Long read for country living aficionados
In Estonia, an annual Maale Elama fair is organised for people who have an inkling to move to the countryside. As any modern country, urbanisation is a problem here too. Approximately 100 000 country homes are empty. Some politicians have even said empty rural areas near the border are a national security risk. The decision to move to the countryside is a tough one so the communities (parishes, villages etc) come to the fair and give people the opportunity to meet potential neighbors. For an example, thanks to this movement, fair and website, there are villages in far flung Setomaa (a region by the Russian border in the South-East of Estonia) where almost all the farms are occupied again, there are businesses, culture events and strong sense of community. Neat, ay?
We as a HUB and a community also serve the southern area of Estonia, so we decided to chip in. We were there and organised an event called Ideepõld, using the LeanCoffee Method. We recruited Kaarel Oras, an ex-Sportlyzer and seasoned IT field specialist to lead the sessions. He has lived in the countryside in Jõgevamaa more than 7 years and knows all the issues pretty well.
What kind of ideas sprung up? Here's the lineup:
Free land was a hot topic and we had all sorts of good ideas. For an example, the government or the local government could purchase the empty farms and houses and offer them to people moving to the countryside on reasonable terms. As I mentioned - there are 100 000 empty country homes in Estonia. One parish in Estonia - Saare - has actually tackled this problem. They offer free land for people in exchange that they turn it habitable (build a house or fix up an existing one) in 4 years. This is called Voore Noorteküla.
Also there were ideas to bring back life to disused buildings by turning them into skateparks etc. The participants also included the head of the parish of Antsla, Merike Prätz who said that it makes a lot easier to start new exciting things when you...well, ask the local authority. Ask and thou shall be given, as they say!
The discussion also converted into a different subject: looser construction etc rules. Although everyone agreed it makes little sense to turn a blind eye on the safety and security rules, it would make everything a lot easier if the application process for various permits wouldn't be as gruelling. Which is interesting as Estonia prides itself as the e-state - apparently there are areas where the e is a barely there silent one.
Entrepreneurship in the countryside was a heated topic. Sadly taxes and such are things that local government can not change but there are lots of local governments who are happy to help by offering cheaper rent on production spaces and finding valuable contacts and even potential employees. Of course, the county developmental centres for business are also a valuable resource to anyone thinking about starting a business, and their free consultations may easily be the bit that tip the scales towards opening a business in the countryside.
People felt strongly that there should be gymnasiums (high schools) in the local centres aswell even if it doesn't make financial and budget sense. The reason behind this is the longer the youths spend in their local surroundings the more likely they will return later in life, be it after university, a period abroad or in sky rise offices in Tallinn. The current situation is going to take the gymnasiums away to bigger towns and cities which means a daily commute of 30-80 km for the student - something many families can not afford. Although there are means to tackle it, local buses etc, there are always examples when it doesn't work. Merike Prätz said she knows of children who have to rely on bicycles for transport, even in the dead of winter because the family can't afford the bus. Moving gymnasiums away may create a new situation where there will be a new group of people with only basic education who will therefore have less opportunities and who may feel inferior to everyone else. The result: poverty, crime, poor living conditions, a new generation with a poor start in life – and a vicious circle that keeps on rolling.
Problems with employment was also a tough topic. Many companies have problems finding local skilled employees so they have to import them from the next town or city which makes it tough for business in the countryside and people living there. Another vicious circle.
As you can see, in a mere 3 hours we managed to discuss some rather important subjects. In case you are interested in participating in another Ideepõld, there's one taking place on 14th May in Tallinn, in the Maale Elama fair for North Estonia, organised by Garage48 HUB Tallinn. Check it out.