Urban Rise, Rural Demise | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 19.07.2005
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Urban Rise, Rural Demise

In 1800, a mere 2 percent of the world population lived in urban areas. Granted, the 21st century is denser, but nonetheless, urban living has now reached an all time high, and there seems to be no turning back.


The "good life" is receding into the album of Germany's past

Pastoral scenes of abundant families toiling the land and images of tall chimney stacks billowing the dark smoke of prosperity into the skies above rural Europe are now little more than obscurely romanticized ideas of times past.

For much of the continent, and indeed the world, country living has become synonymous with a picture much blacker than the soot which once discolored the facades of the factories from which it spewed.

Across the world, people are turning their backs on the countryside in favor of an urban existence. The United Nations predicts that by the year 2008, 50 percent of the world's 6.1 billion population will be living in built-up areas. And from then on in, the rate will climb at an accelerated rate, reaching 60 percent in a further 20 years.

Safety in numbers?

Panoramabild von Tokio Hochhäuser

Tokyo is the world's largest city with some 20 million inhabitants

There is almost nowhere that the trend does not apply. Cities across the world are expanding, as are the urban developments which surround them. In 1950, New York was the only metropolis home to a population of more than 10 million. In today's world, there are some 19 such concrete jungles scattered about the world, many of them in developing countries.

Although German cities don't make it onto that list -- and are not likely to reach such proportions in the foreseeable future -- the steady onslaught of people leaving the confines of the country's rural regions for a life in the throng is a problem which can only get worse before it gets better.

Essentially, the whole demographic face of the nation is in a state of major flux. Of Germany's 81 million-strong population, almost 73 million live in urbanized areas, and the rate is increasing.

Superlative suburbia

However, the number of people moving to big cities is, at best, stagnant. Although it is the capital, Berlin is in fact losing inhabitants. They, like their counterparts defecting from the countryside, make for the suburbs, which have become filled with sprawling picture-book housing estates.

Vorort, Wohnen, Reihenhäuser

Suburbian housing estates often lack any kind of infrastructure

But what is the attraction of this semi-rural, semi-urban and blandly peripheral way of life? For those who are forced out of the countryside by Germany's economic inertia, it is an affordable compromise. But Steffen Kröhnert of Berlin's Institute for World Population and Global Development says that other factors, such as a need for intellectual stimulation are prompting people to head for the crowds.

"On the whole, people are much better educated than they were 20 years ago, and they have higher expectations in terms of cultural and entertainment possibilities. Therefore, they head towards the big urban centers," Kröhner said.

Rural drain

But the momentum of the migratory trend is draining certain rural areas of the country, thus putting a huge strain on the fragmented communities which stay behind.

"One of the greatest issues is that of infrastructure for those people who don't jump ship. There is the question of banks, doctors, schools and shops, all of which need a minimum number of people to keep them ticking over," Kröhner said.

Aufbau Ost Verkehrsschild

Leaving the rural east is a natural step for the young and mobile

But in some areas, it is only a matter of time before good will is outdone by harsh reality. Many regions, particularly in former East Germany, have little to recommend themselves to the young, who up and leave just as soon as they get the opportunity, emptying their home towns of any chance to continue evolving naturally.

No easy cure for aging communities

Heidrun Hiller, a town and regional planner with the Berlin company, S.T.E.R.N, says the problem is far more simple than the solution.

"The population of many towns and villages in the former East is simply too old. There are regions where the majority of people are 70 or 80. They can't always take care of themselves, and in the absence of family members or younger people, they need an infrastructure which caters for their needs" she said.


Old people alone are not enough to keep a regular community going

Precisely that is easier said than done, because as Hiller is at pains to point out, infrastructures cost money, and communities with an aged population by and large do not generate much by way of income.

And as life expectancy continues to outlive itself -- the number of Germans aged 80 or over is set to triple by the year 2050 -- the problem will become even more acute. Hiller says the demographic echo of drained regions could ultimately make it necessary to "accept that certain German towns will simply cease to be."

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