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Rural Renaissance: the irresistible call of the countryside


According to the French national statistics bureau INSEE, one in every four people in France now lives in a suburban area, and more and more of us want to leave the city for the countryside. But mobility issues often dampen the appetite for rural life.

One in every four people in France wants to leave the city for the countryside. More and more of us are making the dream move, and according to INSEE, sparsely populated communities gained 104,000 inhabitants in 2014, whereas big cities lost 114,000, signaling the end of 200 years of urban migration. Each year, 12,000 Parisians desert the capital city, an urban exodus not to all countryside towns and villages, but mainly to western and southwestern France, and the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

A new type of village

Once-empty villages are now filling up again. But according to Eric Charmes, director of research at the ENTPE school of civil, environmental and urban engineering in Vaulx-en-Velin and author of La Revanche des Villages (Rural Renaissance), cities are dispersing into “a myriad of small villages, large villages, and small towns”, which form what he refers to as “suburban villages”. The newly repopulated villages embody the extension of urban city lifestyle to the countryside, with landscapes sometimes altered, with the appearance of new stand-alone houses, shopping malls and business parks. Social geography is also being shaken up, with the working class now tending to live in city centers and the middle class in suburban villages.

Neo-rurals with specific profiles

Central to countryside gentrification, neo-rurals and rural-urbans aren’t farmers, but rather middle-class managers and administrative employees. They are primarily (but not exclusively) young adults between the ages of 30 and 45 that have young children and have been forced out of cities due to financial difficulties. What they want more than anything is to get away from city center chaos. They have had enough of stress, noise and pollution, and want more living space at lesser expense with a better quality of life, generally in keeping with their environmental values. With the development of digital technology, the rise in remote working is a boon to neo-rurals, who are committed to changing their lifestyle. Coworking spaces in Auvergne and Perche are thriving as a result.

Mobility: neo-rurality’s greatest challenge

The need for the countryside comes at a cost, namely more time spent traveling. The scarcity or disappearance of public and local services in the countryside, such as schools and public transportation mean that mobility needs are rising, echoed by the fact that large cities are focusing their energies on related innovations such as trams, self-service bikes and park and ride facilities. According to a study conducted by the French transportation quality authority (AQST), traveling on a bus or train in a rural area takes five times longer than it does in a car. Getting to a city 50 kilometers away takes an average of 198 minutes in France, compared with 130 minutes in Spain and 126 minutes in Germany. The paradox is enlightening: more and more people want to move to the countryside and have a fixed home, but they can only do so by making long and frequent trips, which are costly and energy-intensive. The biggest challenge facing neo-rurality and public authorities is therefore that of efficient rural mobility.

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