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More focus on women, youth and telecommuting could rescue declining rural towns

Experts say that with the population declining and aging in rural areas, small towns need to find a path to future survival.

Ilmakuva autiosta kunnanraitista.
In Veteli, Central Ostrobothnia, some of the government's coronavirus financial has been used to hire a a youth worker. Photo of central Veteli in April 2021. Image: Kalle Niskala / Yle

While there are some exceptions, the big picture shows the population is declining and aging in rural areas of Finland, with growth concentrated in a few larger cities and their surrounding areas, and many smaller towns are struggling to avoid facing reality.

Many Finnish municipalities are turning a blind eye to the prospects of a gloomy future as populations and tax revenues decline, a number of experts have told the STT Finnish news agency.

"Unfortunately, Finnish municipalities have developed the practice of self-deception. Unrealistic growth strategies are formulated year after year, even though the reality has been a decline [in growth]", says Jenni Airaksinen, a senior lecturer in municipal and regional administration at Tampere University's Faculty of Management and Business.

Kaisa Lähteenmäki-Smith, lead specialist at the regional development consulting firm MDI, has a similar view. According to her, municipalities are reluctant to accept the fact of population decline, because it is seen as a political failure.

"It creates a difficult situation when municipalities do not want to take a stand in their public strategies on the fat that the population is shrinking and so they should cut services or completely change operating methods," says Lähteenmäki-Smith.

The beginning of wisdom

Looking at the geography of post-WW II Europe in his day, President J. K. Paasikivi described the recognition of the facts as the beginning of all wisdom.

Jenni Airaksinen recommends that municipal leaders also look reality square in the eye and admit that they cannot turn the global tide of urbanisation.

Jarkko Huovinen, the director for vitality and the economy at the Association of Finnish Municipalities, points out that there is no single tool for developing vitality.

All three experts raise three main themes related to the future of small towns.

The first of these is the concept of smart contraction, or smart adaptation. Instead of waiting for growth, municipalities should look for ways to secure their services despite the decline in population. This is easier said than done, but Kaisa Lähteenmäki-Smith hopes that with this attitude, municipalities will find means of co-operation before turning to mergers to ease their problems.

"A municipality that loses population is not always a loser. If a municipality that is losing population is able to reform its operating models, it can be a pioneer. It can, alone or with other municipalities, create solutions that have not yet been thought of," she says.

Admitting the facts provides at least a healthier basis for looking to the future.

"When making investments, you know what kind of investment is profitable. If a new school is built, care should be taken to ensure that it can be a service housing unit in the future," Airaksinen points out.

New livelihoods

Not even a smart adaption will succeed if municipal coffers are empty. According to Lähteenmäki-Smith, municipal strategies have increasingly emphasised traditional business policies helping out companies, for example, through zoning.

She would like to see moves to make the voices of women and young people better heard in the decision-making process at the municipal level.

"When families make decisions where and how to live, young women have a big say. Perhaps the future lies in human resources, where the importance of comfort and softer factors are also give weight," Lähteenmäki-Smith reflects.

According to Jenni Airaksinen, business activities could also be diversified by encouraging local residents to become entrepreneurs. In addition, she calls for the involvement of young people in municipal affairs, so that after acquiring education elsewhere, they will bring their new skills back to aid the development of their home communities.

Jarkko Huovinen is in favour of traditional business policies, such as support for companies through zoning, recruitment and innovation. Yet he also sees room diversification. As examples, he cites well-established cultural and sports events in different parts of Finland, such as the Kuhmo chamber music festival, the skiing events in Lahti, Jyväskylä's World Rally Championship event, and Sodankylä's Midnight Sun Film Festival.

"The events generate tourism, but also support the marketing of the area as a possible location for new residents," Huovinen says.

Uncertain future of telecommuting

Telecommuting and multi-locality, that is living and working at more than one residence, have gained widespread attention as possible keys to solving the problem of falling population in smaller towns. But, these developments also come with a large helping of uncertainty.

Article continues after the photo.

Etätyömatkailija tekee töitä matkailijoiden majoitustiloissa.
Telecommuting has become a regular part of life for large numbers o people since the start of the coronavirus pandemic with many working from rural holiday homes. Image: Ida Pirttijärvi / Yle

The coronavirus pandemic boosted telecommuting and, according to the real estate sector, it also increased appreciation of more spacious homes and more sparsely populated areas. Even so, last year the population fell in 70 percent of Finnish municipalities. Also, it is still to be seen how employers and employees feel about telecommuting once the pandemic fades.

"I don't think that telecommuting will bring any radical change in the trend of population shifts to urban areas, but at least there will be a blip. At the same time, a new way of thinking has opened up about what people expect from their living environment and housing if telecommuting increases," Jenni Airaksinen says.

Jarkko Huovinen believes that in some areas a counter-current to urbanisation may emerge. Areas such as Finland's eastern lake district, the southwest archipelago and the ski resorts of northern Finland, which all already have a lot of holiday homes, would be strong contenders in this development.

Huovinen points out that during the pandemic, many people have spent increased amounts of time at their holiday homes, and in some cases this could lead to a decision to make the move permanent.

"In those areas where there is a number of second homes, the transition is easier and more likely than in those areas where people would have to move directly to new permanent homes," he notes.

Jenni Airaksinen hopes that candidates now seeking election to local councils will show perseverance, honesty and creativity in dealing with the future of their municipalities, no matter what it looks like.

"Although you have to be realistic, you have to give people hope, not illusions," she says.

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