"Structurally weak" - that is the euphemism used in Germany to refer to rural areas where virtually nothing happens. Villages where mostly old people live, where there are no more jobs, no bakeries, no shops, no doctors, no firefighters.
Rural areas across Europe are suffering from emigration. People are moving to big cities.
According to Eurostat, between 2015 and 2020, 355 out of 406 predominantly rural regions in the EU recorded more emigration than immigration. The number of younger people and able-bodied people has decreased in particular. The number of residents over the age of 65 is growing by 1,8 percent per year.
EU visions for rural areas
The consequences are serious. Cities are becoming more and more crowded, life is becoming more and more expensive. Housing space is scarce and the pressure to build even on the last green area is growing.
In rural areas, there are more and more vacancies, as well as feelings of neglect. The railways are being thinned and abolished, the infrastructure is not renewed, and digitization is neglected. It fuels frustration, and it also has a political impact.
The European Union has recognized this and is trying to curb the rural exodus with programs such as the "Pact for Rural Areas" and the "Action Plan for Rural Areas". Two years ago, the "Vision for EU Rural Areas" was agreed. A lot of money is spent on revitalizing neglected places.
Depopulation in East Germany
In Germany too, internal migration for three decades knew only one direction: from the countryside to the cities. After reunification in 1990, this was especially true for the eastern German states, which experienced a huge population outflow in some areas.
On the other hand, cities like Leipzig, Munich or Berlin have increased their population by more than twenty percent in the last two decades.
But this trend seems to have stopped, as shown by statistical data from 2008 to 2021. While students, pupils and foreigners continue to move to the cities, since 2017 more and more people aged 30 to 49 are moving to the countryside with their minor children, and young people between the ages of 25 and 29 are also moving there.
Surprisingly, it almost doesn't matter whether the villages or small towns are near a big city or on the outskirts. The foundation of the Berlin Institute for Population and Development talks about a new "craving for the countryside".
Together with the "Wistenrot" Foundation, the Berlin Institute analyzed the statistical data. In 2021 – the pandemic was still going on – two out of three rural communities recorded more arrivals than departures, says social psychologist Frederik Sixtus from the Berlin Institute. A decade earlier, this applied to only one in four rural communities.
The dream of owning a home is unattainable in the city
In order to analyze migration, the researchers spent seven days visiting six communities in different rural areas across Germany that are currently experiencing particular growth and held many discussions there. "New to the countryside - how immigration changes life in the countryside" is the name of the study that came out of it.
"I consciously decided to come to the countryside because the opportunities here are more suitable for a family," one newcomer was quoted as saying in the study. "And I'll be honest, if you want to build, price is of course a big issue. And of course, it's completely different in the countryside."
In numerous conversations, the researchers learned that, above all, they are looking for more and cheaper living space, more nature and a cleaner environment.
The possibility of working from home - and it has become quite established during the pandemic - means that they accept greater distance from cities. "There is no longer an absolute need to be at the workplace," explains social psychologist Sixtus.
Infrastructure is important to newcomers, which primarily includes high-speed internet. "Of course, schools and kindergartens are things that simply have to exist. Even if the most beautiful and cheapest real estate in the world was here, that would be a key criterion," says a new resident of the village.
Getting used to the village proximity
The researchers also examined the effects of immigration on the local population. "A functional rural community is not something to be taken for granted," says Katerina Hinz, director of the Berlin Institute.
"Newcomers and longtime residents need to actively shape the way they live together," she says. Some newcomers, he adds, first have to learn how to live together in the countryside.
But demographic development remains a problem even for places where more people are moving in than moving out. Because even there, in a third of cases, more people die than are born.
The study calls on small towns to think about building age-appropriate buildings. Let's say about residential buildings that are not common in the countryside. It could be an alternative for older people who can no longer take care of the whole household - and younger families can move into the empty house.