From “rural exodus” to “shrinkage”


Population decline in rural areas is nothing new. It was for the first time considered a problem in the late 19th century. Since then, the term “rural exodus” was used which, in turn, has recently been more and more replaced by the term “shrinkage”. An interview with the researcher Annett Steinführer about changed terms and causes.

What were the reasons for this “rural exodus” and what were the reactions?

“Rural exodus” was regarded as a sign of the backwardness of rural areas. In western Germany after World War II, the process was countered with a pronounced modernization strategy: roads were reconstructed, new schools built, and community centres brought washhouses, TV sets and community baths into the villages.  [AuH1]Schreibfehler in deutscher Fassung

Did this modernization only occur in western Germany? 

Also in eastern Germany social and technical infrastructures were significantly expanded. In both states the intention was to “raise” the level of the village to that of the modern city. Some researchers even speak of an “urbanization” of rural areas.

How long did this trend last?

In western Germany, out-migration from rural areas came back onto the public agenda in the 1970s. Local politicians, planners and scientists were concerned about negative population balances which were due to the declining birth rate and the out-migration particularly of young families. Re-migration could not compensate these tendencies. “Spaces of depopulation” and “passive restructuring” were buzzwords of this era. 

Vacant buildings impair the local quality of life. (© Thünen-Institut/Annett Steinführer)

Today one also talks about “shrinking”...  

Yes, scientists have been using this term since the 1980s. The metaphor is not the best one: while the population number is indeed declining, this is not quite true for the settlement area in use. In the first decade after the reunification, particularly rural areas in eastern Germany were affected by population loss as a consequence of economic decline, but in the past years increasingly also villages and small towns in western Germany face such trends. 

What do you mean by “shrinkage”? 

Shrinkage means first and foremost “less” – less people, less municipal revenues, less utilization of public infrastructures. At the same time and at many places it means “too much”: too many services, too high costs and too long distances. Shrinkage does hurt because it means the loss of things one has gotten used to.

How do politicians tackle the losses of population and revenues?

Time and again, state and federal policies tried to counteract these tendencies with programmes, subsidies and model initiatives. And indeed, villages and small towns were modernized to a degree that for many years the urban-rural divide diminished. In the past ten years or so, it was in particular the German Urban Development Scheme (Städtebauförderung) with its programme initiatives “Urban Restructuring East” and “West” (Stadtumbau Ost /Stadtumbau West) that was directed towards the issue of urban shrinkage. Its focus was on big cities, but also medium-sized and small towns in rural areas benefitted from public subsidies for demolitions and upgrades of the residential environment. Yet, such programmes do not change the economic basis of urban development.  

Does this mean that politicians cannot do anything?

Investments in infrastructure are just one facet of the rural economy. In contrast, the ongoing structural change of agriculture and other branches of the economy, changed employment patterns and the trend to higher qualifications expose incentives for people to leave. In shrinking regions there are only few employment alternatives to agriculture, for example the care sector.[AuH1]  Despite this fact, or probably even because of it, rural areas need a modern infrastructure. A region cannot cope with shrinkage without continuous modernization.  [AuH1]in deutscher Fassung ergänzen: „In schrumpfenden Regionen gibt es außerdem nur wenige Beschäftigungsalternativen zur Landwirtschaft – aber in zunehmendem Maße ist hier z. B. der Pflegesektor zu nennen.“

Are all rural areas in Germany affected by population decline?

No, not at all. And such developments can change – for example, many West German counties benefited from in-migration from eastern Germany in the 1990s. Interestingly, when looking at the media discourse in the past decades, one will time and again read about so-called “dying” villages, but when one analyses these locations with scientific methods, one can find highly diverging paths: further population decline, stabilization on a lower level or even growth. Set against the background of these experiences, apparently certain future projections always need to be critically tested concerning their assumptions.

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