Villages and small towns in transition

Dossier

Herzberg am Harz – a typical small town in Germany (© Annett Steinführer)

Even in the so-called “century of the cities”, quite a few people exhibit rather strong linkages with rural areas – either because they live there permanently or are commuters to urban centres. But rural settlement structures, along with the living conditions of the population, have undergone fundamental transformations in the past decades.


To date, one type of settlement is particularly considered as typically rural: the village. According to the Brothers Grimm’s dictionary (Volume 2, 1858), the word Dorf in the German language probably related originally to a gathering of people of lower social status in the open fields, later to a settlement at such a place to cultivate land. This held true until the 20th century – and, yet, today it would be an insufficient description, since villages have changed tremendously within just a few decades.

The structural change of agriculture in the 20th century was the major source of village transformation

This was, first and foremost, due to the structural changes in agriculture. While around 1900, about 38 per cent of the labour force was employed in agriculture, by 1950 this share had declined to 24 percent (in Western Germany). In Germany today, less than 2 per cent of all gainfully employed persons work in agriculture. This mirrors, on the one hand, the former transformation from an agricultural to an industrial and, later, to the service and knowledge society of today. On the other hand, the statistics also provide evidence of the highly increased efficiency of agriculture: Around 1900 one farmer nourished four persons, in 1950 it was ten and today it is about 130.

Places of societal diversity

Along with the structural change of agriculture, rural areas and their settlements did not remain untouched. By the 1950s, researchers could still take the small family farm as a showcase for rural living conditions. But already then, first empirical investigations were caught by surprise by the actual diversity of the working, living and housing conditions they found. In the decades to come, villages became more and more diversified in social and economic terms.

In our research, we are also interested in the changes of rural living conditions at present in relation to the past. Moreover, we analyse issues of rural revitalization as well as local and regional processes of shrinkage and how to design these processes.

A new role for rural small towns?

Yet, rural areas are not only made up of villages. Historically, small towns served as regional centres, with economic, administrative and cultural functions for their surrounding populations, providing a sense of self-esteem for being urban.

In the course of population decline in many rural areas and the subsequent aging dynamics, we analyse, for example, whether small towns regain appraisal and functions due to the concentration of supply and welfare services.

Many small towns have incorporated a number of surrounding villages within in the past decades. In this vein, they not only extended their land area, but also became more ruralized. The degree of the villages’ decision autonomy, the role of the mayor and the extent of cooperation with neighbouring municipalities differ. These factors have a strong influence on political decision-making, the local identity and the willingness of the inhabitants to engage in local development. These questions are also addressed in our research. 

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