Prepared for population decline?

January 2022

‘Shrinking places’ or ‘lonely places’ – as some call them – are a growing challenge for European municipalities, regions and even countries. Eurostat’s long-term population projections point at a population increase of the EU-27 from 447 million inhabitants in 2019 which peaks around 449 million in 2026. Thereafter population numbers are expected to decline. They will gradually decrease to 441 million in 2050 and to 416 million in 2100 (see Eurostat). This long-term population decline will play out differently across territories.

Still, population decline is not a new topic for many European municipalities. Building on data compiled by Spatial Foresight for the European Commission, the ESPON ESCAPE project has shown that many municipalities on the eastern, southern and northern margins of the European Union, and the eastern parts of Germany, have experienced 4 or 5 consecutive decades of population decline between 1961 and 2011. The population decline over this period is dramatic is some parts of Europe. It generated a total population loss of more than 60% in a significant share of municipalities in Spain, Bulgaria, Croatia and Greece.

Taken together, about 6% of the EU-27 population were living in municipalities that experienced a population decline of more than 1% per year between 2011 and 2017.[1]  These municipalities covered more than a quarter of the EU-27 territory.

Shares of population living in municipalities with rapid population decline (more than 1% per year on average) are particularly high in the Baltic countries, followed by Croatia and Hungary and then by Spain, Portugal, Finland and Romania. Recent data are not available for Bulgaria, Cyprus and Greece.  Between 2001 and 2011, 37% of the Bulgarian population and 25% of the Greek population lived in municipalities with rapid population decline, but only 2% of the population of government-controlled areas in Cyprus (see Map and Figure below).

If one compares trends between 2001 and 2011 and between 2011 and 2017, local population decline accelerated rapidly in Spain, where the ratio of population living in municipalities with an annual population decline of more than 1% went from 3 to 14%. At the same time, in Germany, the share of population living in municipalities with an annual population decline of more than 1% decreased considerably, from 8 to 3.5%.

Map: Municipalities with a population decline above 1% per year between 2011 and 2017

Figure: Share of population living in municipalities with a population decline above 1% per year between 2011 and 2017, by Member State

Many shrinking municipalities – which are often to be found in rural areas – face vicious circles where population decline leads to declining service provision in the areas, which affects an area’s attractiveness and thus contribute to further aging and demographic decline.

How to adapt and become resilient when shrinking?

Population shrinkage has been discussed by more forward-thinking players for some decades already, often focused on strategies to reverse population decline. Only in recent years, the discussion is spreading to a wider set of players and envisages a wider set of possible scenarios  for places experiencing population decline. Policies can for example seek to reduce the social and environmental impact of local population decline and try to create preconditions for the stabilisation of demographic trends when this is possible.

Indeed, it is not always purposeful to try to revert local population losses. Population decline can reflect an adaptation to changing framework conditions, e.g. technology that reduces the labour-intensity of certain sectors. This has typically been the case in agriculture, extractive activities and manufacturing. However, local population decline is often a social trauma, especially when it is rapid. Public policies to accompany population decline are therefore called for also when reverting losses is not considered a realistic option.

The idea of ‘smart shrinking’ follows the rationale that shrinking population numbers do not necessarily need to mean economic decline and decreasing quality of life. ‘Smart shrinking’ shifts the focus to alternative uses of existing infrastructure and more efficient and environmentally friendly use of available resources adjusting to lower population numbers.

Going beyond economic concerns and looking at the social viability of communities affected by population decline the notion of ‘loneliness’ is used to describe and analyse shrinking places. In an ongoing piece of research, the European Joint Research Centre looks at the shift from lonely places to places of opportunities. This puts the focus on places as nodes in networks with a wide range of different links and flows passing through providing quality in amenity provisions and human interactions.

In short, shrinking places do not necessarily need to be considered as places in a vicious downward circle, but can be seen through different lenses which offer pathways to positive future outlooks.

How to support shrinking places

Shrinking places often need support to take active ownership of their future and a debate on how develop positive future prospects. This includes funding for ensuring the provision of services of general interest, adjusting infrastructure to changing demand and increasing attractiveness.

However, financial support is only one component of a policy that effectively supports ‘smart shrinking’ and/or a stabilisation or reversal of negative demographic trends. Other aspects are equally important:

  • Governance. High quality government and governance is important for local and regional development. It is of particular importance in areas facing development challenges – as shrinking places – otherwise even increased financial support will not help. Thus, support in improving the quality governance and government can be essential.
  • Capacities. Good governance and government also require capacities to approach change and decision-making processes. It also requires knowledge on alternative future pathways, funding opportunities, and the complexity of designing future-wise investments in the context of demographic decline. Therefore, capacity building is important for the outlook of shrinking areas.
  • Local visions. Developing positive outlooks for shrinking places, requires a shared local vision on what a desirable future in the light of shrinkage could look like. Smart shrinkage could be one of ways forward. In any case, support for processes leading to long-term visions shared by the key players (and citizens) of a shrinking area can make a difference.

Exchanges of experience and good practice can provide valuable inputs to such policies.

The European Commission DG REGIO has paid increasing attention to the issue of local population decline in recent years, in dialogue with Member States such as Spain and Italy. Regulations for the European Regional Development Fund in the 2021-2027 programming period specify that “Member States should consider developing specific voluntary action plans at local level" for areas with rapid population decline in recital 45. The Long-Term Vision for Rural Areas that was adopted in June 2021 envisages “actions supporting the analysis of the drivers of demographic decline in the rural areas that suffer from it in Europe, and inclusion and integration measures for people with a migrant background and other minorities”. The partnership agreements and operational programmes that are currently being negotiated will provide indications on the extent to which these declarations of intent lead to concrete measures.

by Erik Gløersen and Kai Böhme

[1] This ratio does not take into account figures for Bulgaria, Cyprus and Greece, as no data are available.

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