Academic journal article Rural Society

Rethinking Rural Futures: Qualitative Scenarios for Reflexive Regional Development

Academic journal article Rural Society

Rethinking Rural Futures: Qualitative Scenarios for Reflexive Regional Development

Article excerpt


The forces of change affecting Australia's regional communities include the shifting demographics of in- and out-migration, volatile boom and bust economic cycles, as well as changing tourism interests and service needs. At the global scale, a suite of issues are at play, including urbanisation, the industrialisation of agriculture, climate change and net population increase (herein exogenous forces). These challenges faced by rural communities are well recognised by some researchers and communities and continue to reconfigure rural regions (Barr, 2003; McManus et al., 2012; Pritchard et al., 2012). Theoretical critiques of regional policies have been largely framed in terms of the shrinking state and prevalence of self-help ideologies (Cheshire & Lawrence, 2005), yet it remains to be seen how these critiques assist rural communities to progress towards regional sustainability. These exogenous forces of change express themselves at the regional scale in varied ways. Therefore the flow of people, resources and capital presents distinct challenges and opportunities for each community, with the effect that some townships face rapid transition (e.g., through amenity-led counter-urbanisation to coastal areas) while others stand still or decline (McGuirk & Argent, 2011).

The extent and complexity of exogenous forces raises a key question for rural regions concerning local agency (Gray & Lawrence, 2001). Specifically, to what extent can regional communities shape their own future to address challenges and harness opportunities arising from forces that issue from larger scales? In this article, we consider the sociological and geographical literature on this issue, which draws attention to the recent dominance in Australia of neo-liberal policies which have focused on self-help and survival of the fittest (Cheshire, 2006; Cheshire & Lawrence, 2005; Collits, 2006; Gray & Lawrence, 2001; Lawrence, 2005).


Neo-liberal policy, inaugurated by the floating of the Australian dollar in 1983, has seen the withdrawal of economic and welfare subsidies in favour of exposure of industries and communities to domestic and international market forces. Yet, it would be misleading to imply that rural communities are entirely at the whim of global forces. Empirical cases remind us that Australian regional communities demonstrate determination to realise their own futures. In the face of globalisation, a focus on comparative advantage, the harnessing those characterises which distinguish rural regions from each other, is one approach to maintaining regional viability. For example, the local initiative taken by the remote agricultural community of Guyra in northern New South Wales led to what is known locally as a 'tomato-led recovery' (Brien, 2008). Due to the particular climate and elevation of this region, it was perfectly suited for the development of a five-hectare greenhouse, which is a significant local employer, and represents the largest tomato farm of this type in the country.

There are limits, however, to the comparative advantage strategy. For example, the unique features of a region may not always be the basis of advantage. An alternative emphasis, which can also be said of the Guyra success story, might build on a location's history in a way which is sensitive to regional identity and sense of place (Argent, Walmsley, & Sorensen, 2009).

The potential for rural regions to respond to exogenous forces by shaping their future is influenced not only by how global drivers manifest locally, but also by local science questions and the aspirations of local communities and the capacity of local institutions to achieve a workable community vision in the face of competing local priorities and a limited information base (herein 'endogenous forces'). To navigate this nexus of endogenous and exogenous factors, we argue for the importance of informed dialogue where both the possible contributions of science and the values held by local participants are openly discussed. …

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