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Why Covid-19 should make us rethink multilocality

RSA Blog
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This article first appeared on ROBUST’s website and has been re-blogged with permission from the authors.

Modern lives are increasingly multilocal – but rural-urban policies are often yet to catch up. ROBUST’s Bryonny Goodwin-HawkinsUlla Ovaska and Theresia Oedl-Wieser reflect on what we know about multilocality, and what we should rethink as rural regions look ahead to futures beyond recovery.

Photo: Pixelvario, Shutterstock

Over 150 years ago, English doctor John Snow earned a place in epidemiology’s history by plotting cholera cases on a London street map. Identifying who became ill by where they lived helped Snow in turn identify the source of infections. In the Covid-19 crisis, maps once again track outbreaks and determine restrictions. But what has mattered most in the spread of the virus is less where we live than where we move.

In most European countries, crisis management has rightly focused on restricting mobility. Lockdowns and border closures have tried to give the virus few opportunities to travel within and between places and regions. These are the containment methods at governments’ disposal. The trouble is, where we live and where we move are not always distinct. Our lives are increasingly multilocal.

Multilocality means, most simply, living across multiple locations. Multilocality can take many forms, from weekend commuters to transnational workers, holiday homes to seasonal migration, couples in double households to children with two families. Multilocality is bound up with contemporary phenomena like globalization, labour market flexibility and digital connectivity. But multilocality has also been with us a long time – consider shepherds moving between summer and winter pastures, or children at boarding school.

As these examples suggest, multilocality makes for rural-urban connections. In the Nordic countries, an estimated 40% of the largely urbanized population has access to a rural holiday home. In Austria, rural co-working spaces are emerging, as telework and digital commuting offers new ways to combine the advantages of rural living with the opportunities of urban employment.

But rural-urban connections have proved problematic for containing Covid-19. Ischgl, a popular Austrian alpine resort, was the site of an early outbreak. As a place that people moved through, Ischgl became a place where the virus could spread. In Wales, before lockdown began, anger flared over rural fears that city-dwellers travelling to the countryside would carry the virus with them. Concerns especially grew over second-home owners moving in for lockdown and straining already stretched local services. To contain the virus in Finland, the capital city region and province Uusimaa were isolated from the rest of the country for several weeks.

Concerns and transmission risks remain real, just as restrictions are necessary. But what Covid-19 makes clear is that multilocality had not been well-managed even before the crisis.

“Covid-19 should make us rethink multilocality in regional governance and policy –
and especially to move beyond viewing multilocality in limited or negative ways.”

Of course, cities and rural areas alike have long recognized mobility through tourism strategies. Commuting zones play a large role in spatial planning for functional urban areas. Yet while policies have opened to these obvious forms of mobility, multilocality’s subtleties are still easily overlooked. In rural Wales, for example, multilocality is mostly understood as second-home ownership. Second homes are statistically measured by council tax registration. But this counts buildings, rather than (much more importantly) multilocal people. A person who spends the week working in a city, and every weekend at her family’s rural home is nowhere officially counted as multilocal. The phenomenon works in both directions. In Finland, a quarter of urban dwellers spend one-to-six months in rural areas every year – and nearly 11% of rural residents report spending one to two months in larger cities.

The trouble with how multilocality does (and does not) get counted inevitably affects tax and services. Regions and municipalities typically tax according to their residents. But multilocal people are most often taxed by their primary residence. This raises questions about the fair allocation of funds, especially for rural regions, and about the actual demand for local services, such as superfast broadband coverage, co-working spaces, and social and health infrastructure.

Thinking through these questions also helps to show that multilocality can bring positive changes to rural areas. In Finland, ROBUST researchers have been innovatively working to reframe multilocality as an opportunity for rural service development. Rather than using static population figures and concluding that there are not enough people to provide health services, for example, ROBUST research shows that understanding how the population is actually dynamic offers new possibilities for policy and practice.

Multilocal people can be an important link between places, including sharing knowledge and business networks. In Austria, the Agenda 21 Network’s multilocal theme has been working to better understand how multilocality matters for different groups across the lifecourse, from students to retirees. Pilot projects in rural ‘docking stations’ are showing how multilocality can help sustain, stabilize and even revitalize regions.

Covid-19 has made multilocal lives difficult. Lockdowns have meant that many must choose between staying still in one place or another. But even before the pandemic, many regional policies, statistics and tax systems presumed that rural and urban populations were static – unless they were commuting or on holiday. This approach has left much multilocality overlooked or, at worst, treated as a problem. There are ways to rethink multilocality in new, productive and sustainable ways – how will we take up that challenge as our regions seek futures beyond recovery?

A short report on multilocality from ROBUST’s Public Infrastructures and Social Services Community of Practice, featuring examples from Austria, Germany, Finland and Wales is now available. The report can be downloaded here.


Dr Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins is Senior Research Fellow at the Countryside and Community Research Institute. An interdisciplinary researcher working towards inclusive futures for rural regions, she is operational lead for the National Innovation Centre for Rural Enterprise (NICRE) in South West England, and has contributed to the Horizon 2020 projects IMAJINE and ROBUST.

Dr Ulla Ovaska is a rural researcher working with topics related to rural policy and development. Her main research interests include holistic sustainability, governance and rural labour. She is currently working on Horizon2020 project ROBUST, and is affiliated to the Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke).

Dr Theresia Oedl-Wieser researches rural development, regional governance, rural sociology, political sociology and neo-institutionalism, as well as women and gender issues; she is involved in evaluation within the framework of Rural Development Programs; she is head of the Department of Rural Sociology at the Federal Institute for Agricultural Economics, Rural and Mountain Research (BAB) in Vienna, AT.

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