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

  • NN

Small towns: settlement and sociodemographic patterns in transition


Road signs to three villages. (c) Annett Steinführer
Small towns are not always compact and easily navigated. They are often larger municipalities comprising numerous incorporated villages. (© Annett Steinführer)

Small towns are anchor points in rural areas – at least in the ideal planning. In reality, they differ strongly in their structure and functions as well as with regard to the municipal scope for action.

Background and Objective

Small towns in Germany are usually defined as settlements of 5,000 to about 20,000 inhabitants, an urban core and the formal function as a Grundzentrum (“basic centre” - lowest rank in the formal German hierarchy of spatial planning in most federal states/Länder). Depending on the exact definition, between one quarter and one third of the total German population live in small towns. Despite this quantitative significance, the settlement type falls into a scientific awareness gap that receives little systematic attention.

In recent years, research has considered rural small towns mainly as places with economic problems, long-term population decline and subsequent trends of marginalisation and peripheralisation. For such towns, the preceding explorative research project “Aging and its consequences for small towns in shrinking rural regions” (2013–2017) provided some evidence for hitherto neglected changes in the social, demographic and settlement structures of small towns. Due to the concentration of, among other things, schools, public authorities and medical care centres, as well as new housing offers, the cores of small towns in regions with long-term population decline and strong ageing have gained a new importance. This small-scale centralisation in favour of the core towns results from planning and political reforms, but is also an unintended consequence of actions taken by public authorities, private companies and non-profit organisations. This goes along with an (increasing) homogenisation of the age structure in the core towns and an exacerbated out-migration problem of the surrounding villages.

Based on these explorative findings, the research project will further examine small towns in different types of rural areas in more detail and apply an additional perspective considering current settlement and sociodemographic processes as well as their consequences. The main focus is on small towns which have experienced a strong territorial expansion (“ruralisation”) in the course of municipal area reforms and which are characterised by the in-migration of older and very old people. The core towns and the incorporated villages are of equal interest, as are the functional, symbolic and social relationships between the various settlement areas of the small towns.


The first step is to consider the state of research, in particular with regard to housing, settlement structure and municipal area reforms, as well as secondary analyses of small-scale data on housing markets and demographic development.

Data and Methods

For secondary analyses, data from official statistics as well as survey data from different sources are available. The use of further methods and data sources will be decided upon in the course of the project.

Our Research Questions

  1. What patterns of demographic and social change can be identified in small towns in terms of population development, changes in age structure and household composition?
  2. How does the relationship between core towns, incorporated villages and the rural surroundings change as a result of municipal area reforms? Which impacts do the different municipal constitutions of the Länder have in this context (e.g., in a comparison of local associations and municipalities without any political substructure/Einheitsgemeinden)?
  3. How is housing demand developing quantitatively and qualitatively? What differences can be identified between core towns and incorporated villages or between small towns in different types of rural areas, and how can they be explained?
  4. Are small rural towns becoming increasingly homogenised in terms of the age and social structures? If so, what are the resulting challenges for small-town societies?

 The research questions will be further specified based on the results of the literature analysis.

Links and Downloads

Ad-hoc-Arbeitskreis „Kleinstadtforschung“ der Akademie für Raumforschung und Landesplanung (ARL)



4.2018 - 3.2022

More Information

Projekt type:
Project status: ongoing

Publications to the project

Results 1 - 5 of 10

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  1. Steinführer A, Porsche L, Sondermann M (eds) (2021) Kompendium Kleinstadtforschung. Hannover: ARL, 339 p, Forschungsber ARL 16
    pdf document (limited accessibility) 3582 kb
  2. Steinführer A, Großmann K (2021) Small towns (re)growing old. Hidden dynamics of old-age migration in shrinking regions in Germany. Geogr Ann B 103(3):176-195, DOI:10.1080/04353684.2021.1944817
  3. Steinführer A (2020) Dörfer und Kleinstädte im Wandel [online]. Inf Polit Bildung 343(2):8-15, zu finden in <> [zitiert am 03.08.2020]
  4. Porsche L, Steinführer A, Beetz S, Dehne P, Fina S, Großmann K, Leibert T, Maaß A, Mayer H, Milbert A, Nadler R, Sondermann M (2019) Kleinstadtforschung. Hannover: ARL, 15 p, Positionspapier ARL 113
    pdf document (limited accessibility) 666 kb
  5. Porsche L, Steinführer A, Sondermann M (eds) (2019) Kleinstadtforschung in Deutschland : Stand, Perspektiven und Empfehlungen. Hannover: ARL, 68 p, Arbeitsber ARL 28
    pdf document (limited accessibility) 3535 kb

Results 1 - 5 of 10

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