shape and portray them. Local administrations, long-existing associations and actors on the spot should not be afraid of innovative initiatives and new people involved in the cultural sphere to review the priorities and needs of the community. Discussions and conflicts about the local identity and cultural heritage are signs of a vivid community including more perspectives and groups.
- Regarding innovative initiatives and new actors, local administrations and cultural programs should consider and allow newcomers and younger people to be part of local identity and cultural heritage. It is crucial to strengthen the ties between former residents and newcomers and support intergenerational cooperation and exchange to keep the local life dynamic and attractive. Municipalities and regions should develop or maintain social places and socio-cultural structures where locals can meet and exchange: old and abandoned or new cultural centres, libraries, bars, cafes, schools etc. To this end, public authorities and communities can take advantage of available national and European funds to maintain these spaces.
Shaping transformation: green transition, de-industrialization and population change
- Many European regions face population challenges while undertaking social and economic transitions such as green transition and de-industrialization. Cooperation with scientific institutions, regional and international collaboration, strategic planning and innovation are key factors for those regions and communities to achieve the goals of these transition processes.
- New or existing structures and social places to meet and exchange can attract new ideas, visitors and collaborations. In the example of the Klimatorium building in Lemwig, the architecture and a new physical location can draw people in.
- Collaboration of regional and local authorities as well as civil society is an excellent means by which communities can tackle the social, climate and population-related challenges they face while learning from one another. Through interregional and international networks, based on concrete projects, knowledge can be shared and new projects get formed.
- Likewise, the collaboration between administrations, civil society and research can strengthen the innovation capacity of the region. Local authorities, research, technologies centres and communities can benefit from existing European platforms and major transition programs such as European Green Deal.
- It is a difficult but necessary task to support a more recent local identity adapting to the needs of those who don’t have a direct connection to the regional past. Professionals in policy making, education and economy can work together to promote openness, innovation and inclusion which are vital to encourage more people to feel connected to a place and its history. Involving schools and universities and targeting younger and older students can help to achieve these goals. In this way, younger people can play an active role in (re)shaping the common values and interpreting the history and image of the region anew who, for instance, might not be able to identify themselves with or feel represented in the industrial heritage. The regional policies and planning should support participatory mechanisms for them to be part of ongoing discussions and activities.
Cooperation matters: Regions and communities are not alone
- As many cities, European towns and rural areas can also build “cultural twinning”-like relationships and promote closer cultural and social ties, especially if they embrace similar cultural characteristics, values and heritage. Local administrations and communities can spotlight the cultural characteristics and “unique selling points”. The key is to increase the attractiveness for both, locals and visitors. The local profile can be sometimes very specific as the successful case of Gabrovo in Bulgaria known as a centre of satire und humour.
- Local and regional administrations should see the initiatives as long-term investments and develop risk management strategies, including longer-term funding instead of too many short-term and not sustainable projects. Most cultural actions as well as innovative centres impact only in the long run and grow their influence over time although at the end of the project they might not meet the clear-cut outputs and expectations defined from the start. Most inspirational examples have been driven by passionate people with ideas and ambition to make a difference, not to be too restricted by a business plan or strict short-term expectations.
- Act locally, act globally: Encouraging and including residents are key for successful local initiatives. Connecting local ambitions to wider regional and international networks will help communities to share and grow potential and resources.
- More data on the expectations and life quality of younger people: Local policymakers need improved access to recent information about how younger people feel about the cultural activities and public services available in their regions. Neither policymaking nor campaigns and projects can be shaped based on restricted pictures of younger people and insufficient conclusions about their needs and wishes. Surveys and participatory methods are always more effective than considering social media trends and posts.
Bianca Momo Skowron, Industrial Heritage Team, Ruhr Regional Association (RVR)
Blandine Camus, Communication & Policy Officer, European Association of Mountain Areas (Euromontana)
Camila Del Mármol, Associate Professor in Social Anthropology, University of Barcelona
Christina Noble, Qualitative Social Scientist in the Social, Economic and Geographical Sciences Group, James Hutton Institute
Daniela Kretz, Senior Consultant Innovation, Competitiveness & Sustainability, IDEA Consult
Margarita Dorovska, Director, House of Humour and Satire (Gabrovo, Bulgaria)
Sarah Lund, Project Manager, Klimatorium (Lemvig, Sweden)