Why are South African cities less populated?

Rural areas

Annett Steinführer

Dr. Annett Steinführer is a rural and urban sociologist and works on the consequences of social and demographic change for villages and small towns. Migration and residence decisions as well as social and spatial inequalities are further focal points of her research.

Around two thirds of Germany's population currently live outside of large cities. The living conditions in villages as well as in small and medium-sized towns have changed significantly as a result of the social upheavals of the 20th century, as well as economic, social and societal change.

Villages, small and medium-sized towns are the defining types of settlement in rural areas. View from the Apothekerbrunnen into the Street of Peace in Ilmenau, Thuringia. (& copy picture-alliance, ZB / Hans Wiedl)

Villages and small towns are the most important types of settlement in rural areas. Social life takes place here, there are public services and facilities, living is possible. In the public debate about urban growth, small towns and villages often appear as marginal forms of settlement, which in recent times are supposedly exclusively characterized by population losses. Based on the Thünen typology (see chapter What are rural areas ?, graphic "Result of the Thünen approach to delimiting and typifying rural areas"), around half of the population in Germany currently lives in rural areas - and thus in villages as well as small and medium-sized cities with very different development paths.

Villages yesterday and today

Village, as can be read in the second volume of the German dictionary by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm from 1860, originally meant "[...] wol as a meeting of minor people in the open field, but then a settlement of the same at such a place to practice agriculture ". Another structural feature was a lack of fortifications, which stood in "contrast to the castles and cities" (DWB Vol. 2, Col. 1277). In geography, a village refers to a rural group settlement with a size of around 100 residents or more, or 20 courtyards or building complexes. While a quantitative upper limit cannot be determined, smaller settlements are called hamlets, for example. For a normal-sized village in Central Europe, a population of around 1,000 to 1,500 can be assumed. Geographers such as Martin Born or Gerhard Henkel also emphasize the structural character of the village as a structural feature of the village through formerly or currently predominant agricultural forms of economy. Many villages have lost their legal independence in the decades since 1960 and have been incorporated into smaller or larger cities. Despite all the structural overprinting and densification, there are still recognizable remnants of formerly agrarian parts of the settlement even in large cities like Berlin or Munich.

If one tries to understand villages not in relation to settlement, but for example from a sociological perspective, then it is essentially the two dimensions of "community" (as external and self-attribution) and "nature" (in the sense of different forms of use of natural resources) with which this form of settlement can be described.

The equation of the village as a place of agricultural production and work, which has been valid for centuries, has been dissolved in many places in the 20th century. The process of industrialization that began in the 19th century was of great importance for this, and this resulted in a strong urbanization of society (see chapter Economic Diversity of Rural Areas). Not only did many workers migrate from the villages to the cities growing far beyond their historical borders, but rural areas themselves were also changed by the new world of industry: commuting workers brought not only money but also other experiences and ideas about life into the village. In scenic areas, these developments were further intensified by tourism - for example by spa guests or the vacationers who were then often referred to as "summer visitors".

The dissolution of traditional living conditions in the villages accelerated after the Second World War, additionally reinforced by the influx of refugees and displaced persons, for example from Silesia and Bohemia. A sociological study by Gerhard Wurzbacher and Renate Pflaum in 1954 (see literature on this chapter) described the local consequences of the modernization processes of society as a whole in the 20th century and in particular the first post-war years as the transition of the village "to an open structure": "Finding new and foreign ways of life now easier access, the person gains more individual development opportunities ".

The structural change in agriculture - above all the declining number of full-time farmers - continued and fundamentally changed the economic basis of most of the villages and their social structure. Since the 1950s, villages in West Germany have increasingly evolved to reflect social diversity, without it being possible to compensate for the job losses in agriculture - commuting, living and sleeping villages are the result to this day.

The villages in the Soviet occupation zone and later in the GDR took a different development path (Jens A. Forkel et al. 2016 using Mecklenburg as an example, see literature on this chapter). In eastern Germany, too, there was a fundamental change in population in the immediate post-war period due to the immigration of displaced persons and refugees. With the land reform, many of the new roommates received so-called new farmer jobs and stayed. For the development of the "socialist village", collectivization (see also the chapter on economic diversity in rural areas) was the decisive process of change from the 1950s onwards: in the newly emerging agricultural production cooperatives (LPGs) that existed across the board after a few years, land was farmed collectively . Until the end of the GDR, the LPGs were both drivers of industrial agriculture and guarantors of numerous social institutions in the villages - from kindergartens to cultural centers.

This changed fundamentally after reunification, as the agricultural companies converted into agricultural cooperatives or corporations (e.g. GmbHs) were largely limited to their purely economic function. Combined with the transformational disruptions taking place at the same time (e.g. closing of industrial companies, downsizing of administrations and the military), this led to mass unemployment in the 1990s and 2000s. One consequence of these changes was a strong emigration, especially of younger and better educated population groups.

With all the economic changes in the villages in the 20th century and an accelerated demographic change, especially in East Germany since the 1990s, the fear that the villages will "die" due to emigration and a negative natural population development in many places (i.e. a higher number of deaths as births) is not true.

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Can villages really "die"?

Armed conflicts, natural disasters, epidemics, depleted natural resources and social upheavals have repeatedly caused settlements to be abandoned in the past. Place names such as Wüstenschlette in Saxony or Wüstenbilow in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, but also Neudorf in Saxony-Anhalt, still refer to such historical processes of resettlement. In the more recent past (in the 1970s and again increasingly from 2000) the issue of local population decline has played an important role in the public and academic debate. A whole glossary of terms of decline has developed in this way - there was talk of "rural exodus" and "emptying", even of "wolf expectation land" and (coming) "desolations". "Dying" villages were reported again and again, although no evidence was provided that the villages actually "died".

In the recent past, villages have actually disappeared from the map, but despite all recurring forecasts, it was not "demographics" that were responsible. Rather, it was (and is) the alternative usage claims of society - mostly: the state - that have been and are given priority over the preservation of villages. In the decades after 1945, it was military training areas, opencast mines and dams in particular that villages fell victim to. In Germany, for example, according to the calculations of the geoscientist and head of the regional planning association Leipzig-West Saxony, Andreas Berkner, in the three largest lignite mining areas alone, more than 100,000 people from almost 300 completely or partially disappeared - demolished, flooded, rebuilt elsewhere - locations relocated. Well-known names in the heated public debate were Heuersdorf near Leipzig or Horno / Rogow in Niederlausitz. Villages were also given up for renewable energies, for example Schulenberg in Lower Saxony in favor of the Okertalsperre completed in 1956 or the Brandenburg town of Schlagsdorf / Mark, where there is now a wind farm. Often in the second half of the 20th century, long-term emigration in the preceding decades favored the abandonment of villages due to competing usage claims.

Annett Steinführer



Small towns as centers of rural areas

Rural areas are not just made up of villages. Small towns have always served as their anchor points and regional centers. In terms of spatial planning, this role in Germany is assigned a status as a basic or sub-center (with facilities for basic needs for the population of the city and its surrounding area) or as a medium-sized center (in which there are also central local facilities and offers to meet the higher needs) reinforced. In addition to their economic importance as a market and supply center as well as their political control function, small towns have always been places of cultural exchange and the transfer of innovation to rural areas. A typical pattern of many small towns is their functional specialization - historically, for example, as residential or civil service towns, in the present, for example, as health resorts and recreational areas.

(& copy data source: Franz Rothenbacher / Georg Ready, Population, Households and Families, in: Thomas Rahlf (ed.), Germany in data. Time series for historical statistics (bpb figures), Bonn 2015, pp. 30–45, here: P. 43)
Whether a city is considered "small" depends on the benchmark and on conventions, which can differ from state to state. Since 1877, small towns have been shown in the official statistics in Germany as places with 5,000 to 20,000 inhabitants, medium-sized towns as communities with a population of 20,000 to 100,000. In the 19th century, this purely quantitative city definition was a logical response to urbanization and the loss of importance of the legal city status, which was so important in the Middle Ages and modern times. The typification based on the population is still used today - partly supplemented by changing centrality criteria.

In the ongoing spatial observation of the Federal Institute for Building, Urban and Spatial Research (BBSR), communities of a community association or a unitary community are understood as small towns if they have either 5,000 to less than 20,000 inhabitants or if regional planning is at least of fundamental importance to them Assigned sub-functions of a middle center. The status as a middle center is determined by criteria such as a minimum number of residents, the existence of a school with secondary level II (high school level), local specialists, existing hospitals or cultural offers. According to this delimitation, around 29 percent of the total population lived in 2106 small towns at the end of 2017. This corresponded to almost 47 percent of all 4,528 unit and association communities.

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Fit for the future through the merger?

[...] Christian Kehrer has been mayor of Oberzent for eight weeks. With an area of ​​more than 165 square kilometers, it is the third largest city in Hesse, only Frankfurt and Wiesbaden are larger. The place has a lot of forest, but only a few citizens. Today 10,401 people live here. More than 20 years ago there were almost 1,200 more people. Kehrer's city has only existed since January 1st [2018]. It is the first church planting in Hesse for around 40 years. Not one that was ordained from above as a community reform, as is usually the case, but a voluntary one that over 80 percent of citizens have agreed to - and yet it was born out of necessity. Because the communities of Beerfelden, Hesseneck, Sensbachtal and Rothenberg in the Odenwald have been shrinking for years, the population is getting older in percentage terms. The income was no longer sufficient to properly maintain daycare centers or sewer systems. But you need this if you don't want to shrink even faster. "As individual communities, we no longer had any room for maneuver," says Kehrer.

Germany knows almost everything about the needs of its city dwellers: It knows the rent boom in Berlin-Mitte, the barely affordable house prices in the Stuttgart suburbs, the fine dust pollution on Hamburg's Stresemannstrasse. It knows the struggles against gentrification and for affordable housing, for car-free inner cities and organic food in daycare centers. But there is another Germany. [...]. Affordable housing is less of a problem there because the prices for rents and real estate have hardly risen - or even fallen - for many years. There are villages there where there are no longer any shops or restaurants. Where the ways to the next school are long and doctors are sometimes as difficult to find as the lynx in the Harz Mountains.

Germany is growing and shrinking at the same time, often only a few kilometers make the difference. Between 2005 and 2015, the population of the 77 major cities grew by 1.4 million people. There were also medium-sized and smaller cities, mostly with colleges, that grew. But 37 percent of medium-sized cities have shrunk, and this also applies to 52 percent of small towns. Around 15 million people live in such communities.

The challenges posed by thinning out to politicians are at least as great as those of rising rental prices in the boom regions. "Equal living conditions" for all citizens, regardless of where they live, is one of the premises of the Basic Law. But how equal is "equivalent"? What if there is no cinema far and wide? What if less than 20 percent of the people in the sparsely populated areas have a family doctor nearby?

Kehrer, the mayor of Oberzent, is 42 years old. He was born here, never wanted to leave and now lives in Finkenbach, one of the 19 districts of his city. [...] "The merger gave us financial room for maneuver," he says. The municipality saves 900,000 euros a year, mainly because instead of four mayors, only one is paid. Due to the higher number of inhabitants, the state's allocations are increasing, at the same time Hessen has eased the municipality's debts by 4.5 million euros. Money that is urgently needed: It's 40 kilometers from one end of the city to the other, and Oberzent has 266 streets to maintain. The water pipes need to be renewed in three sub-communities. Estimated cost: 7 million euros. One of the most important projects is the city's health center, which opened in March. "Most of the doctors here in the region are now 60 years or older," says Kehrer, "a large number of them will soon be retiring." Getting offspring is difficult.

A few weeks ago, Bernhard Wagner moved into his new practice in the small industrial park a good kilometer away from the town hall. [...] Wagner is 41 years old and until recently had a practice in Oberallgäu. Now he is the first port of call to run the health center. "The approach appeals to me, here the gas is accelerated," says Wagner. It is the first center of its kind in Hessen, funded by the state government. It is intended to ensure an integrated supply of general practitioners, specialists and social services for people close to where they live - which is a matter of course for city dwellers. A surgeon has his rooms here as well as a urologist, a gynecologist and an orthopedic surgeon. There is a naturopath, a psychotherapist, a neurologist and a physiotherapist. We are still looking for a family doctor and an ophthalmologist. Wagner offers 32 consultation hours a week. He makes house calls for which the health insurance company pays 22.59 euros, regardless of how long the journey is and how long it takes.He can't do more than two a day because of the distances. [...]

In the shrinking regions, the demographic change is visible as if under a magnifying glass. The big cities are benefiting from the influx of young people, where the average age is 42.4 years. In rural districts it is 45.2 years. In the sparsely populated and structurally weak areas, especially in the east, every fourth inhabitant is at least 65 years old. This is where the center of society is eroding. [...]

Christoph Seip sits on a bench by the historic gallows on the outskirts of Beerfelden, which was built in 1597. You have a beautiful view over the fields here. The 34-year-old was born in the region. After school he went to study, he saw the world. Most recently he lived in Mannheim. The IT specialist has been working at Daimler in Stuttgart since 2014 and is a project manager. [...] "When my wife became pregnant, we asked ourselves the question: Where do we want to live?" Says Seip. In Stuttgart, with house prices of up to one million euros? They chose home. "I want my children to grow up in the country," says Seip. So they built a house on his parents' property. Seip works on a daily basis in Stuttgart and in the home office. Because he believes that others will also follow this path in the future, he and others have set up a platform for start-ups in Oberzent. He wants to make the place attractive for young founders. You could smile about it. On the other hand, why? Why not transfer the boom in the big city to the country? Experts help, from writing the business plan to financing, there is enough cheap business space. "If there are networks, it is in the country," says Seip. After two months there are already 16 business ideas on the table and the first business plans have been written.

Markus Dettmer / Robin Wille, "In Another Land", in: DER SPIEGEL No. 34 of August 18, 2018, p. 62 ff.



These figures are only to be understood as a rough approximation, because changes in spatial planning and municipal area reforms change the status assignments for central locations, and small towns themselves are incorporated or newly formed. For decades, territorial reforms have been considered a tried and tested means of adapting local administrations and services of general interest to social changes and increasing their efficiency. During the high phase of reform enthusiasm between 1960 and 1976, the number of municipalities in what was then the Federal Republic of Germany decreased from 24,500 to 10,700, or by 56 percent. In keeping with the predominant idea of ​​"catching up" modernization in politics and science, this process was also carried out in the five eastern German territorial states after reunification: within the first ten years, the number of municipalities here decreased by 30 percent, and in 2015 it was in Compared to 1990 from 7,600 to almost 2,700 and thus decreased by 65 percent. The number of small towns increased from 259 to 413 between the end of 1992 and the end of 2018, while the number of rural communities decreased from 7,159 to 2,930, with large differences between the federal states.

(& copy GeoBasis-DE / BKG)
What these processes mean can be shown well with two examples: The fourth largest German municipality with over 500 square kilometers, the city of Möckern in Saxony-Anhalt, is a small town in terms of planning law and population (13,000). With almost the same population, it is about 22 times larger in area than the densely populated city of Eppstein in Hesse. Furthermore, there are more than 300 small and rural towns in Germany with fewer than 5,000 inhabitants, which in their self-portrayals often proudly refer to their city rights - but are not understood as cities in the ongoing spatial observation. The smallest of them is Arnis in Schleswig-Holstein with 284 inhabitants and an area of ​​0.5 square kilometers (2018).

Small towns complement the diverse urban landscape of Germany and make it particularly clear that "town" and "country" are not absolute spatial categories, because the typical small town in Germany nowadays consists of a core that is often medieval in its origins and a smaller or larger number of years later Villages incorporated in the 20th and 21st centuries, clearly recognizable in the loosened settlement form of Möckern.

A relatively small population is a necessary but not a sufficient criterion for small towns. In addition, there is a less dense, yet urban type of development compared to large cities. This is associated with a small and relatively stable ownership structure. Typical of small towns in Germany and significant for the local identity are historical structural remains - such as a city wall or a town hall from the Gothic or Renaissance period.

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There is always some treasure

[...] It is a gloomy February day, bad weather [...]. But the view of the little town's treasure [Wanfried] is rewarding for goose bumps and cold feet: A magnificent ensemble of old, often stately half-timbered houses. No crooked slugs, no, perfectly renovated buildings. They almost drove the place to ruin once, but in the end miraculously saved it from decline. The place on the Werra is an example, albeit an unusual one, of how a provincial municipality without a motorway connection, university and large company can to some extent ensure its survival. [...] The old port city on the Hessian-Thuringian border paralyzed after reunification, so to speak. People moved away in search of better jobs, others died. Dozens of houses, including venerable half-timbered houses in the town center, stood empty, blind panes, crumbling plaster. There was sadness and fear. One feared for its existence. Fewer people, less money, fewer community services - a diabolical cycle, a nightmare that other rural communities beyond the suburbs and affluent middle-class centers of the republic know only too well. Then in 2007 [...] [Wilhelm] Gebhard became mayor [...]. At the same time, a group of citizens had come together at that time, out of a mixture of despair and passion. All of them were and are lovers of half-timbered houses that blew their hearts when they looked at the decaying historic buildings. In turn, a Dutch couple sought advice from these enthusiasts who threatened to fail in the renovation of an old forester's house.

[…] Mayor Gebhard […] came up with the idea of ​​advertising his houses in the Netherlands, which at that time were still available at a ridiculous price. Interested parties from the west came, some bought and restored with the help of experts from the citizens' group. […] But can you save a city with two dozen solvent but no longer very young Dutch people? Of course not. At the time, skeptics, critics and envious people mocked themselves that the developments in Wanfried were a kind of gentrification frippery, not sustainable and therefore nonsense. Nonsense? Are you kidding me? Are you serious when you say that. Because the reports about these Dutch people, who absolutely wanted to go to the Werra, also made Germans curious. People from Frankfurt, Wiesbaden and Freiburg reported who were drawn from the centers to the provinces […]. Quieter, cheaper, safer. [...]

[…] [T he 21 once empty half-timbered houses have been sold, 13 to Dutch people, five of which are permanently inhabited by them, the rest are used as holiday apartments. The little frenzy was a kind of big bang. In the meantime, less stately properties are being refurbished, finding tenants and buyers alike. [...] The settlement houses on the outskirts, built in the 1950s for refugees from the GDR, are also being prepared, block by block. The daycare center is jam-packed, as is the school, says the mayor. That too, if only indirectly, was brought about by the Dutch. […] In Wanfried, in any case, there are no longer any historical super bargains.

The Wanfrieder can be satisfied with the results of the past few years. The population decline was stopped. In 1991, one year after German reunification, 4,938 people were still living in the city. In 2015 it was just 4,131. In the meantime, things are improving again: In the past year [2018] there were at least 4,177 locals. So is everything good in place? Not quite. More jobs, for example, would be nice. There are no large companies and factories, but instead handicrafts and medium-sized businesses. Quite a few residents commute to nearby Eschwege, some to Kassel or a little further. Anyone who can and is allowed to work in the home office, after all, the network works properly. [...] In 1990, shortly after the fall of the Wall, Wanfried had 1,312 jobs subject to social security contributions. In 2005 there were just 666. Now there are at least 770 again. No boom, certainly not. But things are slowly improving. [...]

[…] Of course, not every place has a historical half-timbered structure. But there is always some treasure. Be it a central location, with good road connections to the rest of the republic. Be it fertile farmland or old barracks that can be converted into apartments, offices or commercial premises. A daycare center with long opening times and sufficient staff can also be a magnet for immigrants, as can ambitious schools, it doesn't have to be a grammar school. Anyone who as a father or mother wants to live comparatively cheaply and with plenty of fresh air will also accept longer commutes to work with such offers. And Wanfried also teaches: It is worth cleaning your local silver. You have to look after and protect the center by all means. "What good does a new development area help us when the town centers are degenerating?" Asks Mayor Gebhard during a tour of the city. [...] A community cannot get on its feet without active local politicians. But also not without a committed local community. Without the experts of the citizens' group, the Dutch would not have bought their way in Wanfried, without them the people from Frankfurt, Wiesbaden and Freiburg might have gone elsewhere […]. The newcomers, say the gentlemen from the citizens' group, have enriched the city. [...]

Susanne Höll, "The miracle of Wanfried", in: Süddeutsche Zeitung of February 23, 2019



For the majority of small towns in economically weak regions, the decades since reunification in 1990 were associated with pronounced job losses in industry and agriculture, but also in the public sector. This is particularly true for East Germany, but economic structural weakness, combined with the negative consequences of demographic change, was and is also a characteristic of regions in the old federal states, for example near the former inner-German border. Many small towns lost important infrastructural facilities, such as secondary schools, and had to cope with population declines, in particular due to emigration. In extreme cases, small towns lost up to 40 percent of their inhabitants within the two decades from 1990 to 2010.

(& copy data source: indicators and maps for spatial and urban development, INKAR, edition 2019. Ed .: Federal Institute for Building, Urban and Spatial Research (BBSR) in the Federal Office for Building and Regional Planning (BBR), Bonn 2019)
With a view to more recent data, however, small towns in western Germany recorded population gains again between 2012 and 2017 and the shrinkage of small towns in eastern Germany decreased. The number of unemployed in relation to the population of working age has declined everywhere and has mostly more than halved in most East German city and municipality types - which is of course not only due to more jobs, but also to a declining working population. Research on the so-called hidden champions, i.e. mostly medium-sized world market leaders in narrowly specialized areas, has shown in recent years that a pure deficit perspective does not do justice to small towns with economic dynamics and population growth both in peripheral locations and within agglomeration areas (see also Chapter Economic Diversity of Rural Areas).

The population decline and aging in many rural areas as well as the increasing local concentration of facilities for daily supply require small towns today to perform new or expanded functions for their regional surroundings. At the same time, these requirements are counteracted by the ongoing loss of functionality, for example in inner-city retail, which suffers from competition from "greenfield" consumer markets and the Internet (see the chapter on services of general interest in rural areas). It can therefore be assumed that the villages and small towns will continue to change in the future without the specific dynamics, functions and forms of settlement being predictable.