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The (re)population of rural areas

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Decline? What decline?

A demographic revival is being
observed in a number of rural areas

by John Bryden


Demographic changes and social changes
are closely linked. Rural areas are no
longer necessarily areas of population
decline, quite the contrary.
The demographic trend of an area depends
on the available supply of natural,
human and financial resources but also
on how efficiently these resources are
used for local economic benefit.
The strength of LEADER has precisely
been its ability to rise to this challenge.


There is perhaps no better indicator of the diversity of rural Europe than population density, and no simpler single indicator of the economic successes and failures of an area as population increase or decrease.

A glance at the map of regional population density shows us that the most densely populated and predominantly urbanised regions with over 150 inhabitants/km² are situated mainly in England, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and Italy although such regions also exist in or around the main cities of all other European Union countries except Finland. At the other end of the demographic spectrum, the least densely populated and predominantly rural regions are to be found in Sweden, Finland, Ireland, Northern Scotland and Central Spain, with pockets in the mountain areas of France, Greece and Portugal.


Rural Renaissance

More interesting for those concerned with rural change and development are the trends in population over time, and their causes and consequences. Until relatively recently rural areas were considered to be areas in which population was declining, due to the outward migration of younger age-groups, low natural growth due to population imbalance, and the consequent ageing of the population.

The notion of “rural renaissance” was born in the 1970s when the population of many rural areas appeared to grow against expectations, a tendency which continued in the 1980s. However, population growth was not by any means to be found everywhere - in some remoter sparsely populated and mountainous areas, population has continued to decline, while in others, especially nearer to towns and cities, it has increased rapidly. Yet even in remote and sparsely populated rural regions, there are examples of population growth in recent decades - examples being found in the Scottish Highlands and Islands, the west of Ireland, and northern Sweden.

The immediate reasons for positive or negative trends in population of rural regions are complex, and differ from one region to another. Population change is the result of natural changes, or the balance between births and deaths, and migratory movements (people entering and leaving the area). Given the almost universal decline in birth rates across Europe in recent decades, in most cases it is migration which makes the difference.


Contrasting situations

In the urban-centred ruralities of the Netherlands, Southeast England and the Paris Basin, the impacts of urban development spill over to accessible rural hinterlands, creating demands for housing by commuters, changing the type of service provision, and having environmental and social impacts.

In these areas close to towns and cities, population is increasing due to net inward migration from cities and suburbs. Population deconcentration is taking place in the form of population outflow from metropolitan areas. In such cases, most of those moving to the countryside from towns and suburbs are in higher income groups, apparently moving to escape what they see as urban problems such as inner city impoverishment, falling tax base, poor school performance, increasing crime, long-term unemployment, and decay of urban public goods. One of the challenges the LEADER groups intervening in this kind of area face is to prevent a situation where this inflow of newcomers pushes up housing and land prices, forcing even more local people from the most fragile group to leave.

In other areas, for example in southern France, in a number of rural coastal areas of Spain and Portugal, and in parts of Wales, there has been a growth in the inward migration of retired people with relatively high incomes. Other types of in-migration are return migrants and new working age immigrants attracted by ‘quality of life’ factors. Integrating these newcomers, who are very often likely to play an active role in the development of rural areas, is a concern of many LEADER areas.

Regions that continue to experience population decline have often been suffering from a strong outward migration, of younger age groups in particular, for many decades. This often results in lower birth rates, an ageing of the population, and a working population that is too small. There is no longer a renewal of the generations. These are the regions that are the most concerned by and should be the most involved in active repopulation policies whose aim is to attract new workers, essential for the creation of new business activities and the revitalisation of the areas in question.


Inward and outward migrations

Although different types of inward and outward migration have different economic impacts, it is generally considered that a population increase is a sign of positive economic trends and/or strong perceptions of a good quality of life by residents and in-migrants alike, whilst population decline is considered to be a sign of negative economic trends and/or a poor quality of life.

But it is interesting to analyse in greater depth this population trend and to see that several regions, like Limousin in France (see article by Corinne Legrand), continue to have a natural population imbalance, the result of a long period of large-scale rural depopulation, and a migratory influx of new people who more and more are offsetting the outward migration that is starting to slow down. While these newcomers are essentially part of the working population, and a significant percentage are families with children, it is clearly a process of renewal that is slowly getting under way in a number of rural areas which a few decades ago seemed doomed.


New comparative advantages but new conflicts

Some rural areas are in fact now seen as relatively good places to live, particularly for young families and even for retired people.

These new values have led to new forms of comparative advantage for rural areas, and new economic activities, which both attract inward migrants and help to retain young people in rural areas. At the same time, new conflicts arise about property rights, access to housing and land, and in other ways. These conflicts are both substantive, arising for example from inward migrants or second home owners forcing up housing prices for locals, from increasing pressure for recreational access to land, and subjective in terms of different perceptions and representations of rurality acting out in local political and social conflicts, or from conflicts about what rural space should be used for.


Winners and losers

If we are to understand more deeply why some rural areas seem to be ‘winning’ and others ‘losing’ in the economic stakes and therefore having increasing or falling population, natural and human resources, access to capital, and infrastructure undoubtedly remain key factors, although in the case of natural resources we have to include new uses of these for recreation, tourism and living space.

But it is more and more obvious that in this search for ‘territorial competitiveness’ a key role is being played by ‘softer’ factors like how well markets and public institutions are performing, or how effective internal and external networking is, in terms of putting such resources to use for local economic development. These factors have been a focus of the LEADER Initiative through its stress on community involvement, empowerment, partnership, integration and local focus. Among these factors, the need to encourage people to move to rural areas, and in some cases even assist them and plan their integration, is for many areas a difficult challenge but one that is liable to bring renewal.

        John Bryden is a professor of Human Geography at the University of Aberdeen (Scotland, United Kingdom) and coordinator of the “Future Prospects” work of the LEADER European Observatory. He is also a co-director of the Arkleton Centre for Rural Development Research and an advisor to the Scottish Office Interdepartmental Committee on Rural Policy.


source: LEADER Magazine nr.22 - Spring, 2000

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