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Can You Have Healthy Rural Individuals Without Viable Rural Communities?

posted Aug 10, 2016, 9:51 AM by Josie Maroney

Can You Have Healthy Rural Individuals Without Viable Rural Communities?

“When you visit or drive through many of New York’s rural villages and small cities, the loss of Main Street retail and service businesses is painfully obvious. In some communities, the sight of abandoned brick buildings signals the loss of local schools through consolidation. The absence of doctor’s offices and grocery stores also indicates the extent to which a rural population center lacks critical services to support the health and well-being of residents, especially those who do not drive.” (Page 120, Rural Broome Counts Final Report).

The de-population and economic decline of rural places has been taking place since the industrial revolution and is a global phenomenon. With this in mind, the Viability Indicator section of the Rural Broome Counts Report was included to establish baseline information on the economic, social, and civic infrastructure of four rural Broome County village centers and their corresponding school districts and townships. Rural Health Network of South Central New York (RHNSCNY) will periodically revisit these communities and report on how the indicators are trending. We will be able to show both losses and gains and be in a better position to consider how what is happening at the community level impacts health and well-being.

For local governments, school districts, and organizations involved in improving the lives of rural community residents, having baseline information for each community and then periodic updates will be an opportunity to celebrate successes, identify threats (e.g., potential loss of a health facility or food store), and provide some of the information needed to advocate for the services and economic opportunities essential to rural viability and resiliency.

The seed for this idea of Rural Viability may have been first planted when I learned many years ago that the Kylätoiminta /Finnish Village Action movement had received a Right Livelihood Award. The Right Livelihood Award is often described as the alternative Nobel Prize. In response to rural de-population in Finland in the 1960s and 1970s, a system of Village Committees was originally initiated as a university research project. The Village Committees became a way for these small rural communities to work together to address the myriad of economic and social issues they were confronted with. The Right Livelihood Award website reports that there were about 4,000 Village Committees operating in Finland as of 2009. Similar rural village movements have been initiated throughout Europe.

“The Village Committees are an expression of small-scale collective action over individualism. Communal facilities are emphasized or restored, as are public and social services, such as health, postal or transport services. One academic wrote in 1986: "Although village activity has achieved much that is of positive value, its importance lies much deeper. In the long run its greatest importance is in the change in people's attitudes. The former passivity and submissivity have given way to a new vigour, self-reliance and community spirit and to better awareness of opportunities for activities and assistance” .

The Viability Indicator project is a tangible way Rural Health Network of South Central New York can support the small rural communities of Broome County and the region. Organizing, presenting, and tracking viability indicators at the community level will contribute to better decision making, targeted advocacy, and, ideally, celebration as our rural communities strengthen and prosper.  

Jack Salo
Executive Director, RHNSCNY