In a rapidly urbanizing world rural regions are easily overlooked. They are challenged by low-population densities,long distances, lower services and fewer amenities. Their are small. So it is easy to forget how important they are. But urban Ontario is deeply dependent on its rural regions. Agri-food is Ontario’s largest industrial sector. Minerals, energy, and timber flow from rural areas to feed industry. Environmental services like clean water, carbon sequestration, and air purification, recreational benefits of rural landscapes and wilderness and the preservation of Canada’s deep rural identity all depend on healthy rural regions. As our urban centres grow rural regions deserve
ever greater appreciation.

The Rural Planning and Development program in the University of Guelph’s School of Environmental Design and Rural Development (SEDRD) maintains a strong focus on rural regional development and its components: agriculture, food, water, resources, stewardship and community. This focus encompasses research projects on rural regions in Ontario, across Canada and internationally.

Regional Development
The Evaluating Rural Economic Development Initiatives (EREDI)project is assessing the ideas of new regionalism. This suggests that successful regional economic development emerges where regional strengths and assets are recognized and enhanced and the region emerges as a locus for economic, social and political action. Led by John Devlin and involving faculty and students the EREDI project asks, under what conditions an enabling environment,enhanced human and social capital, active networks, shared regional identity and strong institutional and governance structures emerge in rural regions.

Labour Force Strategy
Harry Cummings and a team of graduate students have been examining labour markets for Huron, Perth, Bruce and Gray counties for the Four County Labour Market Planning Board. They are using census data as well as data collected through employer, employee and high school student surveys. Presentations have been made this spring to the Huron County Council and the Huron Manufacturing Association focusing on effective labour market strategies for the regional economy.

Agriculture and Local Food
Through the SSHRC funded Planning for Agriculture in Canada: Connecting Agricultural Policy with the Public Interest in Food Sovereignty, Wayne Caldwell and a team of graduate students are looking at land use practices in Ontario that support food sovereignty. Additional projects focus on the role of co-operatives in the local food system and the role that mobile abattoirs can play in food processing and the development of a local food sector.

Water and Waste Water Services
John FitzGibbon? and his students are researching municipal water and waste water services. One study is investigating the opportunities and impacts of collaborative delivery on the sustainability of municipal water services. They have interviewed water services managers in 175 municipalities and developed an integrated water supply and waste water management database of all 440 municipalities in Ontario. The outcome will be a Best Practices Manual for collaborations on municipal water services. A second study is investigating the potential of private water supply and waste water systems as a delivery option for municipalities.

Immigration and Healthy Rural Communities
Two separate projects lead by Wayne Caldwell are exploring the factors that impact the health of rural communities and rural residents. The project, Working with new immigrants: Policy and program implications for rural areas, examines the role that rural municipalities can play in attracting and retaining immigrants. A second project funded by Public Health Ontario examines the health of rural populations, noting important and problematic differences compared to urban populations. Rates of obesity, heart disease and suicide are worrying. There are a host of land use, social, economic and environmental factors that contribute to these rural health outcomes. This research explores these factors and identifies practices that rural municipalities may pursue in planning to improve the health of their residents.

Impact Assessment and Monitoring
Natural Resources Canada suggests that over the next 10 years there will be 600 major resource projects representing $650-billion in new investments initiated in rural and northern Canada amid promises of high economic returns, cumulative social benefits and limited environmental impacts. John Devlin is asking how the impacts of these projects will be assessed and monitored given the remote locations and prohibitive expense of travel. He is assessing the potential for crowdsourcing economic, social and environmental data to allow for long-term community-based monitoring of resource development projects through the use of social media and online data archiving.

Rural Planning Program
“Being based in the Ontario Agricultural College, we are situated within one of the most highly regarded colleges in the world for rural research,” says Caldwell. The Rural Planning program maintains active connections with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, the Ministry of Rural Affairs, numerous rural municipalities and civil society organizations such as the Rural Ontario Institute, the Southwest Economic Alliance, Ontario Farmland Trust and the Organic Council of Ontario. Within SEDRD, Landscape Architecture and Capacity Development and Extension also provide resources and enhance teaching and learning opportunities for students interested in rural planning.
The Rural Planning program also actively pursues international research. In fact, the MSc in Rural Planning and Development includes accredited Canadian and international streams. Recent international research includes a participatory evaluation of beekeeping training in Vietnam and studies of small and medium enterprise clusters in India as well as cleaner production systems in the Philippines conducted by Nonita Yap.A report on the impact of training for community health promoters on maternal and child health in Tamil Nadu, India has been completed by Harry Cummings working with the Canadian Red Cross and Indian Red Cross. John FitzSimons? has been exploring agricultural development in Liberia, gender impact of an agricultural project in N. Nigeria, and small farmer vulnerability and adaption to climate change in N. Nigeria.

Over the past five years Rural Planning and Development faculty and students have been keeping rural regions in focus through research in many countries including: Australia, Brazil,Chile, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Egypt, El Salvador,Ethiopia, Ghana, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Latvia, Liberia, Malawi, Mexico, Mozambique, Nepal, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Philippines, Scotland, South Africa, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, USA, Uganda, Vietnam, Zimbabwe and Canada.

This article first appeared in "Ontario Planning | Fourth Annual Planning School Edition", July / August 2014, Vol.29, No.4, pp. 18-19