Small Towns

Pushing Against Big City Pull

Well, that's one way to boost the rural population. Source: DPA
Well, that's one way to boost the rural population.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Smaller towns can stem the flow of residents leaving for big cities if they are willing to be flexible and creative in providing public services.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Villages and small towns across Germany are losing people at a rate of 1-to-5 percent each year.
    • Creative solutions to the problems facing villages often fall prey to stifling bureaucracy and legal hurdles.
    • A study funded by insurer Generali lists 37 nationwide projects that ran into such hurdles yet managed to overcome them.
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  • Audio

    Audio

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Ever more Germans are leaving small villages and towns for life in the big cities.

They are looking for new job opportunities and access to better health care, education and public transportation, not to mention cultural offers. And they are finding all these things in Berlin, Hamburg and Munich, as well as Frankfurt and Stuttgart, according to Reiner Klingholz, director of the Berlin Institute for Population and Development.

Villages and towns across Germany are hemorrhaging people at a rate of 1-5 percent each year. And as they leave, so, too, goes a certain quality of life.

It’s a vicious cycle. People move when their towns lack doctors, jobs and schools. And it is often the elderly who remain behind, unable to afford big-city prices.

The expectation of a right to equal living standards, promised by the German constitution, has become “an empty shell,” said Mr. Klingholz.

There are solutions to the many problems facing smaller towns and rural communities, but they often fall prey to stifling bureaucracy and legal hurdles, such as minimum pupil requirements, hygiene regulations and insurance policies, according to Mr. Klingholz.

Those frustrated citizens left behind can become fodder for populist political parties.

He points to volunteer fire departments that are closed because they don’t have an exact inventory of their equipment, municipalities forced to finance extra large water and sewage systems, even though smaller ones would suffice and regulations that prevent doctors from sharing facilities with physical therapists.

A study published by the Berlin think tank and funded by insurer Generali lists 37 projects in which small towns have overcome various hurdles to improve community services, such as public transportation.

Authorities in the Odenwald region, for instance, have made special legal and insurance exemptions, to offer a service that combines public transportation with private ride-sharing.

Or take health care. Because many of her older patients could not longer come to her, dentist Kerstin Finger from Templin in northern Germany decided to go to them. Although her initial idea to convert a delivery van into a rolling dentistry practive was not approved by authorities, she was given permission to carry her dental instruments into patients’ homes.

As for flexible day care, a preschool teacher in Schwedt near Berlin refused to accept the lack of child care options for parents working late shifts. On her own initiative – and against significant opposition from local authorities – she set up a 24-hour day care center that today is partially financed with public funds. It took four years for officials to approve a budget for her facility.

And the list goes on. Residents of Tübingen refused to accept the closure of a special care unit at a clinic. Relatives can now care for up to seven coma patients at a residential apartment complex. Along the North Sea coast in Nordfriesland, 59 villages and two larger towns joined forces to improve Internet access in the region. And Heinz Frey quit his teaching job to open a corner store in Jülich-Barmen, where the village’s 1,400 residents can not only buy food, but also manage their general banking tasks, register their cars, enroll for social services and more.

German society, said Mr. Klingholz, needs “the courage to try new things, question the status quo and, when necessary, break the rules.”

His institute’s study shows no lack of ideas in how to help rural areas. But politicians, he argues, need to give engaged citizens more leeway to help rural communities retain an attractive quality of life.

 

This article originally appeared in Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: redaktion@tagesspiegel.de

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