A foggy meadow.
English Tiededebatti

What is the scale of territorial coherence that encourages endogenous governance?

Lukuaika: 15 min.

Territorial identity remains significant to ensure place-based self-governance and feelings of being involved in regional decision-making.

Rural shrinking and administrative-territorial reform

The issue of shrinking has been a significant concern for network-oriented regional planning. Decreasing and ageing population means also diminishing resources and thus difficulties in preserving the social services for remaining inhabitants. One of the  common strategies used to address this issue in European regional policy is the amalgamation of municipalities through administrative reform, which aims to spare administrative cost for more effective municipality management. Such a reform was introduced also in Estonia in 2017.

In this article, we examine how sparsely populated regions in Estonia were shaped by this administrative-territorial reform. While uniting small municipalities into bigger ones, the reform was attentive towards small communities and tried to preserve agency and decision-making capacity there by introducing pluralist governance model. To preserve local identity and empower civil governance in the merged municipalities, it was mandatory to create territorial municipality districts with particular governance bodies. Relying on bottom-up knowledge, these governance assemblies would communicate with wider structural governance networks.

To examine the impact of the reform to communities, we chose to study three case studies – municipality districts with their villages in different merged municipalities in Estonia. We did fieldwork in:

  • Saaremaa Municipality, an island on the Western border of Estonia, the largest rural municipality in terms of territory and popular interior tourism target;
  • Saue Municipality in Northern Estonia, the biggest rural municipality in terms of population, strongly influenced by the capital city of Estonia, Tallinn;
  • Põlva Municipality in the South-Eastern part of Estonia, in the shrinking process in terms of both economy and population.

In these areas, we focused on the processes of administrative territorial bordering in relation to endogenous governance. In particular, we were interested in how rural-urban networks with human capital have shaped endogenous governance structures. To accomplish this, we conducted participant observation and in-depth interviews with locals (N=60).

A long festive dinner table outside by a windmill.
Celebration of the Estonian re-independence day in the yard of a tourist farm. Photo: Raili Nugin.

Re-bordering municipality districts

The reform established borders of the smaller municipality districts within the merged municipalities, which were mostly based on previous municipality borders. The aim of this was to preserve the agency and social networks of the previously existing communities. In some cases, however, new municipality districts were created. The borders of these districts did not always coincide with the preferences of the locals.

Such an example was a municipality district assembly created in Saue Municipality, located close to the capital of Tallinn. The locals did not agree with the proposed borders within the framework of the reform, having both pragmatic and representational reasons to change these. The new district assembly reasoned the need to change the borders with a need to preserve the uniqueness and heritage of this municipality district and suggested that its borders have to be based on the borders of sparsely populated area. Thus, their new development plan left out some densely populated settlements from it, while at the same time included some additional dispersed villages further away that were not originally in the municipality district plan.

This inclusion of villages helped to attain a certain population number to preserve the status of this municipality district as service centre. This would secure certain budget facilities for local cultural activities initiated by locals. Some interviewees revealed that the new borders were established by a handful of urban incomers to prevent urbanisation pressure in this region.

Historical borders are symbolically important but can be reshaped according to the current development perspective, reasoning also along the lines of rural/urban representation.

Rearranging the municipality district borders also helped to manage the transportation issues, as its people’s commuting needs in relation to Tallinn differed from the region that they left out from the rearranged district bordering.


Historical borders are symbolically important but can be reshaped according to the current development perspective, reasoning also along the lines of rural/urban representation. The idea of the reform was to arrange the districts around the small towns that were supposed to gain importance as regional centres, thus enhancing their previous position by tying the municipal districts more with these towns.

While this worked well with some district centres (such as Kuressaare) and these became very important in terms of work, medical care, employment opportunities and food supply, in other cases this aim did not work that well. For instance, in Saue, people still tended to commute to Tallinn. In Põlva region, many people commuted to Tartu rather than Põlva. Hence, not all towns could avoid the shrinking process.

The reform also affected the mobility practices of the new districts, as there appeared more resources to build or renovate the roads in the region. However, sometimes in the new districts the voices of those local activists, who were involved in diverse rural/urban networks, were more influential. Often, they brought new understanding about the management of social places and surrounding landscapes.

In Saue Municipality, for example, some informants were very enthusiastic about the prospect of asphalting roads as well as light traffic roads, which besides mobility safety were also expected to become important encountering places related to the emergence of new public spaces. This could conflict with the interests of some local residents who had been living in the area for longer and were worried about the loss of previous landscape. Some had also practical concerns such as herding the cattle across the roads, where the speed of the cars was now higher.

Cattle in the meadow.
Cattle in the meadow. Photo: Raili Nugin.

The scale of self-governance

Before the reform, local level decisions that included village community opinion were enacted in many cases through the village head/association, who proposed their ideas to the municipality council. Now, after creating municipality districts, some activists felt that adding one more layer to hierarchy distanced the governing decisions. According to some activists, their powers were now limited to organizing local cultural events, instead of having a say in larger issues, such as education or road maintenance.

In these interpretations, citizen activism with the village heads was tactically regarded not effective anymore. Another factor contributing to the feeling of being left aside was ineffective communication between villages and municipal governance after the merge. People were concerned that they were unable to participate in strategic discussions.

Yet, there were other informants, who saw positive sides when discussing merging into a bigger municipality. Some pointed out the potential of a municipality district to bring more people with extensive networks together. Others noticed that the political intrigues in small localities tend to disappear, when people fight for mutual local issues within a bigger municipality district.

Feelings of alienation should be taken seriously, as due to this many former local activists may step aside and quit local activities. This potentially causes a decline in community activism, which may also affect place-based self-realization of other inhabitants.

The importance of extensive networking within new municipalities was also mentioned, especially in localities, where active people expressed involvement fatigue. The people who had already contributed their voluntary work in local communities for years felt that they could take a break. However, in some localities the informants could complain about people with extended networks and cultural and social capital, who were accused of causing intrigues and power abuse in personal interests.

For example, in one region one local activist working in a school was involved in the municipality council that was criticised for concentrating too much on developing physical infrastructure connected to the school. The council was accused of ignoring other, more pressing local issues. Overlooking issues important to the local community may lead to erosion of endemic knowledge about place character.

Feelings of alienation should be taken seriously, as due to this many former local activists may step aside and quit local activities. This potentially causes a decline in community activism, which may also affect place-based self-realization of other inhabitants.

Community feeling

The amalgamation of municipalities enabled smaller peripheral villages with sufficient social networks to attain project funding for local social and physical infrastructural objects. For instance, in Saaremaa Municipality locals gained additional funding for renovating a local community centre. According to a local activist, not only the renovation of the building was important, but also the entire process of applying and fighting for resources for the centre strengthened the sense of community.

Maintaining material infrastructure may strengthen community identity and foster willingness to act together, indicating a positive co-operation between the municipal government and civil society.

However, many interviewees indicated that after the reform larger municipalities and the districts within are too big to create a sense of a single community. Some interviewees argued how the merged municipality with vaguer district borders affected people’s perception about what community they represent. The others complained that in big rural municipalities the community becomes more anonymous, as they do not identify with all the people within it and feel no need to stand for it. In Saue Municipality, some interviewees indicated that it was now harder to find people to compete in local sport games in the name of the new municipality district, which remained more abstract to the inhabitants.

Maintaining material infrastructure may strengthen community identity and foster willingness to act together, indicating a positive co-operation between the municipal government and civil society.

Territorial identity and community cohesion

According to The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) territorial cohesion is considered as an important factor in governance policies to foster balanced regional development (OECD 2022). Our research showed that the reform affected the civil governance bound to territorial identity. Thus, regional bordering and community cohesion of local actors remains very important in addition to networked regional development. Self realization of local actors based on territorial identification contributes to landscape identity, continuity, and regional characteristics of the regions, thereby affecting landscape management dynamics. Such territorial identities are needed for locals to distinguish themselves from their neighbouring regions.

Outside picture of a block of flats.
Block of flats built during the collective farm era. Photo: Raili Nugin.

Sustainable regional development is fostered when the territory of administrative governance corresponds with the local socio-cultural dynamics and regional identity of the residents. This question is particularly relevant when integrating bottom-up civil governance and the community’s identity knowledge within the new power hierarchies.



Header photo: Raili Nugin

This Research Debate is based on the research article in Fennia: Kasemets, K., & Nugin, R. (2023). Everyday materialities, territorial bordering, and place-identity defined by recent administrative reform: reactions from Estonian dispersed ruralities. Fennia – International Journal of Geography, 200(2), 228–244.

The research has been funded by the Estonian Research Agency PRG 398 Landscape Approach to Rurbanity; Europe Research and Innovation funding programme under Grant Agreement No. 101077207, Project Eur-Asian Border Lab – Twinning for Advancing Trans-Regional Border Studies.


OECD (2022) Shrinking smartly in Estonia: Preparing Regions for Demographic Change. OECD Rural Studies, OECD Publishing, Paris. https://doi.org/10.1787/77cfe25e-en


Kadri Kasemets

Kadri Kasemets

Kasemets is a researcher in the Centre for Landscape and Culture, Tallinn University. Her research draws on cultural geography and landscape research. Her current work examines rural everyday geographies.

Raili Nugin

Raili Nugin

Nugin is a senior researcher in the Centre for Landscape and Culture, Tallinn University. She is inspired in merging sociological perspective with cultural studies. Her current research deals with social exclusion, migration, and liminalities in rural-urban relations.



Andres Rõigas

Andres Rõigas

Rõigas is a human geographer. He worked as a regional development specialist and mayor of a rural municipality. Since 2013, he has been working as a lecturer and researcher at the Viljandi Academy of Culture of the University of Tartu.

Communities from the local government’s point of view

Administrative-territorial reform in different countries has always raised a lot of questions regarding the meaning of the idea as well as possible criteria and mistakes. Post-reform identity issues and community cohesion have almost always taken an important role in the debates. Therefore, the issues raised on the agenda are multifaceted and it is often necessary to focus on finding compromises. At the same time, the reform process is usually slow and dependent on the prevailing politics. In this way, decisions regarding territoriality and space can be considered late, outdated, or even evaluating the situation in retrospect.

Also, communities cannot be defined from a single point of view. It is difficult to find a coherent explanation for such multifaceted phenomena as urban communities with blurred boundaries, virtual communities and ideological or religious communities. The definition is based on the given situation and what value is attributed to the community in the context and what function it carries. In the context of local government, we can define community in terms of a sense of a place or attachment to a place, describing the connection between an individual and an environment or place that is meaningful. So, we can define a community as a village or a neighborhood. In some cases, also as a former small municipality.

At this spatial level, closer ties, shared values, feelings, and expectations prevail between people, thereby creating a sense of community, on which local development opportunities are based. Thus, the existence of communities is a resource for the municipality, which can be used for the development of the region with skillful management. Unfortunately, in many cases local governments have not used the opportunities for local level involvement due to a lack of skills and resources.

Municipalities and regional politics

Here it is important not to confuse cause-effect relationships. Also in Estonia, administrative reform is sometimes related to regional political issues, often leaving administrative and local issues in the background. Until now, regional policy has been considered a structural policy, the shaping and implementation of which has rather limited influence and opportunities at the local government level. Engaging and investing in communities is probably one of the most effective measures. However, local governments can actively participate in the implementation of the national regional policy and the involvement of funds. At the same time, it is not possible to stop shrinking and aging in peripheral regions via existing regional political and administrative measures.

Due to the existing quality and availability of social infrastructure in rural areas, one can’t look for the reasons in the level of local services. Rather, regional policy solutions are not covered by the necessary measures. Moreover, in today’s information society, regional policy is still being tried to be carried out with the measures of the last century, focusing on fulfilling the tasks of municipalities through the development of social infrastructure and supporting the business environment, but rather leaving aside the factors that improve the living environment.

Saving administrative costs was not the most important goal when carrying out the administrative territorial reform. Rather, the need for increasing the capacity of local governments to provide high-quality public services was seen. Also, the growth of local governments’ ability to take advantage of development prerequisites, increase competitiveness and ensure more uniform development of the region were highlighted as priority goals. Saving administrative costs has been considered necessary in the development of the reform plan, but the need to involve better specialists in municipalities has essentially excluded this possibility.

Despite the fact that better use of the regional development potential was considered important in planning and implementation of the reform, description of the communities’ cohesion and the resulting development opportunities remained in the background throughout the process. Rather, the role of the communities is seen as support in administration (for example, highlighting the necessity of sub-districts) or in the need to increase the importance of the village elder as an institution.

The need to create municipality districts stated in the article can be considered a recommendation rather than an obligation. If we leave aside the post-reform Saaremaa municipality and some separate small islands (where the local government was preserved as an exception), the culturally distinct regions of Estonia generally extend beyond the borders of the municipalities. Therefore, it is difficult to fulfill the given task directly with cultural identity in mind. Despite this, cooperation between municipalities in the field of cultural heritage has a long history. However, such differentiated areas within the municipality would be necessary to support and use the opportunities arising from the local identity and sense of unity. In this way, it is possible to involve the local community better and see the development capacity of the communities.

Local level perspectives in regional policy

Despite the good availability of social infrastructure, the merged municipalities have not been able to avoid shrinking processes. All this could have been foreseen, though even in the most remote places, the availability of services is mostly good. Despite the distances, the school network in rural areas of Estonia is dense, there are leisure opportunities, and the road network is satisfactory. Also, on-site job opportunities or commuting to the nearest center cover employment-related issues.

Rather, using the example of Estonia, it is a matter of searching for regional political solutions through administrative policy. And this is done with means that do not work in Estonian conditions. The EU and Estonian regional measures implemented in recent decades have not been able to prevent shrinking and aging. In such a case, new possible solutions should be sought, the measures of which can be related both at the community or, even more, at the individual level.

Municipality faces the task of involving communities in local development. Such experience existed in small municipalities. Often municipalities do not know how to do this or do not consider it necessary. Leaders get worn out and so in some cases the community has remained passive, but here the levers are also in the hands of the municipalities. Municipalities must understand that local development largely depends on the activities and strength of communities. Let’s start with the involvement of communities in the preparation of development plans.

Outdated goals and measures must be discarded in regional policy. New solutions can be applied to a specific area, taking into account the settlement pattern, cultural background, cohesiveness of communities or the real need for different services. The remaining measures should be rather person-centered and coordinated at the national level or through municipalities. The ability of municipalities to carry out independent regional policy is limited and primarily related to planning and marketing of the region. However, national measures must be aimed at both municipalities and communities.

The questions of how to organize involvement to preserve local identity and how to ensure the capacity of municipalities in this area remain on the agenda. By not involving communities, identity can quickly begin to weaken. Especially in still shrinking and aging regions.


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Veiko Sepp

Veiko Sepp

Veiko Sepp is the senior researcher at the Centre of Applied Social Studies, University of Tartu. His work focuses on the local and regional governance and spatial development. He was the member of the expert committee for the Estonian administrative territorial reform.

Post-reform governance structures

The authors raise an interesting topic about the function of territorial scale in grassroot democracy. The article is a much-welcomed step forward from purely prescriptive or descriptive accounts of district and village organizations in Estonia towards the conceptualization of local democracy practices within contemporary debates in rural and regional studies.

The administrative territorial reform enforced in 2017 was indeed attentive to the effects of territorial merges for local democracy and stipulated some decentralization measures to be implemented in larger units of local government. One essential clarification should nevertheless be made. It was not mandatory but only optional to create territorial municipality districts or “partial municipalities” within merged municipalities. Yet, if such districts were created, some sort of governance bodies must have been established.

As a result of such non-compulsory decentralization measures, Estonian landscape of grassroot democratic structures and territorialities is today even more versatile than it was before the reform. Only minority of the merged municipalities have established districts and respective governance structures. The village associations and chairmen remain operative as well, both in municipalities with districts and without them.

In attempts to answer to the question asked in the title of the article, I would suggest adopting broader view on spatial scale. Foremost, I would argue that the effects of territorial scale are very much linked to the scale of network spatiality in which local grassroot democracy is operating. In the network spatiality, the scale of village or district community expresses itself most straightforwardly through the number of community members, of material objects and hybrid assemblages, of territorially embedded senses and images, etc. “inhabiting” the territory, and (complex) relations between them. And when we adopt such a perspective on scale, the more specific issues of appropriate democratic representation in grassroot community, of the possibility of common environmental (landscape) identity, of the communicative capacity of local activists to engage community and participate in larger scale governance networks emerge in much comprehensive way.

Even more importantly, the analysis should consider that the scale of grassroot democratic structures, including their territorial structure, matters within the broader governance system – first of all, within municipal governance structures. In a most basic level, the pure number of different district and village associations determines the complexity of endogenous governance within a municipality and raises capacity issues for municipal officials and procedures to coordinate grassroot democracy.

For example, in Saaremaa municipality 13 district assembles had in total over hundred official meetings only in 2023. All these meetings should be prepared, carried on and deliberated by the municipality and in co-operation with local activists. The ease and quality of these procedures, in turn, conditions the motivation of grassroot activists and thusly also the long-term sustainability of endogenous governance. Hence, the encouraging scale should be searched for the more complex web of nexogenous – to use more recent trope in rural development debates – governance structures, which encompass both the grassroot endogenous governance spatiality and the municipal spatiality.

The question of better municipal territorial scale for the grassroot democracy is relevant not only in relation to the past territorial reform, but for the somewhat covert policy discourse about the need to pursue even further with territorial merges in Estonia, up to the point where there will be approximately 15-20 local municipalities. From the perspective of grassroot democracy sustainability, that would mean even more complex nexogenous governance networks with multiplied scale properties and much more challenging task to hold endogenous governance structures operative in there.


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