If you’re already interested in this topic, 80% of it will be familiar stuff. There were a couple of interesting new points, though:
First, there’s some interesting discussion of why birthrates are varying so much across Europe — lowest in the post-Communist East and the Mediterranean countries, much higher (though still low by world standards) in France and Scandinavia. One demographer gives this plausible-sounding answer:
[There] would seem to be two models for achieving higher fertility: the neosocialist Scandinavian system and the laissez-faire American one. Aassve put it to me this way: â€œYou might say that in order to promote fertility, your society needs to be generous or flexible. The U.S. isnâ€™t very generous, but it is flexible. Italy is not generous in terms of social services and itâ€™s not flexible. There is also a social stigma in countries like Italy, where it is seen as less socially accepted for women with children to work. In the U.S., that is very accepted.â€
By this logic, the worst sort of system is one that partly buys into the modern world â€” expanding educational and employment opportunities for women â€” but keeps its traditional mind-set. This would seem to define the demographic crisis that Italy, Spain and Greece find themselves in â€” and, perhaps, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and other parts of the world.
By “traditional mind-set”, he’s talking about things like men helping with housework, dependence on an extended family for child care, and the social status of women generally. The article unfortunately lacks a comments section, but they do make some interesting points.
Second, there’s a fascinating discussion of how some East German cities are thinking about handling population decline. The East has been hit by a triple whammy — low birthrates, little immigration, and significant emigration to the West — which in some regions has reduced population by 20% or more in the last 15 years, with still more shrinkage soon to come. One novel response:
One day in March, I was standing on a platform at the top of a smokestack attached to a defunct sausage factory in the German city of Dessau, looking out on a ragged urban landscape: derelict factory buildings, brick homes and shops, a railroad track snaking through a swath of grass and dirt. Even the brilliant spring weather didnâ€™t improve the view. But the bearish middle-aged man beside me was full of enthusiasm. He waved an arm expansively, indicating a distant tree line. â€œFrom here you see that the city is embedded in a protected nature area,â€ he said through an interpreter. â€œWe will bring that into the city.â€ Listening to Karl GrÃ¶ger, director of the cityâ€™s department of building, is disorienting; where local politicians are supposed to cheer development, he was standing in the midst of his cityâ€™s industrial infrastructure and saying, in effect, â€œSomeday all of this will be wilderness.â€
They’re going about it methodically, and the first steps have already been taken:
â€œWe said to the government of Saxony-Anhalt, â€˜Shrinkage is a completely new phenomenon,â€™ â€ Akbar told me. â€œWe have to look for new ways to deal with it.â€ According to some, a declining population presents certain opportunities: to increase efficiency and livability, to change lifestyle and environment for the better. The plan that Akbarâ€™s team came up with was for 18 cities in the region (two cities now share one government) to submit to an exhaustive process of review and soul-searching under the direction of Bauhaus planners and, by the year 2010, to come up with long-term redevelopment strategies appropriate to each â€” to find a way for each city to shrink constructively.
Dessau itself, Akbar said, had two distinctive features. One, as Karl GrÃ¶ger indicated from the sausage-factory lookout, is that it is surrounded by protected national forest. The other is that it has no historic town center (80 percent of the city was destroyed in World War II) and thus no core. The plan, therefore, calls for demolishing underused sections of the city and weaving the nature on the periphery into the center: to create â€œurban islands set in a landscaped zone,â€ as Sonja Beeck, a Bauhaus planner, told me. â€œThat will make the remaining urban areas denser and more alive.â€ The city has lost 25 percent of its population in recent years. â€œThat means it is 25 percent too big,â€ GrÃ¶ger said. â€œSo far we have erased 2,500 flats from the map, and we have 8,000 more to go.â€ Beeck and GrÃ¶ger walked with me through an area where a whole street had been turned into a grassy sward. Many residents were dubious at first, they told me, but as we walked, a woman recognized the government official and marched up to chat about when promised trees and flowers would be planted in front of her building.
Erasing streets and flats to make parks, meadows and trees: there’s an interesting image.
In theory, something like this ought to be happening all across Eastern Europe, Spain, Italy and Greece. Most of these countries are going to lose 20% or more of their population in the next 30 years. And the loss won’t be spread evenly; some regions within these countries will continue to grow, while others will lose 50% or more. Someone should be thinking about this.
Brief googling doesn’t provide more information on the German program, though, and not a thing anywhere in Eastern Europe.
Readers: anybody know anything?