Vibrant Villages

Finland is undergoing a rural renaissance

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The summer sun lingers high in the evening sky as residents of Ramsoo gather in the community's open-air theater. About half of the village's 220 residents are on hand and applaud the good news that they netted almost $25,000 at last month's country fair, which drew people from all over central Finland. Part of the money has been targeted to pay for paving the road that runs through the village, and it's suggested that some be spent on another fair, this one just for the people of Ramsoo. Without a second's delay, the young woman running the meeting asks for volunteers to prepare salads and cook potatoes. Next on the agenda is recognition for the crew--mostly retired men--who built this new theater, which is also used for theatrical performances put on by the villagers each summer. The group explodes in cheers as each of the volunteers steps up to receive a commemorative key and quick kiss.

The people of Ramsoo may not realize it, but this little event--the monthly meeting of the local Village Action Committee--runs counter to the current of human progress, as progress has been explained to us to by government planners, business leaders, and the mainstream media. Village life is supposed to be a relic of the past, especially in the industrialized North. And even in the developing nations of the South it is on its way out as their economies mature and join the global marketplace. But the people of Ramsoo, and of many other Finnish villages, have been disproving this 'wisdom' since the 1970s.

For many years economic and political trends in Finland were decidedly anti-village--despite a traditional Finnish love for small places. Schools and post offices were closed by the government, shops went out of business, and people retreated from public activity as television and social service agencies replaced traditional patterns of recreation and community service. Through the '60s and '70s, Finnish villages began to empty as young people sought jobs and cultural amenities in regional cities, in Helsinki, or in Sweden.

'These were the signals of death to many villagers,' writes Hillka Pietila, a lecturer at the University of Helsinki and researcher on development issues, in the book Rebuilding Communities (edited by Vithal Rajan, Green Books, 1993). 'For too long they had been waiting for action by the central government and administration--now they had to take their fate into their own hands.'

Village Action Committees sprang up during the '70s and '80s, offering new hope for rural Finland. Drawing on the power of talkoot, villages' strong tradition of voluntary community labor, the committees went to work creating economic opportunities, increasing political influence and enhancing community spirit and self-confidence.

Pietila notes that committees have not only worked hard to improve their communities' infrastructure--roads, buildings, sports grounds--but have also recorded and restored the cultural heritage of rural regions by recording local traditions and reviving convivial customs. The Village Action movement understands that it is not just jobs and good roads that make villages attractive places to live, but also cultural activities, a sense of tradition, and feelings of community.

Patricia Frank
1/12/2010 11:03:04 PM

What a beautifully written and encouraging article from Jay Walljasper. I love the idea of the Village Action Committees in Finland and what they stand for and what they're achieving. Given our current economic climate here in the U.S. and the number of jobs lost, I wonder if it's not time for us to pull together more in our small towns and get to work as they have done in Finland? Job creation at the town level could be an answer to help small towns thrive instead of languish. Thanks so much for this article. It's given me much food for thought. And it makes me want, very much, to visit, rural Finland.

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