Crumbling houses, empty streets and often not a soul in sight – a drive through the countryside around Berlin, in what was formerly East Germany, reveals the sad reality of the rapid exodus from the country to the city.
According to a recent study by the German Federal Institute for Research on Building, Urban Affairs and Spatial Development (BBSR), the future is grim for many German villages.
The statistics show that, from 1993 to 2013, the German cities with the strongest population growth were Münster (+8.9 percent), Frankfurt (+7,6 percent), Darmstadt (+7.3 percent) and Munich (+7.0 percent).
All of these cities are located in what was once West Germany, until the country’s re-unification in 1991. It serves as yet another sign that the former East Germany, which was under Communist rule until 1989, still has lots of catching up to do some 25 years later.
The rural areas of East Germany have been most affected by the exodus to cities: 84 percent of municipalities there are shrinking, compared to 41 percent in West Germany, according to the study.
Many of these villages are caught in a downward spiral: A shrinking population means fewer people to finance the cost of maintaining the town’s infrastructure and more money needed to care for the aging inhabitants – the mean population age of people in rural municipalities is 50.
The BBSR argues municipalities shouldn’t be abandoned to face the music on their own.
“The structurally weak regions are in danger of being left economically further behind,” said Harald Herrmann, BBSR’s director. “Maintaining living standards in these regions will become one of the main challenges.”
The federal ministry of building is examining current programs for rebuilding cities suffering from the exodus.
The danger in demographic and economic change is that it gains momentum of its own accord. A vicious circle begins when the population dwindles, there are fewer people to spend money there and fewer young, well-trained, highly skilled workers available. Less is produced and less is invested as tax receipts decline and public treasuries must cut costs, including for infrastructure repairs and improvements.
The lack of investment in turn makes rural communities less attractive, especially to young people, and another demographic decline results.
The low birth rate in rural areas of Germany, which has the world’s lowest birth rate according to a recent study from Hamburg’s Institute of International Economics, has also contributed to the problem.
Today, there are more births than deaths in only 137 of about 4,500 municipalities in Germany, and the overall German population is expected to continue declining. The BBSR forecasts a population drop from 81.1 million today to 78.2 million people by 2035.
“In order to maintain constant population numbers in the long term, Germany must add around 400,000 people through immigration every year,” Mr. Herrmann said.
The exodus from the countryside also poses problems for the housing industry, which would rather build in rural areas than in over-crowded cities.
Axel Gedaschko, president of the federal association of German housing and real estate companies, told Handelsblatt the current amount of construction in cities is not enough to meet demand, while the opposite is true in the countryside.
“In many places, we are at the beginning of a new wave of vacancies,” Mr. Gedaschko said. According to the BBSR, an average of one apartment in twelve already is vacant in rural regions and communities. Rural areas in eastern Germany report vacancies of 9.2 percent.
The federal ministry of construction is looking into programs for rebuilding places that have suffered from the exodus.
The findings should “result in a package of measures that will put the housing industry in a position to economically manage the necessary rebuilding,” Mr. Gedaschko said. “Otherwise, the number of vacant apartments will increase drastically.”
Daniel Delhaes reports on politics, transport and airlines from Handelsblatt’s Berlin office. Dana Heide is a correspondent for Handelsblatt in Berlin. Jonathan Schmitt is a reporter for Handelsblatt. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com