Ashleigh Weeden is a rural futurist and PhD Candidate in the School of Environmental Design and Rural Development in the Ontario Agricultural College at the University of Guelph. Her work is focused on investigating place-based rural innovation, community capacity building, and public policy renewal. In addition to her current doctoral research, Ashleigh coordinates the Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation’s Rural Insight Series on COVID-19 and the Building the Future: Rural Infrastructure & Regional Economic Development initiative, as well as contributes to the Making a Difference research project. She is also currently completing a Mitacs Accelerate Internship supported by Bruce Power, the Town and Saugeen Shores, and the University of Guelph, which is the basis for the Getting to Work research initiative.
A proud graduate of both the University of Guelph (B.A. Honours in International Development) and the University of Victoria (MPA), Ashleigh spent the better part of a developing award-winning rural and regional community development initiatives prior to returning to academia. She led Grey County’s Connected County Initiative, directly contributing to the County receiving recognition as one of the Top7 Intelligent Communities of 2017 by the Intelligent Community Forum and the top achiever in its population category in the 2018. Ashleigh also provided strategic communications and community engagement support for the Southwestern Integrated Fibre Technology (SWIFT) Initiative for several years, including supporting Indigenous engagement in the project. Her work advocating for people-centred, responsive public policy and connectivity-driven innovation in rural communities can be read in publications like the Torontoist, The Conversation, Policy Options, Canadian Government Executive, and her regular column in Municipal World.
The following is an updated pre-face to an article was originally published by S. Ashleigh Weeden (University of Guelph) on The Conversation.
Floods, hurricanes, and other major events have historically tended to induce urban flight among those with the means to ‘escape’ to places that are perceived to be ‘safe’ – producing a phenomenon broadly categorized as ‘disaster gentrification’. As the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic started to spread rapidly across North America in March 2020, the familiar challenges associated with ‘disaster gentrification’ began to resurface. The benefits of density were quickly supplanted by real and imagined fears about virus transmission. Rural and remote regions became increasingly attractive as refuges for those whose wealth or personal and professional situations allowed and afforded them varying degrees of mobility during a time of crisis. However, early research appears to be finding that it is not density that produces COVID-19 hotspots, but the same complex combinations of socio-economic factors that create vastly different outcomes for different people depending on their race, gender, class, housing, employment, and the level of intervention and support their community receives. Inequality, not density, appears to be a key driver in producing COVID-19 outbreaks, and we are seeing new outbreaks in rural regions of North America that reinforce this trend. However, when we combine these factors with disaster gentrification, there are two critical challenges we must address: 1) viruses don’t travel, people travel and bring viruses with them; and 2) when people ‘escape’ to rural areas during COVID-19, those cannot or do not want to travel – whether in the community someone departs and returns to or the one they visit temporarily – are left vulnerable to the movement of those who can or do have mobility. Sociologist Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom summarized this dynamic succinctly by saying: wealth is the vector.
What sometimes seems like a straightforward conflict between individual entitlement and collective public health protections actually encompasses more complex tensions involved in the way we tend to think of the relationships between people, place, and policy. Concepts of privilege and power are playing out in real time, and the way we approach this particular conflict may actually serve to highlight the way we approach many other complex policy issues that hinge on balancing impossible conversations about whose rights matter – and who gets to decide. In light of these challenges, I wrote a piece for The Conversation that has been viewed more than 60,000 times touching on these issues. While many things have changed since March and even since May, the core themes of that article remain at the heart of the challenge of maintaining the delicate dance of interdependence between both people and places.
As the pandemic has continued, the hard-line recommendations to avoid inter-regional travel entirely have eased in favour of encouragement to engage in a type of harm reduction for prospective travellers. While governments and health experts continue to advise against non-essential travel, some regions of Canada have created their own ‘travel bubbles’ – with the Atlantic provinces working collaboratively to support inter-regional travel, but with strong limits. Some popular seasonal destinations in other regions of the country have tried to balance protecting year-round community members against the immediate and long-term economic damage of a lost tourist season, while others have maintained their position of closed borders. In all cases, however, it’s interesting to note a concerted effort to focus on our social obligation to each other, with varying degrees of success. As the pandemic stretches into the dog days of summer, however, fear, distrust, and fatigue are threatening to boil over as people see-saw between seeing declining known COVID-19 case numbers in Canada and (rightful) suspicion over any action that might threaten fragile efforts to contain the pandemic based on what we are seeing in the United States (where previously COVID-19-free regions are becoming hot-spots, largely due to travel). Further, conflict over policies such as mandatory face-coverings in most public settings, physical distancing, and the politicization of public health policy serve as concerning challenges in relying on people to consider their behaviour through the lens of individual actions versus community impacts.
Perhaps what makes this issue such a magnet for conflict is that is that, like so many things about the COVID-19 pandemic, it encompasses so many profoundly human issues that largely revolve around that tension between the individual and the collective. Considering the issue of whether we have the ‘right’ to visit a seasonal property, beach, or small town market during the pandemic – and, if we do, the way we behave when we get there – forces us to think about how we relate to each other, how we relate to place, who is involved in these relationships, where we see ourselves in the context of a broad range of social and spatial networks both now and in the future – and where and with whom the power to influence all of these things is situated.
As we navigate this strange liminal space, just over halfway into the first year of a new decade that has already been shaped by a confluence of crises, including the pandemic, a massive reckoning with systemic and structural racism, and a looming climate crisis, questions about balancing individual actions against their community impacts must become central to the way live, work, play, and govern our social and economic systems. We now know that we will be dealing with the immediate threat of COVID-19 for much longer than many had originally hoped and that we are a long way off from seeing the full weight of the long-term impacts of this crisis and its associated impacts. Addressing the unique challenges of COVID-19 in cottage-country may have implications for the way we approach other issues in place-based policy. As Martha Beck has said, “the way we do anything is the way we do everything,” and COVID-19 will require us to come back to these negotiations of place, power, and policy over and over again as we strive to make intentional choices about what comes next.
The following article was originally published by S. Ashleigh Weeden (University of Guelph) on The Conversation on May 21, 2020 (with the French translation published May 28, 2020).
For some, Canada’s summer weekends are spent at a cottage. But this year, the COVID-19 pandemic has sharpened the edges on the rural-urban divide. Both Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have faced criticism for going to their respective summertime homes.
But not all cottagers are political leaders. Cottagers say they should be allowed to visit seasonal properties, with some threatening to withhold their property taxes if they’re kept away.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms enshrines mobility rights. But those rights are chafing up against requests to temporarily lay down this entitlement in the collectivist spirit of public health orders. The coronavirus pandemic has escalated existing tensions in a complicated, ongoing negotiation between the “right to be rural” and trends toward “disaster gentrification” driven by urban flight.
Balancing individual actions against their community impact
In 1968, French sociologist Henri Lefebvre first offered “the right to the city” as an invitation to reclaim urban life by putting people at the heart of civic decision-making and prioritizing collective experiences over individual entitlements. This inspired civic movements across the globe right up to present-day conversations about digital rights.
Leveraging that concept, sociologists Laura Barraclough and Karen Foster are looking at whether there is also a “right to the countryside” or a “right to be rural.” In cottage country conflicts, however, we find ourselves without an instruction manual to help navigate impossible questions about who has the right to be rural — and who gets to decide?
Cottagers aren’t necessarily outsiders: they pay property taxes, support local businesses and many have multi-generational ties to their seasonal communities. Further, for many rural communities, asking cottagers to stay away has immediate and long-term socioeconomic costs: when people stay home, their money stays with them and they may rethink continued investments in a seasonal property in the future. The cumulative impact is a vicious cycle of private disinvestment compounding chronic under-investment in rural communities.
However, rural residents remain concerned about the risks of virus spread for delicate local ecosystems. Rural health-care capacity is often extremely limited. Experts continue to urge people to limit non-essential travel and to stay home for everyone’s sake.
First Nations that lease land to cottagers have closed their borders. Grocery stores and essential services in rural regions are struggling to adjust to the new reality of challenged supply chains in the same way as their urban counterparts.
And yet these conversations dehumanize the people involved across all aspects of this conflict. Rural people are talked about as if they’re just part of the landscape.
As individual property and mobility rights clash with collective efforts to mitigate the COVID-19 crisis, it appears as if we might be losing our basic connection and responsibility to each other and entering an impossible debate over whose rights count more.
Urban flight and rural gentrification
If you are an essential worker making minimum wage, it is understandably difficult to empathize with people who feel aggrieved at being asked to temporarily choose between multiple residences during this crisis — a luxury not necessarily afforded those most impacted by the consequences of these choices. Still, there are complex reasons why rural residents might themselves embark on essential inter-regional travel, like going to urban centres for specialist care or accessing essential goods; rural-urban linkages mean the road goes both ways.
Ultimately, this conflict hinges on deeper questions about the geography of wealth, privilege and structural inequality. As sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom argued, “wealth is the vector.” If British writer and critic John Lancaster is right that “geography is destiny,” the displacement and replacement processes of rural gentrification must be critically examined.
More than half of Ontario’s new cases of COVID-19 are occurring in Toronto. Meanwhile, Montréal is the epicentre of the virus’ outbreak in Canada. As real or imagined connections between density and disease percolate in people’s minds and remote work becomes the norm for many white-collar professions, urban flight may create more long-term shifts in rural areas that must be approached carefully if we are to avoid deepening geographic and socio-economic divides.
We need carefully considered rural policy and investments that put equity at the heart of imagining the future of the right to be rural. Whether in cities like Vancouver or Montréal or in rural towns like Tobermory, Ont., or Bird Cove, N.L., responses and interventions must respect and respond to local needs and goals.
We have a tendency to turn our fight or flight instinct into unhelpful us-versus-them dichotomies. Painting the country (or each other) with the broad strokes of “rural versus urban” only exacerbates that.
Surviving this pandemic requires a balance between our individual actions and their community impacts. While you might have a right to visit your cottage during the pandemic, ensuring our shared future will require patience and the reimagining of the right to be rural as a civic responsibility.
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