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Conference paper

Sense of place, social capital and rural development

4 Jul 1997
Description

Discussions of rural communities often attribute values or images to them that imply their intrinsic 'goodness'. Such attribution of value is reminiscent of the ideals which farming is often held to enshrine, and which has been called 'agricultural fundamentalism': the notion that the occupation and way of life of farming are inherently superior to other pursuits, and therefore deserving of special treatment by governments. Analogous to this, there seems to be a 'rural town fundamentalism', that supposes rural communities to be the ideal form of community. This belief is reinforced by legend, literature and popular culture, but it may be as far from present reality as are the nostalgic and romanticised depictions of farm life. But while it is easy to dismiss the cruder forms of rural town fundamentalism, a closer look at the content of those values is important to understanding the processes of rural development and to designing rural development policy.

Rural change is the meeting ground of powerful but conflicting values. On the one hand our economic system requires and rewards the mobility of resources, including people. In pursuit of economic and other objectives, we value the freedom to move from job to job and from place to place. On the other hand, our social and cultural beliefs put a high value on the stability and cohesion of rural places, and these may be eroded by such mobility. For example, while there are frequent laments about the rate of exit of young people from rural communities, since it can undermine local economic and social values, we are happy for young people (and perhaps especially our own children) to seek broader economic, social and cultural horizons.

In policy terms, this conflict might be paraphrased as 'jobs to people versus people to jobs,' or, as Bolton (1992) put it, 'place prosperity versus people prosperity.' In other words, a trade - off is posed between, on the one hand, policies which focus on promoting the prosperity of places by enhancing their ability to provide jobs for local people, and, on the other hand, policies which focus on the well - being of individuals independently of their location. The latter include policies for enhancing the capacity of the national economy to generate jobs, albeit in places which might require people to move to them.

There is no doubt which set of values dominates rural policy at the moment. Rural policy in Australia is currently little more than an amalgam of industry policy (that is, policies aimed at the efficient operation of rural industries) underpinned by generic social safety nets aimed at those in need, including the casualties of economic adjustment processes, regardless of where they live. That is, Commonwealth rural and regional policy largely ignores the spatial dimension in Australian rural life (Sher and Sher, 1994).

This has been demonstrated in numerous government inquiries and policy statements (for example, Industry Commission, 1993; BIE, 1994; Working Nation, 1994) which have stressed 'getting the fundamentals right' (i.e., the fundamentals of national finance, transport, and labour markets), and that regional economies, just like the national one, should adjust appropriately to the (presumably inescapable) market forces. Further evidence of this policy approach included the virtual sidelining of the report of the Kelty Task Force on regional development, the McKinsey report's emphasis on local leadership, and the current Commonwealth Government's scrapping the Office of Regional Development. There is an apparent belief that the problems of rural communities will b e solved by attention to economic 'fundamentals' at the national level, and by making rural industries profitable and adaptable enough. The Government’s recent (September 1997) ‘integrated rural policy package’, entitled Agriculture — Advancing Australia , is a package of programs aimed mainly at improving the efficiency and 'self - reliance' of the farm sector. Although the package has a component called the Rural Communities Program, its size and scope are modest compared with the farm - related components of the package. On the other hand, several States have Offices of, and/or specified ministerial responsibilities for, rural communities.

There is considerable historical evidence to support this faith in the value of mobility. Australia is largely populated by immigrants who were seeking economic liberation perhaps as much as anything else, and who revelled in the virtually enforced mobility of a 'frontier' society. At least until now, spatial mobility has served us well. Apart from Aboriginal communities, there have been few pockets of chronic poverty; people have typically moved from place to place in search of economic and other betterment. A major reason for Federation was to achieve a single continental market - to oil the wheels of the economic system, as it were. As well, past government attempts to influence directly the size and spatial distribution of rural populations through policies such as Soldier Settlement, ‘northern development’, growth centres, and other closer settlement and land settlement schemes have had, at best, mixed results; at times their economic, social and environmental costs have been very high.

We are still a highly mobile people. On Census date in 1991 about 40 per cent of us were not living at the same address as we were just five years earlier. In more than two - thirds of even the rural Statistical Sub - divisions, over 30 per cent of residents had moved from another Local Government Area since the previous Census; that is, they hadn't merely moved across town.

But the balance sheet on mobility may be changing. Gregory and Hunter's (1995) work on the spatial dimensions of inequality within the major cities seems to show that geographic pockets of poverty and other disadvantage are becoming entrenched. Mobility may be losing both its capacity to redress inequality and its attractiveness to people. Perhaps the personal costs of mobility are increasing, and peoples' geographic roots are becoming harder and more costly to transplant. Perhaps mobility works best in a 'frontier' society or economy. On the other hand, given the homogenisation of mass culture, we would expect mobility to be easier, and less costly (at least psychologically) to individuals. Regardless of how these opposing factors may balance out, more is now heard, and not only from rural people, about their reluctance to change their relationships to particular places, and about the values they put on the preservation of their relationship to place (see, for example, Read, 1996).

A closer look at the costs as well as benefits of mobility is therefore needed. The mobility required by market forces can erode the value of community - specific assets such as attachment to place, local knowledge, local networks, contacts and allegiances, social cohesion, and so on. Not only do we value these assets as ends in themselves, they appear to make important contributions to local economic development. It is also possible to demonstrate that significant 'market failures' exist in the production and use of these place - specific intangible assets. This is part of a large intellectual territory that is attracting increasing attention from several disciplines, which see the landscape in different ways. Each offers useful conceptual insights and tools for its exploration . Two explorers who have described parts of the territory in some detail are the political scientist Robert Putnam and the regional economist Roger Bolton, who have written about the closely related ideas of sense of place and social capital  

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1997
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