Types or rural shrinking and divisions between East and West

Shrinking rural regions face more complex challenges than depopulation. The interaction between demographic trends and social, economic, and institutional dynamics generate diverse and self-perpetuating “syndromes” of decline. The ESPON ESCAPE project referred to these as “complex shrinking”, and developed a simplified, descriptive typology to find order in this phenomenon and facilitate policy targeting.

The ESCAPE typology was developed by applying clustering methods to 385 EU NUTS3 rural regions that lost population in 2001-2016. Drawing on economic models of migration and labour-allocation, ESCAPE researchers selected a set of variables embedding the chronological and structural dynamics of “simple shrinking” and the four kinds of shrinking process identified in the project: economic restructuring, locational disadvantage, peripheralization, and events and transitions. After considering goodness-of-fit indexes and mapping different options, five homogenous groups were selected.

The groups are shown on the map below. Although cluster analysis cannot detect causal relationships, this exercise revealed a strong association between demographic change, economic factors, and locational disadvantage.

The three groups characterised by more severe shrinking and weaker economic performance are almost entirely located in Eastern Europe, thus being affected by events and transitions. Differences between them are due to different economic structures (and thus impact of post-socialist restructuring), and different interaction capacities, leading to more or less peripheralization. In the first group (74 regions), restructuring of the large agricultural sector in the absence of competitive industry and services fuels severe outmigration (“active” shrinking). The second group of 38 regions, mostly from East Germany, is instead affected by the industrial restructuring. Despite relatively higher incomes, here better accessibility of wealthier areas fuels outmigration almost as severe as in the first group. The third group (78 regions) presents more balanced economic structures and thus resilience to transition-driven restructuring. More centrality compared to the first group prevents massive outmigration, and shrinking is mostly due to natural decline (“legacy” shrinking).

The last two groups are predominantly West European and show moderate shrinking rates driven by natural decline. Here differentiation is mostly due to territorial disadvantage and recent economic restructuring. The first group of 94 regions from the southern and northern EU periphery includes island, mountain, and sparsely populated areas. In the presence of such disadvantages, past growth was driven by the large service and public sectors. These are negatively affected by restructuring, but the regional economy is healthy enough to prevent massive outmigration. The last group of 99 servitised regions, mostly from West Germany, is shrinking due to an old population and low fertility rates not compensated by immigration.

The analysis showed that shrinking can result from a range of processes. The impact of post-socialist transition with related restructuring is still very strong but interacts with other dynamics. “Simple shrinking” is not necessarily accompanied by economic decline, but by relative rather than absolute economic weakness, and often locational disadvantages. Where the largest economic sectors present productivity below the national average (i.e., below reachable better-off regions) and are subject to restructuring, the absence of alternative competitive sectors fuels outmigration. This is particularly severe in Eastern Europe, differentiating these regions from their Western counterparts. Place-based policies focus on the local level and thus tend to neglect the macro-scale dynamics underlying rural shrinking. These need to be factored in to address increasing territorial disparities, especially in monocentric post-socialist countries.

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  • Author: Simone Piras, James Hutton Institute, UK 
  • ESPON ESCAPE