It is not the survival of cities at stake, but the survival of rural areas

As cities capture parts of the power previously granted for nation states only, concerns about rural futures in the urban age have started to emerge. The role of rural areas is one of the most pressing issues for sustainable and democratic urban futures.

Currently, 55% of world population lives in cities. By 2050, the proportion of global urban population will rise to almost 70%.

There are many signs showing that cities are beginning to be more self-confident and see themselves as relevant players even in world politics.

When studying world migration flows, we can see that people actually migrate between cities and metropolitan regions rather than countries. City leaders and mayors have in various contexts, such as environmental, immigration and social and health care policies, started to question national policies with which they have conflicting interests. The growing power of cities and even neo-medieval city-states have been research topics in political science for years.

The increasingly prominent role of cities in the global arena is a sign of the transformation of political power.

Traditionally, the power of sovereign nation states has been linked to governance of territories and massive material resources. Digitalisation and the approaching climate catastrophe have created new restrictions and possibilities for getting and using power. This change means that new actors such as companies, citizens’ movements, and cities capture parts of the power previously granted for nation states only.

One effect of city growth is that smaller towns and rural areas are getting emptier and their population is getting older. The opposite trends in urban and rural areas lead to diverging problems and needs. For security futures, it seems that the role of rural areas is now one of the most pressing issues.

Securitising threats to ‘places left behind’

Demos Helsinki conducted a research project in 2018 to study relative changes in the political power of cities through securitisation theory. Our hypothesis was that if threats to cities are securitised, it can be taken as an indication of the growing political power of cities.

Cities and rural areas are, in this context, broadly defined. They are primarily understood as political entities and studied from the point of view of changes in their relative power positions.

Securitisation theory provides tools for studying different entities as referent objects of security. Actions or decisions securing the survival of the referent object are publicly accepted as emergency measures, and hence, prioritised over other actions or decisions. This is called securitisation.

We are currently witnessing a public discussion and an emerging literature on ‘places left behind’.

Typically, we want to protect and secure the things that matter the most to us. Through securitisation theory, we are able to see which entities are considered the most important ones.

The results of the research show that there are signs of increasing city power, especially in the political, economic, and environmental sectors. However, the change in military and societal sectors was not so evident.

Now it seems that the original research question was defined in a wrong way.

We are currently witnessing a public discussion and an emerging literature on ‘places left behind’. In this context, it is not actually threats to cities that are being securitised, but instead those to rural areas and the rural way of living.

In the terms of securitisation theory, it is not the survival of cities that is at stake but the survival of smaller towns and rural communities.

Urban futures depend on rural development

It is not self-evident that growing cities result in sustainable and democratic societies.

The existential fears of people living in rural areas stem from experiences of economic stagnation and social decline. In a possible future, these fears may translate to growing tensions between urban and rural groups inside and across the current nation states.

Our ability to solve the issues of climate change, an ageing population, migration, and the concentration of wealth will in many ways affect what kind of cities and nation states exist in the future. Cities will in many ways be defined by and depend on the development of rural areas.

In the future, rural areas will likely have new assets as ways to create and understand value change. For example, clean nature and quietness are emerging trends in tourism.

Cities will in many ways be defined by and depend on the development of rural areas.

Some of the old assets remain as well. Even though promising city farming innovations, such as aeroponic production, already exist, it is likely that cities will be dependent on the rural areas for food production for decades to come.

Analysis with securitisation theory seems to suggest that perceived threats to the rural way of living may turn into emergency actions at the national level. For the sake of the cities, it would not be wise to leave the concerns of rural areas unattended.

The research was conducted and funded by Demos Helsinki in March – October 2018 for Maria Malho’s Master’s Thesis City as Referent Object of Security: Futures Scenarios of Europe’s Security Environment in 2040. The Thesis has been reviewed and accepted by the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Helsinki in December 2018. The Thesis (in Finnish) can be accessed here.

Demos Helsinki participated in the 20th international Futures Conference Constructing Social Futures – Sustainability, Responsibility and Power in Turku, Finland. This research was presented in Security Futures in the Urban Age session on 13th June 2019. You can find more information in the conference workshop programme. Welcome to join the discussion by contacting our experts or in Twitter with @DemosHelsinki!

Header photo: Tommi Saltiola