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Home » Committee of Regions, Energy & Environment, Rural Development

Playing around in the Rural-Urban Fringe

Submitted by on 18 Oct 2012 – 16:43

By Professor Alister Scott and Anne Liddon

Feelings can run high over planning issues affecting the rural-urban fringe. This is certainly the case in the county of Rufshire, as debates rage over the competing demands of housing, green spaces and opportunities for rural enterprise, not to mention an application for building a megadairy.

While Rufshire is entirely hypothetical, the contestation reflects the daily experience across many rural-urban fringe spaces within the EU in general and the UK in particular. The ‘fringe’ is now the most extensive area of the UK; an often disputed and fuzzy space where town (built environment) and country (natural environment) intersect in terms of physical land uses, but also through urban and rural values and interests. This creates diverse opportunity spaces but also areas ‘waiting for something better to happen’. Neither urban nor rural, they are rarely planned for as places in their own right. This means that often the fringe becomes a by-product of other plans and strategies resulting in a complex, ‘messy’ and ‘disintegrated’ space.

Rufshire forms a hypothetical area within which real fringe issues can be examined as part of an innovative learning tool called Rufopoly, one output from a research project that has at its heart the desire to integrate the built and natural environment. Currently these are ‘disintegrated’; pursued separately through the frameworks of spatial planning and the ecosystem approach respectively. The terms are also shrouded in academic and scientific complexity alienating publics and inhibiting wider understanding. The goal was, through the fusion of these two frameworks and using the resources of a research team built on both academic and policy representatives, to identify more accessible and understandable themes of “values”, “connections” and “long termism”.

Stakeholder engagement and the development of novel approaches are key requirements of all research within the Rural Economy and Land Use Programme (Relu), of which the project is part, and the programme is known for putting on events that showcase these philosophies. Challenged to come up with an engaging activity at a major conference, the team hit on the idea of a board game taking players into the fictional county of Rufshire, where major urban development shade into the truly rural, across a variety of landscapes. Each square contains questions and opportunities based on evidence collected in the research process. When faced with planning dilemmas, players have to make choices according to their personal values. Questions such as how to address flooding in residential areas, whether a community biodigestion plant opposed by a small number of residents should be approved and where areas of housing and business units should be built, all crop up during the game and all have emerged from the primary data as captured through visioning and workshop activities.

Players throw dice to decide their moves around the board. The dice become an important metaphor for power and influence, as players are only able to answer questions they land on by chance. A facilitator accompanies each player on their personal journey, noting their choices and prompting full justifications. This means that when they reach the end of the game (square 28) they are required to prepare a vision for Rufshire based on the sum total of their previous decisions. It is possible to challenge decisions and inconsistencies and to compare their choices with the values that they originally declared. Hitherto unsuspected complexities and apparent contradictions emerge, just as in real life. But the journey the player has taken should help them to understand their own motivations, and to construct a realistic vision for the future of Rufshire and to think about how it impacts upon their own communities.

The game has been used with a range of players. Emerging from a project that has involved some very complex ideas and research concepts, it provides an accessible tool for working with individuals and communities. You don’t need to know about planning legislation or to understand arcane jargon planners to get involved. It has proved to be a hit with students, planning professionals, policymakers and decision makers. Officers from the Scottish Government, Welsh Assembly Government, County Council Cabinet members, RTPI, schoolchildren, communities and elected members of local government have played Rufopoly and say that they would find it useful for training and decision making.

Looking ahead, it is possible to see a wide variety of possible further applications. It is already being used as a teaching tool and local government officials have commented on its potential value for training councillors new to planning committees. Community groups involved in planning decisions could also learn much from playing Rufopoly and it could, perhaps, help to bring together opposing viewpoints and assist in conflict resolution. Bespoke versions of the game might even be produced for real districts.

Of course a computer game version is another possible option. This would enable a myriad of different routes to be explored within the basic Rufopoly design, and opens up the possibility of players being able to see immediately the potential outcomes of their decisions. However, it is worth noting how the social interaction and exchanges within a board game version have been seen as a welcome difference from our IT dominated world.

The future direction of Rufopoly is currently being explored within Birmingham City University and other stakeholders and the researchers are very enthusiastic about the possibilities. Whichever of them come to fruition, Rufopoly provides an excellent example of how thinking creatively about stakeholder engagement and stepping outside our familiar comfort zones can bring unexpected dividends