Whilst an idealized view of the countryside is common, the reality is that the countryside has rapidly modernized and transformed in Western, urban-industrialized society. How can we understand today’s countryside in a vastly urbanized world: Is the countryside the antithesis of the city, is the rural land the machine room behind our urban consumption patterns or is it a place where ideas for the future emerge?

Our observations

  • The countryside is broadly defined as land that is not urban, not in towns. As the world has rapidly urbanized over the last centuries and more than half of the global population live in cities, a lot of focus has gone to cities, urban needs, urban lifestyles, and the rapid transformation of cities (i.e. the rise of the smart city). The UN predicts that further urbanization will mainly take place in Asia and Africa, as Northern America, Latin America and Europe already are heavily urbanized regions and even sometimes show some deurbanization (and a move to midsized cities).
  • In order to draw attention to the countryside, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas has just opened an exhibition in the Guggenheim museum in the very heart of Manhattan. He aims to show the urban world the transformation that is happening outside urban areas (the “other” 98% of the globe’s surface). At the end of the exhibition, the visitor is presented with a futuristic countryside: a space that is controlled by machinery, data centers, computing power and automated agriculture; the human is completely out of the picture in this visualization and the countryside has been reduced to a series of places of manipulation for the urban masses.
  • `The urban-rural rift is the polarization of those living in urban versus those in rural areas. Especially in the U.K. and in the U.S., this polarization is visible in the political divide. While the American election system also gives scarcely populated areas a vote, European politics rely more on the popular (and thus often the urban) vote. As cities are generally hotspots of progressive politics and have more attention for sustainability, this has a polarizing effect on Western societies. As the urban world greatly affects the landscape and environment, sustainable development depends on successful management of urban growth. But policies for sustainability often have an enormous impact on those in the countryside. As a result, the countryside has turned into a political arena in the Netherlands and has led numerous Dutch farmers to travel to cities with their tractors to protest.
  • According to the European definition, the Netherlands does not have a countryside anymore. The Dutch land is heavily cultivated and densely populated, not only by farmers. The remaining farmers have become entrepreneurs running large-scale, automated farms or farms catering to the nostalgia of urban dwellers for the old countryside, hosting tourists to experience the traditional countryside even if that place has long been gone. Generational amnesia describes the phenomenon that every generation assumes that the landscape as they know it is the “natural” landscape.
  • As urban problems proliferate in the limited space of the city, such as noise pollution, air pollution, crowdedness, disconnectedness from nature, etc., the countryside attracts urban dwellers. In times of crisis, such as war or pandemics (such as the Coronavirus), the isolated, sovereign and self-sufficient nature of the countryside even becomes crucial for survival.

Connecting the dots

Western society is an increasingly urban-industrial society. As more and more people live in cities nowadays, ideas and images of the countryside are increasingly idealized and stubbornly idyllic. The countryside is often depicted as an area that is more in harmony with nature than the urban area, a place associated with closely-knit communities, a sense of belonging, and a simple, idyllic life on farms. As our city lives rapidly transformed and modernized, images of the countryside often stayed the same and have become the antithesis to the city, a cultural construct of urban society. Although the preconceptions that surround the countryside – that it is isolated, authentic, traditional, backward, small-scale – are persistent, the countryside has changed as an inevitable result of the urbanization and modernization of society. Rural landscapes have been transformed by the tightened grip of modern, Western, urban-industrial society. The fast-changing and growing needs of the urban population now predominantly define rural transformations. Think of the energy transition, infrastructure altering landscapes – from pipelines to large-scale solar parks, the nutrition transition leading to bigger livestock farms and increased demand for soy to sustain the urban diet, and the digitization of society leading to the rise of enormous datacenters and gigantic ecommerce distribution centers. It takes a lot to meet the demands of the average urban consumer today. In a sense, the countryside hosts the scarce resources that need to be managed efficiently in order to serve the energy-dense (in terms of electricity, diets, data and goods) urban consumption patterns. Transformations of the countryside are of all times and the periphery has long serviced the center, but current modern interventions are taking place on an unprecedented scale. Through these hypermodern interventions, the countryside is turning into a functional and dehumanized engine room for the city. The romanticized farm has transformed into an automated, high tech AI-hub; even small-scale farmers in remote areas have experienced the information revolution and have access to mobile-enabled agricultural technology.

As the daily needs of urban consumers are increasingly served with the immediacy of user-friendly interfaces and disappearing computers, the countryside is turning into the backend of the urban world powered by big mechanistic boxes invisible to their daily users. The human presence in these complexes with the size of small cities is reduced to a minimum. In his book Machine Landscapes (2019), Liam Young explores these places ruled by AI and computing and considers them architectures of a post-human world. Not only are production processes outsourced on a large scale, societal and ecological costs are equally left to the countryside. The handful of laborers working in the machine room of the city are often temporary low-skilled and low-paid migrant laborers, whose fate is invisible to the urban elite. Similarly, refugee camps are often built on desolate landscapes, far out of the sight of the urban citizen. As such, the invisibility of these vulnerable groups comprises a new form of exclusion. Furthermore, under the pressure of the big urban footprint, the non-urban is turning into a desolate, degraded landscape. The fact that awareness about the ecological costs of our urban footprint is growing, gives momentum to environmentally friendly machine rooms, such as Norway’s green hydropower electricity-powered datacenters. Furthermore, pressure on farmers to reduce the environmental impact of food production has led to precision farming, which minimizes the amount of pesticides and herbicides in growing crops. As such, the countryside can also be a frontier of progress and innovation.

Implications

  • The seamlessly interfaced life of the urban dweller contrasts sharply with rural life. As a response, some claim that social and environmental issues should not be addressed as pertaining to separate rural and urban political agendas, but along an “urban-rural continuum”. Others argue that cities, as they absorb a large percentage of the world’s population and resources, should also become more resilient, self-sufficient and resourceful, to be achieved by making industries more sustainable, less polluting, more social, and adaptable to existing urban conditions by creating goods locally with 3D printing, for instance, locally growing crops in urban farms or by creating regional food systems to serve the city.

  • As we wrote before, growing evidence shows that proximity to natural environments is linked to better physical and mental health. In our modern lives, distanced from nature, the countryside provides an attainable way to assuage this shortcoming of urban life. Our affection for the countryside may thus reflect a fundamental human need. Moreover, the countryside can cater to a longing for a sense of being rooted, for a revalued locality in a globalized world.