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Shrinking smartly and sustainably

Online Workshop

EU Regions Week 2022

During the 20th edition of the European Week of Regions and Cities (#EURegionsWeek), Population Europe and OECD brought together policy-makers and experts to discuss policies on adapting to shrinking populations in regions and countries experiencing sustained and strong population losses. 


The event started with a presentation by Ana Moreno Monroy, Regional Inequalities and Demographic Change Programme Manager at the OECD. In her presentation, she highlighted the transformational changes OECD and European countries are expecting in the level and structure of their population in the coming decades. She framed demographic change as a mega-trend shaping the future of regions, together with environmental transitions, technological change and globalisation. She proposed three 'imagined futures' based on foresight analysis to stir debate and identify policy trade-offs and challenges for different types of regions: “business as usual”, the rise of regional centres and the city paradox and the rise of rural. This introduction was followed by a round of short presentations and a dialogue among the experts that joined the event as speakers. The discussions were moderated by Ana Moreno Monroy and Daniela Vono de Vilhena, Deputy Executive Secretary of Population Europe. Following, a summary of the contributions is presented:


Anne Goujon (Population and Just Societies (POPJUS) Program Director, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Austria) highlighted that in Europe, the average share of older people living in urban or in rural municipalities is not very different nowadays. She emphasised that the proportion of older people will increase in the future everywhere, so the urban/rural pattern is not what matters; what matters is attractiveness: the capacity of cities or rural areas in attracting newcomers. She stressed that this is what will determine the share of older people among residents, not the degree of urbanisation. Finally, she mentioned that the mobility patterns of individuals, which evolve over the life course and over time will be determinant for shaping the demographics of municipalities.


Sebastian Klüsener (Research Director on Demographic Change and Ageing, The Federal Institute for Population Research (BiB), Germany) pointed out that a big challenge of remote areas in Germany and elsewhere is that they frequently lack attractiveness for women, as local economies are often focused on male-dominated activities. Fewer jobs for women imply high incentives to leave those regions in search of opportunities. Another challenge identified is the way we look at population trends: history tells us that trends unlikely remain constant over time but can change and reverse. For instance, in the Alps in the past many areas witnessed population decline. This, however, reversed at least to some degree as new opportunities arrived. He stressed that the potential for change is always there, though its likeliness varies by region. He concluded by remarking that the non-linearity of trends should be considered when analising population projections for policy planning; otherwise, it can happen that too pessimistic population projections cause less investments in infrastructure which then reinforce population decline as regions further loose attractiveness for in-migration.


Fabrice Dalongeville (Mayor, Municipality of Auger-Saint-Vincent, France) started his intervention by stressing that there is no single way to organize the supply of services in rural areas: the question is not how rural areas can compete with cities, but what works for rural people. He suggested that local governments in rural areas need to be creative and think outside the box to come up with innovative solutions that work for their communities. For example, placing too much emphasis on housing supply may not produce the desired results. He remarked that in his village, for example, priority is given to the provision of cultural facilities, integrated services and family support and by doing that, they have achieved excellent results. He concluded by stressing that local leaders must create spaces to build and solidify the links between the inhabitants. At the same time, the provision of key services such as healthcare remains a necessity in all rural communities. Here, prevention is key, but the biggest challenge is finding health workers to meet the growing need for care and prevention.


Patricia Moroz (Regional Director, Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), United States) commented that in the United States, industrial transitions set the pace for city transformation. She noted that in her country, the location of jobs in particular is a key determinant in the attractiveness of cities. Some cities have offered tax incentives and proposed housing developments to lower housing costs to attract newcomers. Other cities have potentiated their cultural, historical and natural amenities to profile themselves as touristic new destinations. Another group of cities has relied on supporting large scale events and  large employers with innovation potential such as hospitals and universities. She concluded by stressing that regardless of size, cities facing population decline need to figure out a strategy to remain attractive in a context of high internal mobility.


The workshop followed with the first of two concluding remarks by Lewis Dijkstra (Head of the Economic Analysis Sector of the Directorate-General for Regional and Urban Policy, European Commission). He remarked that small reductions in population size do not necessarily undermine the quality of life, the vitality of a region or its potential for growth. He stressed, however, that demographic trends imply that some regions will almost inevitably experience a reduction in their population. He concluded by suggesting that instead of fighting against shrinking populations, the focus should rather be on well-being and quality of life, on identifying which issues residents have and on how these issues could be addressed.  


In the second and final remark, Andreas Edel (Executive Secretary of Population Europe) stressed the need of more balanced narratives on the attractiveness of both urban and rural areas, acknowledging that living in those different types of places has both advantages and disadvantages. He remarked that human mobility is key to “brain boost” regions (as demographer Gunnar Andersson once framed it). He emphasised the importance to provide places on the spot for people to meet, socialise and discuss community and individual demands on a regular basis. He concluded by stressing the need for more exchange on demographic topics between science, policy makers and politicians.


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