Greener Pastures: New Opportunities in Rural Areas

Vincent van Gogh: Landscape with House and Ploughman // Public domain

New possibilities in rural areas: digital tools, political decisions, and transparent administration can make the countryside an attractive place, bringing together innovation and quality of life.

Germany’s cities are booming. From 2010 to 2020, more and more people moved to the country’s urban centers. However, public discourse sometimes seems to suggest that there is no life outside Berlin, Hamburg, or Munich. Of course, it is not true.

Even in Germany, a considerable part of the population lives “in the countryside”. But what does “in the countryside” even mean? There is no exact definition of rural areas. Depending on where you look and what criteria you use, the share of people living in rural areas varies from 20 to almost 60 percent in Germany.

Even without consistent definitions, life “in the countryside” can mean different things. Take Brandenburg, for example. The villages and small towns near Berlin have experienced considerable growth in recent years, facing challenges in providing enough housing and expanding infrastructure. These are problems that many places in the Lausitz, far from Berlin, can only wish to have. They struggle to prevent vacant town centers from decaying and maintaining basic public services. This is true for most regions in Germany. While rural areas near the country’s metropolises thrive, the “countryside” far away from the big cities is struggling with a vicious circle: as more and more people are moving away, financing infrastructure becomes more challenging, making these regions less attractive and leading to further population decline. This could result in a social divide between urban and rural areas.

World of Work Is Changing 

The situation is not hopeless, quite the contrary. There is a chance that there will not even be a divide. After all, COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the world of work. While remote work used to be the exception only a few years ago, the pandemic has made it part of the new normal. Not all professions are suited for it, of course, but there are quite a lot of “classic desk jobs” that can be done digitally from home. Perhaps not five days a week, but two or three – in some cases maybe even four.

Our perspective on living arrangements has changed too during the pandemic. Never before have so many people spent so much time within their “own four walls”, which gave them a chance to experience the advantages and disadvantages of their living arrangements. During the lockdowns, people started to wish they had more space and more rooms, maybe even a garden to call their own. This changed their perspective on housing and made the countryside more attractive again. Because there, more space and a garden are a more realistic prospect. People in Germany are well aware of it: 51% of urbanites can see themselves moving to the countryside, as long as remote work remains possible. 

The impact of this trend is beginning to show, as property prices in the environs of metropolises have risen considerably of late or were substantially more stable than in the city, which points to growing demand outside urban centers. Therein lies a huge opportunity for rural areas. And even the urban housing markets could benefit from this development.

It Is All about Connections 

Three things are necessary for the more remote rural areas to become attractive places to live.

  1. Working from home only works if your home has a fast internet connection. Co-working spaces could be a solution to benefit from better working conditions in rural areas. They are not reserved for the start-up crowd but can be used by everyone who wants to work remotely.
  2. Traffic infrastructure needs to be up to modern standards. Even in the future, not going to the office at all will remain the exception. The vast majority of mobile workers will still spend two or three days a week in the office. And the commute requires a well-developed network of roads and railways connecting rural areas with urban centers.
  3. The dream of working in the countryside can only become a reality if employers keep offering work-from-home options in the future. Most companies and employers have already established flexible arrangements that maximize the benefit for both sides. Therefore, there is no need for additional obligations and rules. What is necessary is a watertight legal framework that allows employers to organize mobile work as flexibly and unbureaucratically as possible.

Government as Partner 

Ideally, the administration in rural areas becomes a partner of the citizens it is responsible for. The tasks of local authorities cover a broad spectrum, from order and safety (through police and an efficient fire service) to education (through a sufficient number of primary and secondary schools) and healthcare (through quick and easy access to GPs, specialists and hospitals). The local administration assumes government responsibilities in its jurisdiction, develops draft resolutions for the town or city council and executes measures decided by the council. It processes applications, pays state benefits, runs nursery schools, libraries and public swimming pools, repairs roads and takes care of housing planning.

That is why municipalities play such an important role in the competition of towns and regions. An agile and business-friendly administration can be the decisive factor for both established companies and entrepreneurs looking for a suitable location. The more efficient and citizen-oriented an administration is, the more elbow room people have and the more attractive the town is as a business location. Besides, for quite some time now, citizens have had much higher expectations.

In the digital age, incomprehensible forms to fill out, long queues and drawn-out administrational processes are not up to standard any more. Not only in the city but also in the countryside, the calls for a fast, citizen-oriented, transparent and service-oriented administration are becoming more and more urgent.

Increased transparency and new opportunities for participation go a long way, too. Municipalities could, for instance, provide easy-to-understand visualizations of current budget data. And there is a multitude of interactive formats through which citizens could contribute ideas and give feedback. With a local administration that acts as an effective problem solver, rural areas enjoy a real locational advantage that helps drive regional development.

High-Tech Agriculture 

That could be relevant for a sector that is inextricably linked to rural areas. After all, the countryside is not only a place to relax for weary city dwellers, tourists and commuters, it is also an immensely valuable economic area, that caters to the basic needs of the nation. In Germany, more than half the land is being used for agricultural purposes. There is no denying the fact that agriculture is important to feed the population, shape the landscape, and maintain cultural landscapes in Germany.

Approximately 263,000 agricultural farms still exist, but there has been a continuous downtrend for years. About 1 million people work full-time or part-time in agriculture. The sector creates more than EUR 20 billion in added value every year. However, agriculture is heavily subsidized: almost 50 percent of full-time farmers’ income is derived from subsidies; with part-time farmers it is a whopping 90 percent. Which means that supporting agriculture is supporting rural areas in general.

Lightening The Load for Innovators 

In recent years, farmers have been burdened with an increasing amount of bureaucracy. For many farm businesses an excess of rules and regulations has made it very difficult to survive. Especially when it comes to innovative technologies, red tape is slowing things down. Even though the possibilities of smart farming are remarkable: autonomous high-tech tractors fertilize fields with a high degree of precision and efficiency, smart feeding systems improve the wellbeing of animals, and drones guarantee tailored care for each and every type of plant.

However, for rural areas to turn into centers of high-tech agriculture, a lot still needs to be done – just like in urban areas: innovation cannot happen without a fast and reliable internet connection, financing conditions need to improve, and we need less bureaucracy and more cooperation, both between different farm businesses and between agriculture and academia. If we create the right conditions, we can make Germany more attractive for all kinds of innovation, not only in agriculture. Proactive and focused political support can give remote rural regions the opportunity to reverse the exodus. These regions can turn into places where innovation is possible and the dream of working from the countryside and owning a house can come true.

There is no need to try and make cities and the countryside look the same. But the conditions must be equal so that people can really choose where to live.

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Dirk Assmann