Understanding Rural Community Dynamics: How to be a good neighbor

By Andrea McDowell

Rural communities are often tight knit with a strong sense of place identity and have a distinct culture. In these communities pressure from outsiders to change the status quo can result in the community banding together to fight in order to protect their values and ways of life. Wind power in rural communities can be seen as a push by governments to industrialize the rural landscape by outsiders who never become part of the community.

What is Place Identity?
Some rural communities develop a sense of self identity which may include more than an individual or family grouping, an identity that extends to all community members creating a communal identity. This identity appears to stem from a need to protect the community from outside disruptions such as loss of agricultural land to other types of land uses (such as wind development), urbanization, political agendas and policies, and as a way to protect rural values in the face of changing demographics and landscapes. 
It is important to understand rural dynamics, especially in a time where city centric policy is resulting in financial and political resources being allocated to address urban problems. Rural areas provide much of the requirements of life such as food and water, and most recently they contain vast tracts of land which are viewed as suitable for industries which have been forced out of larger cities. This changing social structure of rural communities may not be met with an adequate level of political or financial support.

How Place Identity Can Lead to Protectionist Networks
Communal identities are a form of insular networking which functions to protect ‘insiders’ and perceived community values and ways of life from external forces of change. Beggs, Hurlbert and Haines (1996) refer to this concept as community attachment, and Larsen (2004) describes this as Place Making.  Within these networks strong bonds occur and can lead to communities joining together for social change; in a case study of a resource dependent community in northern British Columbia Canada Larsen notes that the community members “… turned the act of place making into a tactic of resistance, using it to protest and, in some cases, defeat large-scale resource projects such as hydroelectric dams”. This bonding together of individuals over a place and an outside force which threatens that place can occur for many different reasons.  Harner (2001) examines how place identity is constructed through a relationship between landscapes and power relationships, and how these can be important in a time of political economic changes. The place identity either being created by or triggered by an exterior force and community support is required to protect the rural way of life. Larsen’s case study in British Columbia is based on this pretext, that the formation of protectionist networks is formed out of a sense of place and the need to protect that space from undesirable developments or actions.  Industrialization of rural landscapes can be a factor which may trigger community action through a strong sense of place identity and result in grass-roots movements to protect community values.

Wind Power Context
Wind power in Canada is a relatively new development in the rural landscape. In addition to the development of wind facilities in rural communities across the country rural communities are facing increased infrastructure demands as well as decreasing financial resources which can play a role into how wind developers are viewed by the community. It is important for wind developers to consider many factors when entering communities. 

As decisions on where to place wind developments are primarily resource based, it is difficult for many developers to choose communities which welcome such developments, and as is beginning to occur in some heavily developed areas of Ontario, communities which once welcomed wind developments are becoming fatigued with the sheer volume.

Below are some points which may help some developers, of even small projects, become better neighbours:

•    Understand the financial situation of your municipalities: It is important where possible to select communities which have the economic resources to handle all of the municipal approvals, inspections and consultations associated with permitting, constructing and operating a wind farm. Where this is not possible it would be a good gesture on the part of the developer to be prepared early on to provide support to the municipality to bring in third party consultants to assist in these items.

•    Participate in community events: Protectionist networks and place identity concentrate on ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’; it is therefore important that wind developers focus on integrating themselves into the communities that their projects will be a part of for 20 years or more. Examples of this include participation in summer and winter festivals, sponsoring sports teams, becoming members of local chamber of commerce,  and hiring local trades people to construct and operate the project.

•    Do some background research: Learn about the history of the community; you may never be considered a true insider, but learning about the roots of the community, how other developers may have upset community members, how other industries may have become insiders, etc. may help you to integrate and be good neighbours.

•    Operate in good faith: Be honest, up front and open with municipalities and all members of the community at every stage of the project.

•    Have a community liaison: If possible this should be someone who is already a community member who understands the development process, as well as the communities needs.

Sources:

Beggs, J. Hurlbert, S. & Haines, V. (1996). Community Attachment in a Rural Setting: A Refinement and Empirical Test of the Systemic Model. Rural Sociology, 61(3), 407-426.
Cloke, P. Milbourne, P. & Thomas C. (1997). Living Lives in Different Ways? Deprivation, Marginalization and Changing Lifestyles in Rural England. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series, 22(2) 210-230.
Harner, J. (2001) Place Identity and Copper Mining in Sonora, Mexico. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 91(4) 660-680.
Larsen, S. (2004). Place Identity in a Resource-Dependent Area of Northern British Columbia. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 94(4), 944-960.