divided nation

Germany's Growing Urban-Rural Split

Symbolfoto Landflucht
A green field project? Source: Picture alliance

In Germany’s rural areas, stores close in the early afternoon, the average age of citizens is pushing sixty and the internet is nowhere in evidence.

A new report shows that life is becoming harder for people living in the countryside. Remote areas are missing out as residents have to drive further to work, doctors are in short supply and fewer students opt to graduate from high school. The study’s authors, concerned about a lack of economic growth in rural areas, called on the government to invest, especially in high speed internet.

Depopulation is part of the problem: while cities like Berlin, Hamburg and Munich are rapidly growing, the population shrunk in 37 percent of mid-sized cities and 52 percent of small towns. That makes it harder to replace family doctors, forces stores to close branches and school classes shrink. That’s long been known to affect eastern Germany as young people seek work in the west, but this year’s report underlines the problem also affects Germany’s west.

The report coincides with preoccupation about the outcome of the election and growth in support for the right wing populist Alternative for Germany, particularly in the former East. And a Monday poll showed two-thirds of Germans still see divisions between people in the former East and West. But on Tuesday – celebrating reunification day – President Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned about the new walls dividing the nation were “between city and country, online and offline, poor and rich, old and young – walls, from behind which people hardly understand anything of each other.”

The Federal Institute for Construction, Urban Affairs and Open Space Development assesses regional planning every five years to look at how consistently residents enjoy basic services from emergency medical care to work and shopping near where they live. The authors called for more investment in infrastructure, education and research and development. And they said federal and state governments should do more to generate economic growth – starting with upgrading Germany’s creaking cable network.

Ehemalige Gaststätte
Country woes. Source: DPA

With ever fewer stores, silent high streets make shopping a problem; 28 percent of the population doesn’t have a supermarket within 1 kilometer (0.6 miles). Medical services are a further issue, especially for aging populations: only 20 percent of people have a family doctor close by in rural areas of eastern Germany and in Rhineland-Palatinate, the country’s state in the south-west, bordering France and Luxembourg.

Retiring doctors aren’t the only problem – the number of hospitals in Germany has fallen by a fifth since 1991. Although everyone can reach a hospital within 25 minutes, that’s insufficient. In emergent cases, ambulances need to be on-scene within 12 minutes – the number of deaths resulting from heart attacks is “more than twice as high”, the report shows, in rural Saxony-Anhalt and Brandenburg, the state which surrounds Berlin, than in Schleswig-Holstein or Berlin proper.

Education also suffers in rural regions – in Saxony-Anhalt, in former eastern Germany, 50 percent more students leave schools without some kind of educational certificate than in other areas of the country. That’s partly because there aren’t enough educational institutions, despite Germany’s three-tiered approach to high school that ranges from vocational to college prep. Parents wind up driving their children ever further to school.

The report’s researchers warned these trends are likely to worsen in the future and recommended redirecting taxes to help poorer areas in both halves of Germany.

Politicians will address people’s access to basic services from schools to doctors at a meeting later this month. In the meantime, they place their hopes in high-speed broadband as a way to counter the trend. With better internet access, rural citizens could shop online and this would also create a basis for service industries to grow beyond the big cities.

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Handelsblatt’s Daniel Delhaes covers politics. To contact the author: delhaes@handelsblatt.com

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