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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 (Opens in a new window)). 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 (Opens in a new window) 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% (Opens in a new window) 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

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