Book Chapter

Rural regeneration


Architectural regeneration tends to be an urban affair. Regeneration projects that focus on the adaptation, reuse or repurposing of buildings or places are commonly focused on needs, challenges and opportunities in urban settings. Regardless of the nature or scale of a regeneration project (i.e. whether it is government- or community-led, permanent or temporary, or on a neighbourhood or building scale), it is almost inevitably city based. The literature on architectural regeneration equally focuses almost exclusively on urban regeneration. Studies that look at the history, economics, planning or design of architectural regeneration projects nearly all deal with the situation in towns and cities, most often in a Western (i.e. European or North American) context (Roberts and Sykes 2000; Pierson and Smith 2001; Leary and McCarthy 2013). This urban and Western focus is understandable seeing that the origins of the practice may be found in early attempts by late nineteenth century social reformers to alleviate the poor, crowded and unhygienic living conditions in the rapidly growing industrial cities of Europe and North America (Roberts and Sykes 2000; Hall 2014). It is even more understandable in view of the unprecedented level of urbanisation today, not just in the West but all around the world, and the inevitable interest in urban issues that this has generated (Nel-lo and Mele 2016). Nonetheless, it does mean that the extent to which architectural regeneration projects are carried out in non-urban, rural settings, is much less known and understood. The aim of this chapter is to address this gap in knowledge.  The interest in rural architecture has commonly lagged behind that in urban architecture. Apart from its sustained interest in country estates and village churches, architectural history has been predominantly a history of urban buildings (Fleming, Honour and Pevsner 1999; Sennott 2001; Curl 2006). Other disciplines like anthropology, ethnology or geography have similarly shown relatively little interest in rural architecture. The study of rural architecture has commonly been subsumed under the study of vernacular architecture, a field that itself has been consistently marginalised in architectural discourse (Oliver 1997; Asquith and Vellinga 2006; Brown and Maudlin 2012). The architectural design profession has similarly tended to prioritise work done in urban contexts. Nonetheless, the turn of the twenty-first century has seen a slowly increasing interest in rural architectural design. A large number of successful practices that expressly specialise in design in rural contexts have been established around the world. At the same time, various publications that deal with the specificities, challenges and opportunities of architectural design in rural contexts have begun to appear (Thorbeck 2012; Arendt 2017). However, much of this new interest is focused on new design in rural contexts and is thus not concerned with the regeneration of existing rural architecture, or rural regions; even if the new designs often draw on vernacular rural precedents. In some instances professional and academic interest has focused on the conversion of existing agricultural buildings, particularly barns, or the adaptation of rural housing for tourism purposes (e.g. Corbett-Winder and Parmiter 1990). Architectural regeneration projects that focus on the reuse and repurposing of rural architecture with the specific aim of revitalising not just the buildings, but the local communities, economies and places of which they form a part have received much less attention - other than as the focus of educational projects (see Orbasli, Vellinga, Wedel and Randell, this volume).   This academic and professional lack of interest in rural architectural regeneration is remarkable for two reasons. First of all, despite consistent popular conceptualisations of the rural countryside as an idyllic counterpart to the city, rural areas all around the world face serious social, economic and environmental challenges that are not dissimilar to those faced by urban communities. Problems like economic decline, environmental pollution, social division, substandard housing or poor healthcare facilities are not the prerogative of cities and urban conglomerations, but are equally prominent in rural towns and villages across the globe (Cloke, Marsden and Mooney 2006). Indeed, in some instances, especially in the developing world, they may be seen to be more acute than they are in urban areas. Of course the underlying causes of such issues and the specific ways in which they manifest themselves will be different in rural areas. One key distinction in this regard is that, whereas in urban areas problems are often caused by rapid and sometimes uncontrolled population growth, in rural places it is often the decline of population that creates and exacerbates difficulties. Although the literature on the social, demographic, economic and environmental challenges faced by rural areas and the ways in which they may be overcome by means of rural development programmes is extensive (Shepherd 1998; Moseley 2003), it hardly ever takes into account the role that architectural regeneration can play in such projects.  The second reason why the lack of interest in rural regeneration is remarkable is that in many parts of the world, rural architectural heritage is in a state of dilapidation and decline. In many countries, rural houses have often been abandoned by their owners or are now only inhabited by (often elderly) family members who do not have the resources to leave the area or maintain the buildings. In many cases, especially in the developing world, the inhabitants may have simply left the region and moved to the city, leaving behind buildings that they no longer need. In other instances, old buildings have been replaced by new houses that have been built alongside them and that incorporate more up-to-date facilities and conveniences, and better meet contemporary expectations of what a ‘modern’ house should look like. In yet other instances, rural housing remains inhabited, but the owners lack the means to properly maintain it or to adapt it to current requirements and standards. This may also be the fate of rural community buildings, such as parish churches, schools or village halls. In rural areas in the developed world that still maintain their agricultural function, it is not uncommon to come across abandoned farm buildings (barns, stables, sheds) that are no longer needed because they have been replaced by more modern facilities that better suit more intensive and industrialised contemporary farming practices. In those rural areas characterised by the presence of industrial buildings (for example in Eastern Europe), abandoned factories and high-rise housing blocks may dominate the rural landscape.  This chapter aims to provide an introduction to the topic of rural regeneration. It will argue that rural areas all around the world are environmentally, socially, economically and architecturally varied, dynamic and complex, and constitute what, in a European context, has been called a ‘differentiated countryside’ (Marsden et al. 1993). Rather than the bucolic backwaters of popular imagination, defined as ‘timeless’, ‘slow’ and ‘unchanging’ in direct and exclusive opposition to the ‘fast’ and dynamic city, rural areas are integral, productive and ever-changing parts of the modern world that face a complex myriad of demographic, environmental, social and economic challenges. Although unique in their specific manifestations, those challenges are not unlike those faced by urban areas. The chapter will show that, despite a common recognition of the challenges faced by rural areas all around the world, work in the field of rural regeneration has lagged behind that in urban contexts. It will argue that architectural regeneration projects that build on existing local opportunities, take into account place-specific cultural characteristics and use the transformative potential of architecture may nonetheless help to enhance and develop rural economies, places and communities in the same way that their urban counterparts do so in cities.  The chapter is based on a literature review that covers several topics of importance to our understanding of rural areas, including the definition and perception of rurality, rural-urban relationships, the transformation of rural space and architecture, and current economic and social trends. It further includes several case studies from a number of European countries (Croatia, Slovenia, Italy and Poland) that present examples of the different contexts in which architectural regeneration can appear.

Attached files


Vellinga, Marcel
LonĨar, Sanja

Oxford Brookes departments

School of Architecture


Year of publication: 2020
Date of RADAR deposit: 2020-01-28

All rights reserved.

Related resources

This RADAR resource is the Accepted Manuscript of Rural regeneration
This RADAR resource is Part of Architectural Regeneration [ISBN: 9781119340331] / edited by Aylin Orbasli, Marcel Vellinga (Wiley, 2020).


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