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Lonely places in Europe could be transformed into places of opportunities with the right mix of place-based policy interventions.

Aug 31, 2022 | Opinions

Interviewees : Paola Proietti, Patrizia Sulis, Carolina Perpiña Castillo & Carlo Lavalle.

Read the interview in PDF.

AEIDL has interviewed the authors of a recent study published by the Joint Research Center (JRC) of the European Commission on “New perspectives on territorial disparities: From lonely places to places of opportunities”. The interview grasps the novel concept of lonely places, outlines the opportunities that might be present in these territories, and the actions needed at European, national and local levels to avoid that communities are left behind. Overall, the findings from the research conducted by the JRC aims to support evidence-based policy actions to boost cohesion among territories.

What are lonely places?

Lonely places, as a multidisciplinary and multi-scalar concept, can refer to a plurality of places that present a certain vulnerability in terms of local endowment, accessibility, or connectivity. Although the term ‘lonely’ was mainly employed in the literature with reference to people, this study presents a translation of this concept for places. 

In this sense, remote places experiencing depopulation and economic decline can be considered lonely in the report. Lonely places are also territories with a disadvantage in access to basic services and infrastructure, either for all their residents or for some specific groups. For example, some depopulating areas might experience disadvantaged access to local schools, which hampers the future social mobility of children living in those areas and lead to the emigration of young families.

Furthermore, some towns or suburbs might be less digitally connected than others, and some neighborhoods in cities might experience high levels of socio-economic deprivation and as a consequence a sort of disconnection from the remaining part of the city. Even urban areas lacking access to everyday services are lonely places, as they do not guarantee their residents – especially those in vulnerable conditions such as older people – access to the urban services they need. Finally, places that experience a particularly low electoral turnout can also be considered lonely places, as this phenomenon might be interpreted as a form of withdrawal and disconnection from the democratic process. 

Why is it important to understand lonely places in Europe?

The identification of lonely places and the co-occurrence of multiple typologies of vulnerabilities on the same territory is relevant to understand where to focus the attention and the modality of intervention to implement. Specific policies might be beneficial when a place presents a single lonely place typology, while a more integrated approach should be preferred to exploit the potential of places experiencing the co-occurrence of multiple vulnerabilities. Transforming a lonely place into a place of opportunity can unleash the potential for local development and increase the well-being of its current and future inhabitants. Facilitating a syncronised improvement of lonely places, for example by focusing on those that present the co-occurrence of all typologies of vulnerabilities in their territory, has the potential to also increase the overall well-being of the society.

However, the identification of vulnerable areas to target through policies and the selection of the most effective typology of intervention to implement are not the only relevant elements to achieve efficient and equitable policies. Place-based policies might be difficult to design and implement. The quality of institutions, together with dynamic social contexts and the collaborative nature of public-private relation are all important elements. Furthermore, strengthening networks across local entities, sharing knowledge and good practices, the coherence of action and cooperation across institutions, and improving the local strategic and administrative capacity complete the framework of fundamental conditions for the effective implementation of strategies.

What are the main opportunities present in lonely places?

Demographic change, the transformation of our societies into more technologically advanced ones, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic are societal challenges that can be transformed into new opportunities. A good understanding of what characterises a lonely place, therefore, is crucial for the development and implementation of policies to seize the potential of every place (both in rural and urban areas) and to enhance the overall quality of life of their residents. For example, improving digitalisation and promoting the green transition are two strategies that can address some of the weaknesses of marginalised areas and put them in the condition to play a crucial role in the transition to a more sustainable and resilient Europe.

Fostering technological innovation and digital literacy, having demographically balanced territories and strengthening and diversifying the economy while promoting conservation of the environment can be successfully achieved using an bottom-up approach to building resilience by integrating the contribution of local communities. This holistic approach would ensure social integration and participation of all areas, from rural remote places to urban centres, avoiding that some areas and individuals are left behind leading to discontent and disaffection towards political institutions.

What needs to be done at the European level to help lonely places become places of opportunities?

The concept of lonely places implies a shared responsibility to transform them into places of opportunities. Lonely places – thanks to bottom-up initiatives, their institutions, and ecosystems – have a responsibility to reinvent themselves in order to guarantee better opportunities for their current and future inhabitants, as well as develop better connections with other territories. 

Regional, national, and European institutions are also crucial to help reduce the vulnerabilities that characterise lonely places, where these are detrimental to the present and future well-being of their inhabitants. Framing local development in a territorial context can promote a balanced territorial development and the use of an integrated development approach in cities, functional areas, rural areas and regions. EU policies can promote a more systemic approach in the implementation of territorial development policies and stimulate a longer-time perspective and comparative assessments when elaborating and implementing policies.

EU policies and initiatives such as the Long-term Vision for Rural Area, the Urban Agenda for the EU, the Territorial Agenda 2030, the Action Plan on Integration and Inclusion, the Digital Education Action Plan, the European Pillar for Social Rights, the EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child and the European Child Guarantee can contribute in gathering resources to support the transition from lonely places to places of opportunities. Finally, current recovery programmes might offer a unique opportunity to tackle historical weaknesses and introduce radical changes to speed up transitions towards a more resilient, fairer, greener, and connected Europe.

The report “New perspectives on territorial disparities” is available here.

Citation :

Proietti, P., Sulis, P., Perpiña Castillo, C., Lavalle, C., Aurambout, JP., Batista e Silva, F., Bosco, C., Fioretti, C., Guzzo, F., Jacobs-Crisioni, C., Kompil, M., Kučas, A., Pertoldi, M., Rainoldi, A., Scipioni, M., Siragusa, A., Tintori, G., Woolford, J. (2022), New perspectives on territorial disparities. From lonely places to places of opportunities, Proietti, P., Sulis, P., Perpiña Castillo, C., Lavalle, C. (eds), EUR 31025 EN, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2022, ISBN 978-92-76-49485-0, doi:10.2760/847996, JRC126033.