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Hansjörg Bucher and Ralf Mai (2006)

Shrinking Populations in Europe’s Regions*

In: Zeitschrift für Bevölkerungswissenschaft, Vol. 31, 3-4/2006, p. 311-344, Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, ISSN: 0340-2398

As we enter the stage of the "Second Demographic Transition", the countries and regions of Europe are undergoing massive change in their demographic dynamics. A critical criterion is the fall in fertility below replacement level. Since this event has taken place almost everywhere in Europe, albeit at different times and at different intensities, "demographic shrinking" as a component of demographic change shows a regional demographic phase shift. The demographic response to the fall in fertility was also masked by migration movements and delayed by a favourable age composition among women of child-bearing age. It takes roughly one generation, once the low-birth cohorts have themselves become potential parents, for the fall in the birth-rate to have an increasing impact on demographic dynamics. Because of this, the full extent of population reduction will not be evident in many regions until 2020 onwards, when this generation change will have taken place everywhere.

The aim of this article is to apply a demographic analysis to the process of shrinking and its spatial patterns in the regions of Europe between approximately 1990 and 2004. In addition to the regional patterns of shrinking, it is interesting to observe the degree to which these are interlinked in terms of settlement structures. Regional-demographic analyses at European level have so far been rare or have been restricted to individual demographic aspects. Explicit regional analyses of shrinking populations, especially at European level (which is more than just the EU) have not yet been carried out. The results show that the trend in demographic shrinking differs widely from one region to another. It is possible to distinguish between those countries with almost across-the-board population reduction and those in which (virtually) no shrinking regions are to be found. The third group includes countries with a pronounced contrast between growing and shrinking areas. In the course of the Second Demographic Transition, the "new" type of shrinking is to be observed mainly in urban areas, from where it will, however, expand because the low birth-rate will start to take effect in the long term.

The phase shifts, however, still afford to many regions the opportunity to prepare for the spatial impact of demographic change. Rational design of the regions and cities is contingent on the formation of clear concepts of the structure that is desired. Any reorientation process must start by establishing spatial models and launching a debate on them. It is very important to be aware of the whole picture because a strategy of competing with neighbouring countries for the shrinking population is not a tenable solution to large-scale population reduction. As the problem is viewed at present, rather, co-operative planning and action is required. Action will have to take place no longer at the level of the municipality, but rather at the level of the region. New forms of organisation are called for in terms of regional planning for the formation of large-scale communities that are ready to shoulder their responsibility and form a viable alternative to competing for individual slices of a shrinking population cake.

* Original title: Bevölkerungsschrumpfung in den Regionen Europas (full text in German only)

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