22 years after re-unification Germany has become an ‘accidental empire’ (Guardian) in Europe through its economic might. It is the largest economy in Europe and also happens to be the largest country by population. Germany has gotten into a political role that it seemed to be reluctant to take over ever since – in many regards the country is still seen as a reluctant power as Meier described it in a paper published in 1995 (today going much further than the role of the nation’s army). Post-unification Germany has been marked with many changes and the emergence of a reborn nation which stands in the centre of the future challenges of Europe. While the country struggles with a redefined role in Europe, its domestic challenges are appear equally tough: They are those of building a sustainable future for a rapidly changing demographic structure of society that is able to sustain a strong economic base. With a declining population, Germany may be smaller than France or the United Kingdom by 2060 if current trends were to continue (predicting future populations must always be seen with great caution – as some predictions from almost 50 years ago demonstrate quite well). Putting uncertainties about future trends aside, the question may also be whether a decline in population is a negative thing (and on the opposite, whether growing populations are bad either)? The pure numbers are less the problem, rather than the spatial and social implications that come with them.
Panic is never helpful for finding solutions, but look at what demographic changes are actually happening to find ways of dealing with it. The decrease of the fertility rate down to 1.36 children per woman in 2011 (according to the Federal Statistical Office) is already tackled with political measures (which may even already have first influences on the predicted trends as suggested by the MPG) and could lead to a changing trend – though probably not a reversal in the general trend of an ageing population (as reflected in the changing population pyramid of Germany). But most of the negative impact of demographic change in a spatial context have started with reunification in 1990 and lead to specific geographic problems that are the much more imminent for the country, as they led to a considerably changed population landscape:
This map demonstrates the current demographic reality in Germany as a problem for regional planning. The map highlights how Demographics and economic power split Germany geographically: Shown is a gridded population cartogram of Germany (see a topographic version of the map here, data based on the LandScan 2008 population model) where each grid cell is resized according to the total number of people living in that area. The colours in the map indicate the estimated population changes between 1990 (the year of unification) and 2015 (based on SEDAC population estimates). The colour shows the expected change in 2015 compared to the year 1990. (It has to be noted that the SEDAC estimates are based on district-level data (‘Kreise und kreisfreie Städte’) and therefore less detailed than the underlying grid. The changes in a city such as Berlin reflect overall changes rather than changes within the city.)
Peak population of Germany seems to have been reached in the last decade, but the population changes that went on since reunification have resulted in a Germany that remains very much divided in the population patterns that shape its demographic landscape. The following chart does not only show the changes between 1990 and today (2009 respecitevly, but the prevailing trend continues), but also the split between east and west and the slowly growing differences between their already very different population numbers:
East Germany is smaller and therefore has a smaller population, but especially when leaving Berlin out there are stark differences between the two parts: In 2010 West Germany was much more crowded with an average of 261 people per square kilometer, opposed to 121 persons living in the same space in East Germany. These figures are not least a result of trends in East-West German migration (such as those described in a paper for the period of 1989 to 2002). The spatial implications of internal migration combined with demographic trends towards an ageing population and economic trends of less prosperous regions that are most affected by out-migration of young as well as skilled people are the real challenge in today’s Germany. What is a North-South divide in Britain appears to be an East-West divide in Germany which especially in the demographic development is growing according to the this year’s annual report on German unity by the German Federal Interior Ministry.
Only few places in East Germany have seen growing populations compared to the early 1990s. The suburban fringe around the capital city Berlin and few other cities (e.g. Halle, Rostock and Dresden) are growing – mostly catching up with an almost non-existent suburbanisation and a move out from the city centres which are therefore shrinking almost everywhere. Leipzig is one of the few exceptions where growth has not only reached the suburban areas, but also the revived city centre. This was actively supported by economic investments to encourage industrial development as well as the relocation of central institutions (such as the federal constitutional to Leipzig). In the west ongoing suburbanisation trends (with growth rates over 125% in the period observed) are mainly taking place around prospering cities – Munich, Hamburg, but to a smaller extent also around places like Stuttgart, or Cologne. Population increases are much more prevalent across many parts of West Germany, and where populations are not growing, they are often stable rather than shrinking.
The less prospering regions in the East and in some old industrial areas of the west (Ruhrgebiet, Saarland) are that places that are most affected by considerably declining populations, leaving the most vulnerable in society behind in these areas. In the East this affects even the least densely populated regions (where the grid cells are smallest in the map) that in the enthusiasm of unification were invested in to improve infrastructure for what were believed to be growing populations – now also leaving behind a much over-sized (or underused) infrastructure.
Demographic change is becoming increasingly more important in political and planning discussions, given that it is considered to be an important factor for future land use, development and urbanisation trends throughout the whole of Europe. Shrinking cities may become the norm in a Europe that – if trends continue – will not only shrink relatively to the rest of the world, but also in absolute terms. Germany’s (economic) ability to act in the most affected regions that appear on the map can be seen as a chance to find solutions for decline becoming the norm, and for societies growing older.
Urban growth has long been an important topic, but urban decline is becoming ever more relevant as global population growth is going down ever since the early 1960s (a far less mentioned statistic than that of the growing world population). Shrinking cities are part of our future, and Germany may become once more a role model for other countries to look at in the future. The demographic patchwork revealed in the map above is a picture of a Germany that has reached its peak population. if trends continue, and the world is ever closer to reaching its population peak as well.
In every change lies a chance…
The map and material on this page has been created by Benjamin D. Hennig of the Sasi Research Group (University of Sheffield). You are welcome to use the maps under Creative Commons conditions for non-commercial purposes (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0); please contact me for further details – I also appreciate a notification if you use my maps. High resolution and customized maps are available on request.