By Jorge Gimeno Pawlowski, member of the board of Center for Innovative Education (CIE) and advisor for EU affairs.
Writing this article has been an exercise in responsibility, creativity and numerous debates within the Center for Innovative Education (CIE). Having the honour of being the second to write after Tor Arnesen, our partner in NEMOR and author of the great article that precedes this one, is not an easy task. In fact, we had a similar idea of writing about the mountains of opportunities springing from the coronavirus crisis we are experiencing.
The article, In the meanwhile, in Norway: the coronavirus crisis puts emergency preparedness in rural mountain municipalities on the agenda has inspired us and caused us to modestly decide to continue with a second part. Is the coronavirus pandemic an opportunity to counteract depopulation in mountain areas? Yes! The economic change due to the Covid19 crisis has accelerated some changes on the labour market i.ex. increasing the number of people working from home. Can it be an opportunity for the mountains to have a more diversified economic model? Yes!
Covid19 has especially focused on the most densely populated areas. Cities like New York, Milan or Madrid have been fiercely attacked by it and it is a fact that a high population density generally facilitates the spread of the viruses. We have discovered important weaknesses, such as space deficiency, no contact with nature, most of municipalities’ citizens suffer – those who live in apartments. Flats that often don’t ensue privacy, lack balconies or give limited natural light have become real prisons which have negatively affected the psychological health of many city residents.
But the coronavirus has also brought about a positive change that does not appear to be temporary. To name a few: the increase and improvement of work from home, virtual meetings and the demystification of having to go to the office if you want to work effectively. European Commission data show that until 2022, the EU states will have approx. 30% of the labor force working remotely from home. In fact, thanks to the development of new technologies, which allow remote working, many institutions have improved the effectiveness of their work, including CIE. The reduction of costs for companies or the time we need to travel to workplaces allow us to think that remote work is here to stay.
Last week Sara Bianchi, coordinator of the Southern Sparsely Populated Areas (SSPA) network, explained to Spanish media that “the quality of life in rural areas has always been focused in a positive way, thanks to the green space and the absence of crowds” and Elene Cebrian, General Secretary for the Demographic Challenge in Spain confirmed that “it is time to rethink the cities, but also to meditate on life in rural areas to improve the best living conditions in some places and others”. The searching of homes in rural and mountain areas increased exponentially all over Europe, from Inverness (UK) to Jaca (Spain). The opportunity for mountain areas is a fact nowadays.
The time has come for mountain experts, representatives of mountain communities and politicians to prepare a plan to make possible the exodus from the city to the villages. It is time to invest in infrastructures, such as high quality internet, and use this unique opportunity to diversify mountain business income. Many highland areas may now have the possibility of being less dependent on tourism. They may attract present cities’ residents who, after experiencing the prison-like quarantine, now yearn for a life in a place where their children can run freely and a day-to-day quality is higher than that offered by mega-cities.
In the case of the member countries of the European Union, the European Green Deal reinforces this opportunity. This strategic and fundamental document aims for the reconstruction of Europe after the crisis we are experiencing presently. Concepts such as smart villages, circular economy, counteracting depopulation or development of the rural world are going to be key elements in the new budget of the European Union for the years 2021 – 2027. All crises offer new opportunities, and this one particularly offers new prospects for the mountain and deprived areas. A need has been created and an ambitious budget has been planned to make the de-urbanization of the European society a reality. From CIE we advocate for NEMOR, its members and other major players such as Euromontana to prepare, in cooperation with European Authorities, a series of guidelines that help local and regional authorities to make this change possible in an efficient and effective manner.