Institute of Rural Studies

Deputy Director


Anja Herkner

Bundesallee 64
38116 Braunschweig
Phone: +49 531 596 5501
Fax: +49 531 596 5599

Institute of Rural Economics

Deputy Director

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Aging and its consequences for small towns in shrinking rural regions


Population decline and aging of rural regions might lead to a changing role of their small town centres (c) Thünen-Institut/Annett Steinführer
Population decline and aging of rural regions might lead to a changing role of their small town centres (© Thünen-Institut/Annett Steinführer)

Small towns are neglected by urban and rural studies alike, but as a specific type of settlement they have for centuries been of crucial importance as markets and centres in rural areas. Given the conditions of rural population decline and aging, small towns themselves usually lose population, too - yet, it might also be expected that their regional importance increases due to the consequences of aging. The explorative project wants to provide in-depth evidence with regard to these contrasting hypotheses.

Background and Objective

For centuries, small towns have been the historical centres of rural areas. This "excess importance" (Christaller) used to be strengthened by market and other specific privileges. The German post-war planning system reinforced their status by often assigning the lowest centrality status to this type of settlement.

Under the conditions of current population decline and collective aging in many rural areas, ambiguous or even contradictory paths of development were expected: on the one hand, small towns are affected by negative migration and natural balances which might lead to long-term marginalization. On the other hand, they might be target locations of intra-regional amenity-led migration of older and oldest-old generations from surrounding villages. Selective in-migration and ageing in place thus reinforce the local aging process.


By way of an explorative analysis, the project was interested in eight small towns in six German states. They were chosen because of their demographic development in the past 20 years (population decline and above-average aging) and their settlement structure (core town with a number of rural districts).

Data and Methods

Population registry and census 2011 as well as official documents were used for secondary data analyses. This was supplemented by semi-structured interviews with local decision-makers and site visits.

Our Research Questions

1. Do small towns in rural areas benefit from regional population decline and aging?

2. Which impacts does small-town change have for the surrounding villages?

3. Which conditions and factors are relevant for the development of small towns in shrinking regions?

4. How do small-town governance, its actors and processes change in the course of aging?


The project verified local concentration processes due to the centralisation of services and, in some small towns, selective in-migration and relocations of the elderly. Municipal housing companies, social services and charity organisations are relevant actors with new offers and functions. A new question arising from these findings for future research relates to the integration of these (new) actors into existing structures and arenas of small-town development.

As small-town research itself is marginalized due to its “in-between” position as neither rural nor urban, the project also wanted to enrich the general knowledge base concerning this specific type of settlement. It became, however, obvious that further research is needed to adequately address current challenges of small-town development.



7.2013 - 12.2017

More Information

Projekt type:
Project status: finished

Publications to the project

Results 1 - 5 of 8

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  1. Steinführer A, Haase A (2018) Schrumpfung als Trend? : zu den Ursachen, Folgen und Herausforderungen des Schrumpfens von Städten [online]. In: Dossier Stadt und Gesellschaft. Bonn: Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, zu finden in <> [zitiert am 24.08.2018]
  2. Steinführer A (2018) Vom Wachsen im Schrumpfen. Alterung und siedlungsstruktureller Wandel von Kleinstädten. Rural 9:7-29
  3. Steinführer A (2017) Kleinstädte in ländlichen Räumen - alte Funktionen, neue Entwicklungen? Landentwickl Aktuell:41-43
  4. Steinführer A (2017) Verschwunden, nicht gestorben : warum sich die Raumsoziologie (trotzdem) wieder mit dem Dorf beschäftigen sollte [online]. SozBlog, zu finden in <> [zitiert am 12.09.2017]
  5. Steinführer A (2016) Living in a small town: an urban and a rural experience at once. In: Carlow VM (ed) Ruralism : the future of villages and small towns in an urbanizing world. Berlin: Jovis, pp 40-55

Results 1 - 5 of 8

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