Sustainable development of rural regions; Insights on land use and policy from the Shetlands Islands

L.G. Horlings*, Y. Kanemasu

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

28 Citations (Scopus)


To address rural diversity, a place-based approach to sustainable development becomes more relevant. Place-based approaches to development are said to strengthen the resilience of rural areas against global pressures by decreasing state dependencies and increasing the economic competitiveness of rural areas. How can such place-based trajectories be analysed and understood in the context of European rural regions? On the basis of empirical research undertaken in 2008 and 2010 as well as (updated) data since then, this paper traces the rural changes in time on the Shetland Islands in the UK. We have applied the model of the rural web as an analytical tool. While the web has been used to ‘picture’ the interactions between domains of the web at a specific and static moment in time, we test if the rural web can be used to analyse changing rural relations over time, thus capturing rural dynamics and describing varied development trajectories. The case of the Shetlands Island illustrates such competing development trajectories, expressed in conflicts over land use, the branding strategy and its contested policies towards a large wind energy project. Our hypothesis is that in Shetland we can witness elements of bio- and eco-economic development trajectories, each underpinning an alternative model for economic growth and sustainable development. These trajectories frame notions of place, space and time in different ways. The central question addressed in this paper is: how can the rural web be applied to analyse rural dynamics and development trajectories, in the empirical case of the Shetlands Islands? The process of unfolding of the rural web in Shetland indicates dependence on its place-based specificities, resting on a complex interplay between the agency of individual and institutional actors as well as wider structural conditions and pressures. The outcome of the unfolding of this web may be implicated in the development of an eco-economy. On the other hand, the planned new large wind farm has led to contestation over the future development trajectory of Shetland; this can be considered as an ambitious bio-economic project to substitute for oil as a large-scale corporate-led investment. The web as a framework for retrospective and comparative analysis has enabled us to study the ongoing change Shetland has undergone from a “peripheral”, “clientelist countryside” to a “segmented area”, characterised by a unique and shifting configuration of rural development domains. The web, used in the manner attempted here, highlights the dynamism and captures the multidimensionality inherent in rural development processes. The findings can inform the debate on how to achieve an effective interplay between agency and institutions, and balance ‘bottom–up’ versus ‘top–down’ approaches to development.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)310-321
JournalLand Use Policy
Publication statusPublished - 2015


  • Bio-economy
  • Branding
  • Eco-economy
  • Institutions
  • Policy
  • Regional development
  • Rural development
  • Rural web
  • Sustainability
  • Wind energy


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