Between stability and demographic decline (2011)


By Steffen Kröhnert, Eva Kuhn, Margret Karsch, Reiner Klingholz and Wulf Bennert

Full German Version (PDF)

General population losses


For nearly 40 years, birth rates in Germany have been far below reproduction level, and immigration can no longer prevent the population decline. The Federal Statistical Office expects a population decrease of at least 12 million people by 2050. At the same time structural change creates new jobs mainly in metropolised and urban areas. Rural and peripheral regions lose employment. Especially young people, potential family founders, move towards bigger towns and cities.


Remote rural areas dry out demographically


Unlike in the past, migration from the countryside to the cities is not compensated by high numbers of children in rural areas. The surplus of deaths over births is higher the more remote a community is. Two-thirds of all rural communities in Germany have lost more than one percent of their population between 2003 and 2008. In Eastern Germany this development is particularly severe. There, 64 percent of the rural communities have lost more than five percent of their population. In Western Germany communities in the western Rhineland-Palatinate, in southeast Lower Saxony, in northern Hessen and northern Bavaria are particularly affected. This population decline will accelerate in the future. Many villages are threatened in their existence.


Declining revenue - rising costs


In many rural communities the revenue from taxes, duties and subsidies declines due to their demographic development. At the same time the cost of many infrastructure services such as drinking water, sewage or garbage disposal are rising. In addition, citizens have to accept a massive devaluation of their property.

An exemplary analysis of infrastructure costs in a community in the Hessian Vogelsberg county shows that higher technical and environmental standards are the main reasons for rising costs. Between 2000 and 2010 fee revenues for sewage rose by almost 50 percent, for drinking water by more than 30 percent - even though the population had declined by eight percent during this period. If this trend is extrapolated into the future, the fee revenue would be expected to double again until 2030.


Centrality is crucial for the development of many communities


In West Germany small- and medium-sized towns and rural communities are demographically stable, if they are not more than a 20 minutes’ drive away from major centers.The bigger the distance to major cities with schools, hospitals and shopping, the stronger the population decline. Rural communities that are further away than a 40 minutes’ drive from the next city have lost more than two percent of their residents between 2003 and 2008. In East Germany, where the population has been declining sharply, only the cities could stabilize their population development. In the East, too, remote communities suffer most. Rural communities with more than 60 minutes’ travel time away from a city center, have on average lost nearly seven percent of their population between 2003 and 2008.


Different conditions in the surveyed counties in Hessen and Thuringia


The Hessian Vogelsberg county and the Thuringian county of Greiz are among the demographically most problematic regions in Germany. Both counties consist of more than 200 small villages.

In the Vogelsberg county more than a quarter of all villages with fewer than 500 inhabitants lost between 10 and 22 percent of their inhabitants within a five-year-period. Only ten villages were able to maintain their population size. In the county of Greiz nearly one third of all small villages suffered from population losses between 10 and 30 percent. On the other hand, nearly 20 percent of small villages remained stable or were even growing. While in the Vogelsberg county a natural process of population concentration in larger, more central places seems to come about, the development of villages in Greiz is largely irregular.


A variety of factors may contribute to stability or decline


Location and landscape of the villages, settlement structure and access to infrastructure such as schools, public institutions or urban centers have an impact on population development. In addition, an active and lively community can influence demographic stability. Furthermore, factors such as the proportion of property ownership in comparison to rented flats, previous investment decisions or local politics play a role. A low percentage of young people contributes to a negative effect on demographic stability as much as obviously abandoned houses and a great distance from major centers.


Some villages are threatened in their existence


A risk analysis based on the above mentioned factors shows that in the Hessian Vogelsberg county more villages than in the Thuringian county of Greiz can expect sustainability. Villages in Vogelsberg county are often larger than in Greiz, the proportion of young people is higher, and the extent of civic engagement is bigger. A sixth of the villages with fewer than 500 residents in Vogelsberg county are in a particularly critical demographic situation. Five villages have lost more than 15 percent of their population between 2004 and 2010. In the county of Greiz the development in one fifth of all small villages is classified as particularly critical. Among them, 17 villages have lost more than 15 percent of their population between 2004 and 2009 - including five settlements with fewer than 20 inhabitants. In the Greiz county only one tenth of all small villages is classified as possibly sustainable. Mostly these are villages with more than 400 inhabitants and only small population losses in the past.


What is to be done?


The demographic changes in rural areas are unavoidable. Therefore, the affected communities can only adapt to these changing circumstances.


  • The growing inequality of regional living conditions should be accepted by political leaders.

  • Legal requirements for standards of infrastructure should be reviewed and rural communities should be relieved of unnecessary regulations and costs.

  • Small communities should be integrated into larger ones. Elected public representatives have to decide in which parts of the community a certain infrastructure has to be maintained and where investments have to be done. In this way, a concentration of investment on only a few towns or villages is possible.

  • For planning decisions that reach beyond the scope of local communities, regional budgets should be set up. These funds would help to ease the burden on regions without detailed earmarking. An advisory board, made up of elected representatives of the communities, should decide about the use of these funds after having agreed to a realistic concept for the development of the region.

  • For villages where only a few elderly residents remain, programs to support migration to more populated places should be established.

  • A fund should be established that can financially support the demolition of abandoned buildings. Thus, small villages can stay attractive and space that is no longer needed can be returned to nature.

  • The use of renewable energy for rural areas provides a new opportunity for economic development. Rural communities should seize the opportunity to develop models for sustainable energy which can also create new jobs and income opportunities.

  • And last but not least, citizens must be informed openly about likely future developments of their villages so they can make responsible decisions in order to plan their lives.

The study "The future of the villages" was made in cooperation with and with financial support from the Foundation “Stiftung Schloss Ettersburg”.

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