“Let’s live my village”, in search of the Wallonia countryside

Do you think you live in the country or in the town? This apparently simple question reveals a lot about the criteria used to establish which of the above describes the place where a person lives. The ruralist geographer Serge Schmitz focuses his research on redefining the countryside. Through the call for projects “Live my village”, he analyzes trends and fashions related to associative village life, village mentality and rurality.

Villge wallonThe call for projects proposal“ Let’s live my village”was launched in 2012 by the Roi Baudouin Foundation, whose motto is “working together for a better society”. This is the context in which it carried out the project “living neighbourhood” from 1997 to 2011, which encouraged inhabitants to participate in the life of their district.However, because it did not really mobilize villages and rural communities, the project mainly concerned the urban environment. From 2012 to 2014, it was therefore replaced by “Let’s live my village” which supports the inhabitants of rural communes in Wallonia who become involved in the life of their village. The ambition is to motivate people to work together, to meet up and therefore increase social cohesion in the rural environment.

In order to select the most deserving projects, the Roi Baudouin Foundation called upon a jury made up of experts from different environments: representatives of the Rural Foundation of Wallonia, people involved in the Walloon Network for Rural Development, representatives of various non-profit organizations, and an academic, Serge Schmitz,who is Professor of Rural and Human Geography at the University of Liege.

Three calls for project proposals were launched, with 120,000 Euros available for each one. In total, the foundation received nearly 300 projects aiming to receive a maximum budget of 5,000 Euro. The selection criteria were: innovation, feasibility, participation, durability and improvement of the quality of life for the village. Projects such as the creation of a G100 citizen’s summit in the village or the creation of an interactive map of the commune were  rewarded for their innovative character.

From a scientific point of view, participating in the selection of projects for “Let’s live my village” constituted an opportunity for Serge Schmitz, who carried out his research on rural life in an on-site laboratory for the analysis of places, landscape and European countryside (Laplec). The call for project proposals demonstrates the dynamic initiatives that exist in parts of the countryside as well as the innovations put in place to create a friendly environment in the village. An added interest of the project resides in the fact that a large database was available which was not produced by the researcher. The study was based on analysis of forms spontaneously filled in by citizens, which demonstrate what is lacking in the villages. As a member of the jury, Serge Schmitz used participant observation to gather his data. In the context of his research on rural life, the geographer therefore personally analyzes the 300 or so projects suggested by citizens (1).

Rural or urban environment?

In Belgium it is difficult to define rurality. Most definitions start with urban environment and then measure different levels of urbanization. “It would appear that in fact there are very few country area left”, explains Serge Schmitz. From a sociological point of view, there is no more countryside: our lifestyles are the same, we all watch the same television channels, and we consume the same goods… Some people draw the conclusion that there is no longer any point in studying the rural environment. When outside Belgium, we still find places that could easily be classed as being rural. In our country, it is becoming objectively very difficult to tell when one goes from the urban to the rural. The indicators change over the decades as well. According to the OECD, the density that defines a rural area is 150 inhabitants/km², which excludes most of the Flemish countryside. While compiling an Atlas of Belgian countryside (2), we had to adopt different criteria to define the countryside in the North of the country On the Flemish side; the indicator was 600 inhabitants /km² as opposed to 150 for Wallonia. These indicators are therefore relatively subjective and depend a lot on the context. In the Asian countryside where agriculture is intensive, the population density can be very high and the criteria are entirely different”.

(1) The Call for project proposals “Let’s live my village”: between free interpretations and compulsory readings regarding innovation and convivial village ambiance in Wallonia. In “The Countryside: spaces of innovation in an urban world”, Nantes, Spaces and Companies (ESO).
(2) Schmitz S., Vanderdheyden V., Brück L. Schepers J.F.  The Rural world: a setting for life and leisure. In “Atlas of Belgium: volume 2, Landscapes, rural world and agriculture, Ghent, Academia Press, p. 33-45.

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