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Planning for the future: How can local communities adapt to population changes?

Online Workshop



Many rural and underserved communities in Europe are currently experiencing depopulation trends and ageing of its inhabitants. Facing complex demographic and social challenges, local governments and administrations have to meet the diverse needs of the residents and economic actors, while ensuring the quality of life and services despite population decline. On 21 March 2023, the project “Regional population diversity and social cohesion in the local context” invited eminent experts from science, policy and civil society to discuss the role of local administrations in adapting to changes in their population. How can local administrations be better prepared for shrinking and ageing populations? What capacities do they have to plan for the future and the growing demographic diversity? How can we support local decision-making with more access to data and scientific knowledge? In a one-and-a-half-hour-long workshop, the participants from various European regions exchanged their views and experiences on how to improve the cooperation between science, local policymaking and civil society.

Following, the outcomes of the transdisciplinary exchange are presented in more detail:

Regional and European networks: Exchanging local experiences and localising future goals 

  • For many shrinking regions, the greatest challenge might be to accept the demographic changes. However, accepting depopulation as a long-term process as a reality is the first step of the necessary adaptation of public services and infrastructure.
  • Cooperation and shared access to tools, data and good practices are the key factors for local and regional administrations to meet the changing needs of their residents. National associations of local and regional authorities and European networks play a key role in the coordination of efforts of local and regional actors and resources made available by national governments and the EU. The coordination and effective dissemination of information is valuable to avoid “reinventing the wheel”: local administrations and initiatives can learn from each other and avoid repeating the same mistakes.
  • The exchange between regional and local governments, policymakers, civil society, economic actors, professionals, practitioners as well as the scientific and academic community is also vital in the implementation of national and European goals at the local level, such as green transition, digitalization and sustainable development frameworks. The promotion of social innovation processes and actions at all levels requires research, new knowledge, innovation, and learning exchange.
  • Municipalities should play a stronger role in coordinating local and regional efforts to adapt to demographic changes. They can cooperate with civil society and the scientific community to identify new target groups, such as recent rural newcomers after the pandemic and their needs. They can inform the newcomers about the local conditions and help them to integrate into the community. Similarly, community leaders can coordinate help and assistance for newcomers to adapt to the existing services and infrastructure.
  • One common challenge for rural and underserved areas is the lack of housing or housing available for newcomers. Even when local administrations are willing to direct their attention to existing or potential newcomers, they need legislative and administrative support from national authorities as clear restoration and property rules or provide loans for young families. Yet, local initiatives can contribute to the solution of the housing problem in rural and remote places: Municipalities as independent stakeholders can search for available houses and apartments and mediate between newcomers and local property owners.

Cooperation between science and policymaking: How can we support the local administrations?

  • Knowledge about regional population forecasts can be a useful instrument to be used by local and regional administrations for short-term planning, e.g. in the areas of schools, kindergartens and care facilities. Local stakeholders should have access to their current demographic situation through national and regional institutions providing necessary data and knowledge. However, the non-linearity of demographic trends should be considered when analising population projections for policy planning to avoid deterministic conclusions that can hinder investments in infrastructure. 
  • The cooperation between communities and municipalities and researchers and research institutions can be enhanced by rural proofing at local, national and European level assessing the impacts of certain policies on rural communities. The Rural Observatory by EU and national agencies for rural proofing can support local authorities with data and suggestions for adaptation strategies. The data availability at the local level and analysis of local conditions can be safeguarded by rural observatory programs in coordination with scientific institutions and local stakeholders.
  • Generating a common understanding of demographic trends and challenges with the help of inventories and forecasts has proven to be successful. Data availability and data analysis can aid and help to local policymakers in adapting to demographic trends and the challenges they need to face in the present and future. Dedicated minds and creative formats can improve the know-how transfer and reach multipliers by turning academic language into generally understandable content. This can be achieved through transdisciplinary meetings with researchers, policymakers and practitioners and the production of strategic dissemination materials such as brochures, videos, podcasts, etc.

Planning for a collaborative and new future:

  • Development models based on territorial competition and growth of cities led to uneven city-regional dynamics generating territorial inequalities and imbalances. In many European regions, the uneven growth in the dominant urban cores results in the disadvantage of rural regions and smaller cities facing imbalanced growth in population size, economic activities and human capital. 
  • National public finance regulations can lead local municipalities to compete for population since local public resources heavily depend on the size of the population and tax revenues.
  • Instead of development models and funding schemes based on competition of regions, local and regional actors, collaborative modes of action and financing can help actors at different levels and regions to overcome territorial disparities and enhance social cohesion in the local and regional context.

Expert Participants

Anita Seļicka, Executive Director, Latvian Rural Forum

Federico Benassi, Senior Researcher in Demography, University of Naples Federico II

Francesco Pala, Officer - Young Elected Officials and Partners Engagement, Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR)

Jana Hoymann, Deputy Head and Project Manager at the Department “Spatial Development”, Federal Institute for Research on Building, Urban Affairs and Spatial Development (BBSR)

Steffen Maretzke, Project Manager at the Department “Spatial Development”, Federal Institute for Research on Building, Urban Affairs and Spatial Development (BBSR)

Ugis Zanders, Adviser for the Priority Area "Sustainable and Prosperous Region", Council of the Baltic Sea States Secretariat