VILLAGE DEVELOPMENT IN FINLAND: A ‘village book’ raises the profile of rural areas in Kouvola

Are rural areas an asset or a burden to the town of Kouvola? Do local authority decision-makers and officials know what kinds of villages their sprawling rural town hides? How can villages get their voices heard? Do even the residents of these villages actually appreciate where they live?

These were some of the questions put to Kouvola Villages Advisory Board last year. The first step towards finding answers was to compile information about the villages located on the outskirts of Kouvola.

investigative work was delegated to the most knowledgeable experts: the villagers themselves. Two local action groups known as Pohjois-Kymen Kasvu and Kymenlaakson Kylät as well as the Rural Services Department of the Town of Kouvola provided a support network for the project.

Johanna Hentinen from a local action group known as Linnaseutu gave a presentation at the project’s start-up meeting in August.

Traditional village plans have been found to be very labour-intensive, so the objective was to find a less burdensome model. The goal was to find a compromise between a traditional village plan and a purely promotional marketing brochure. This way the document could be used as a kind of business card for villages as well as mapping out village development initiatives to be carried out in the longer term.

The project group decided against a standardised model. Each village was free to choose both the content and the layout of their own section in the book. This way the book would also illustrate the diversity of rural areas. This approach was also hoped to boost the team spirit of the villages.

The book, which contains information about 42 different villages, was printed at the end of the year. The publisher was the Rural Services Department of the Town of Kouvola.

Each of the featured villages was given a copy hot from the press. The book was also distributed to the members of Kouvola Town Board, to the town councillors, and to various civil servants. The wide range of stakeholders were not forgotten either. The town’s libraries also got their copies, so that everyone can now enjoy the publication.

Demand for the book exceeded all expectations, and Kymenlaakson Kylät soon had to publish a second edition. An online version of the book ensures that people from outside the area can also read about the trials and triumphs of life in rural area

Uimila, the land of happy people

The village of Uimila, which is located on the outskirts of Heinola, calls itself ‘the land of happy people’. I decide to make a brief visit to the north-western corner of Kouvola to find out just why. I am greeted by Nina Anttonen, President of Uimila Village Association, and Kirsi Mäntynen, the association’s treasurer, who I instantly recognise as living examples of the bold statements featured in the book.

One phrase from the book – “Uimila is a village of people of all ages” – comes to mind as soon as I get to Kirsi Mäntynen’s house. The door is opened by Anni, who has just returned from school. This makes a total of eight children in the house now that Nina Anttonen has also brought her two toddlers to visit with the neighbours. Some of the older children have already moved away from home.

Anni Mäntynen has worked several summers at the local shop. She has now passed her job on to her younger sister, Fiia. There is absolutely no sign of the myth that villages are run by grumpy old men and women here.

Families at the heart of village action

So how on earth do you get teenagers involved in village action?

“Families are at the heart of village action in Uimila. We are used to doing everything together. Children learn the passion for teamwork at a young age. Having the children involved makes the transition from one generation to the next the most natural thing in the world. Children and youngsters often put on their own shows at the Village Association’s events, and they help out with the local shop in the summers. After a while of tagging along, the kids become a real asset to the Village Association”, Nina and Kirsi explain.

The children learn the importance of team spirit from the example set by their parents. Anni has genuinely enjoyed her work at the local shop:

“It is a great place to meet people and to do something worthwhile.”

The fact that young men from the village and the nearby holiday homes tend to hang around the shop probably also helps. The boys come to the newsagent’s either for Coca-Cola or for girls.

“We are always asking the youngsters for their thoughts and ideas, and we factor them into the Village Association’s activities. We have no young representatives on the Board of Directors, but the youngsters get to have their say in village meetings, for example”, Nina explains.

Local pool of performers and directors

The children and young people of Uimila like to put on shows both for their own community and for the neighbouring villages. The dance performances, plays, and comedy shows put on by the younger residents have been some of the most popular attractions at the Village Association’s events over the years. A play called Sillyella, which was a 21st century adaptation of the classic story of Cinderella, still drives Nina and Kirsi into hysterics.

The youngsters’ dance performances have also been great successes. One of the most memorable shows was a parody of a famous Finnish dance instructor performed by Kirsi Mäntynen’s son, Santeri.

“But then he is amazing in any role”, Nina says.

The youngsters cannot do it all by themselves, because someone also needs to direct the shows. Thankfully, the village has its own directors: Nina Anttonen and Liisa Mäntynen.

Mari Kulomaa is a name that I hear both in connection with running the local shop and recruiting the younger residents of the village to work there in the summers. She is known as the mother of the village.

Rewards for working for the common good

The residents of Uimila also know how to reward those who contribute to the community. The Villager of the Year award is presented at the Christmas party every December. There is also a whole host of distinctions to be won. Both Anni Mäntynen and Fiia Mäntynen have been given distinctions.

“Getting recognition makes you feel like you really have done something useful to help the village. It is also useful to those who get the distinction, because they are given a written roll of honour. The roll of honour explains why the distinction has been given. I have used it when I have applied for summer jobs in the past. After all, it is also proof of my work experience”, Anni explains.

The villagers’ own website is one of the biggest sources of pride in Uimila.

“Minttu Purrenheimo, who created the website, was only 17 years old when she designed it for the Village Association. She got really into web design and continued to update the site for several years”, Nina Anttonen explains.

Despite its briefness, my visit to Uimila certainly answers the question about whether villages are an asset or a burden. The rural areas around Kouvola are full of clever and enthusiastic people of all ages who are not afraid to put themselves on the line. I have to conclude that villages are definitely an asset for Kouvola. A strong team spirit both among villages and between villages and the town is a valuable advantage.

Text: Anne Mettälä, Pohjois-Kymen kasvu ry

Photo: Anne Mettälä, Nina Anttonen, Kirsi Mäntynen and Sirpa Vähäuski