Edith Wouters: explorations in the Estonian Countryside: How to Make Villages Smart?

During a two-week stay in MAAJAAM, an artist residency in Neeruti village near Otepää, Belgian architect Edith Wouters reflected on what a desired future for villages in the countryside could be. She set up a smart village office ‘Nutiküla Stuudio’ in the hamlet Ojaveere in Neeruti village, during the Open Farm Days on July 20th and 21st 2019, in which Estonian villagers, citizens and experts participated.

The Estonian countryside is changing rapidly. Due to migration towards the cities and upscaling of agriculture, numerous farms have been abandoned and the dispersed villages are gradually shrinking. In the best case, former inhabitants are replaced by urban citizens looking for peace and inspiration in the countryside. But what does it mean for the resilience of the villages, for the social networks and living environments in the countryside?

Let’s have a closer look at a typical hamlet like Ojaveere in Neeruti village, consisting of five traditional farms. The impact of the aforementioned larger influences like the move towards the cities, the shrinking of villages and the nostalgia for the countryside is also visible in this small section of the countryside. Other farms in the neighbourhood are inhabited as weekend retreats, which usually shows by the way people treat their land. It often looks a bit too clean with planted flower borders amongst others. In Ojaveere, one of the farmhouses was abandoned years ago. What remains are its ruins. Its land is cultivated by a large landowner. Some ten years ago, an older couple bought another farm in the same hamlet with the accompanying farmland. They gave it a new life, turning it into a pony farm. When a third adjacent farm was sold, they bought its land, including the farmhouse. This is where their son founded a cultural project space, supported with subsidies of the European LEADER-program1. The fourth farm is still in use. Recently the heirs of the fifth farm put it on the market. The large landowner showed his interest in the land but not in the farmhouse, meaning the farm will probably fall prey to the elements in case he becomes the owner while the community of the hamlet will become less resilient. What would be smart to do for this kind of village?

Photo Edith Wouters

How do we define an essentially “smart” village2? The word cloud of characteristics of a smart village I gathered from participants in Nutiküla Stuudio includes concepts ranging from the need for community building activities, inclusiveness for all ages and cooperation between people and organizations over biodiversity and clean energy to shared assets and skills. All this can be encouraged by a platform for information, communication and transactions. It is clear that digital connection is one but not the most important characteristic of a really smart village. The real challenge is not about collecting digital data or realizing another platform or application, it is all about people, how you shape a strong community of people and how their living environment and essentially their quality of life can be improved. At best, a smart village combines both digital and physical connections of people – neighbours and others – on the one hand, and spaces – the local setting and the world around it – on the other hand. This is in order to shape a community of people you can rely on in good and in bad times and make life in rural areas resilient throughout the seasons. 

So, could it be a scenario for the village that the remaining inhabitants take matters in their own hands and try to strengthen their community and improve their living conditions by attracting related souls who might be interested in buying the farmhouse? No doubt this is easier said than done and it asks for negotiation skills of the residents and good will of the owners of the land which will be sold. 

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Read more from Maja’s 2020 winter edition (No 99).

EDITH WOUTERS runs the cultural architecture practice CAPasitee, and is artistic director of AR-TUR, the centre of architecture, urbanity and landscape in the Campine region, a rural region in the north of Belgium. In the Campine lab, AR-TUR is in search of new insights into spatial challenges in the region, bringing people together in a free cultural space. www.capasitee.com / www.ar-tur.be

Photo above: Timo Toots

1 https://linc2019.eu/leader-eestis/

2 The working definition of the European network for Rural Development is as follows: “Smart Villages are communities in rural areas that use innovative solutions to improve their resilience, building on local strengths and opportunities. They rely on a participatory approach to develop and implement their strategy to improve their economic, social and/or environmental conditions, in particular by mobilizing solutions offered by digital technologies. Smart Villages benefit from cooperation and alliances with other communities and actors in rural and urban areas. The initiation and the implementation of Smart Village strategies may build on existing initiatives and can be funded by a variety of public and private sources.”