Which is better urban or rural life

Rural areas

Patrick Küpper

Dr. Patrick Küpper is a human geographer and researches policies for the development of peripheral regions and services of general interest, such as medical care, mobility and local supplies. Current projects deal, for example, with new developments in food retailing, civic engagement, networks and innovations of micro-enterprises as well as support strategies for activating and participating regional actors.

The living conditions between urban and rural areas have largely become the same, while the differences within urban and rural areas have grown. A methodical approach to delimitation and typification examines which different groups of rural areas exist, what they have in common and what distinguishes them from other areas.

The local community Mayschoss in the district of Ahrweiler, Rhineland-Palatinate, looks like an idyll away from the urban centers. In addition to tourism and viticulture, good transport links to Bonn, about 35 kilometers away, also ensure income. (& copy imago images / Manngold)

From rural areas to rural areas

Rurality - as the opposite of urbanity - is associated with various characteristics and the understanding of rurality has continuously changed in the scientific discussion. A hundred years ago, rural areas were understood to be a relatively homogeneous area that could be clearly delimited from urban areas in terms of its settlement, economic and social structure. It was associated with low population density and small settlements, that is, villages, small group settlements (hamlets) and individual settlements. Agriculture, forestry and mining were considered to be its defining industries. After all, the idea prevailed as a society that was not very differentiated compared to the cities with their more pronounced division of labor and their various status groups.

With urbanization and modernity, this strictly two-part image of town and country was given an evaluative component. On the one hand, the rural area was devalued as not yet urban and therefore backward: the incomes are lower here than in the cities, the infrastructure and the range of services are worse and social control is stronger, so that young and well-qualified people are as a result People emigrated to the agglomerations or the formerly rural industrial regions. On the other hand, the rural area was transfigured as an idyll. It offers untouched nature with little pollution, closer social ties, such as more three-generation households, mutual care or neighborly help, as well as a stronger cultivation of conservative values ​​and traditions, such as regular church attendance or tradition. This supposed idyll is still propagated in many lifestyle magazines and television programs, which are very popular with a broad (urban) audience.

From the perception of the backwardness of the countryside, the idea that modern, urban lifestyles should spread from the urban centers to the rural periphery developed, especially in the context of a general mood of optimism after the Second World War. As a result, there should be no clear boundary between town and country, but a flowing transition - the so-called town-country continuum.

Even if all these images of rural areas play a role in the public and partly in the professional discussion, they are - apart from the structural features of the settlement, such as loose development and remoteness - largely outdated and the extent to which they can certainly be discussed ever had a real basis. Instead, more recent perspectives emphasize the diversity of rural areas and therefore now speak of rural areas in the majority. These rural areas differ in terms of social and economic factors. Nevertheless, there are gradual differences between rural and densely populated areas, such as a lower proportion of rented apartments in rural areas, more cars in the households there, or a higher proportion of rural residents who are active in associations or are civically involved. Nevertheless, a typical rural lifestyle can hardly be identified and the people are culturally as diverse as in the big cities.

In addition, agriculture, forestry and mining in highly developed countries such as Germany only play a marginal role in terms of added value and employment overall, so that there is no longer a specific rural economic structure. Although mining has led to the formation of agglomerations in rural areas such as the Ruhr area in very large deposits, it was nevertheless more of a rural phenomenon in most regions, as it only contributed to the development of small and medium-sized towns as in many German low mountain ranges . Agriculture and forestry only shape the landscape in rural areas. However, this landscape does not mean that nature is a special characteristic of rural areas.

In addition to near-natural areas, for example in nature reserves or nature parks, there are intensively used agricultural areas or landscapes shaped by the energy transition. In addition, more and more space is being used for settlement and transport, which is related to the general economic development and the relocation of population and businesses to the distant surrounding areas of larger cities (see chapter on land use change). The living conditions between town and country have also largely equalized. As a rule, the economic, social and infrastructural differences within rural and urban areas are now much greater than the differences between these two spatial categories.

Where are rural areas?

In view of the diversity of rural areas in terms of their socio-economic strength, the lifestyles pursued there, the intensity of land use and the provision of infrastructure, the question arises as to what remains as a common feature of this type of room and what distinguishes it from the other areas. For a description and analysis of rural areas, an area-related delimitation is first required in order to be able to use official statistics and answer questions, for example on demographics or the economic performance of rural areas. However, rural areas are defined and delimited differently, both in the scientific discussion and in the context of state funding programs and planning documents at various political levels (UN, OECD, EU, federal and state governments). Since, as I said at the beginning, many of the social, economic and cultural characteristics that were once associated with rural areas are no longer suitable for spatial delimitation, most definitions and delimitation methods are limited to structural characteristics of the settlement. These include a low population and settlement density, small town and community sizes, high proportions of unpopulated areas and low centrality or great distances to centers.

In fact, however, it is often first defined and delimited what urban or agglomeration areas are and the remaining "remaining area" is referred to as rural. In addition, many methods stop at a division into city and country and do not depict the urban-rural continuum or the diversity of rural areas. In addition, as a rule, different indicators are used and poorly founded threshold values ​​are used in each case, so that the results of which areas are rural and what proportion this spatial category has in the total area differ greatly. The proportion of rural areas in Germany, depending on the delimitation, is between around 35 and 95 percent of the area on which between around 15 and 60 percent of the population live. In order to remedy these deficits, the Thünen Institute for Rural Areas developed an approach to delimiting and typifying rural areas, which is briefly presented below. Other delimitation methods, in particular from the Federal Institute for Building, Urban and Spatial Research (BBSR), can be found in a publication by the BBSR from 2012 (see Antonia Milbert et al., Literature on Chapter 1, in the Sources, Literature and Links chapter).

In order to distinguish rural areas from the other, i.e. the densely populated areas, the Thünen typification of rural areas initially creates an index that measures the "rurality" of a region on the basis of the characteristics of the settlement structure. Rurality increases, the lower the settlement density, the higher the share of agricultural and forestry areas, the higher the share of single and two-family houses, the lower the population in the vicinity of populated areas and the more remote the region from large centers. The calculation is carried out at the regional level, which sets this approach apart from traditional perspectives.

361 district regions are considered, which differ from the rural districts and urban districts in that they have small urban districts (
The index is formed using a statistical process, the so-called principal component analysis. This procedure creates an index that is as closely related as possible to all five of the indicators mentioned above and thus represents the commonality of the indicators. In this case, the rurality index represents around 80 percent of the information originally contained in the five indicators. Weighting the individual indicators, which always have a highly subjective character, can therefore be dispensed with.

This index thus describes the urban-rural continuum from the high-density metropolis to the sparsely populated peripheral area. This means that rural features also occur in agglomerations - albeit with less intensity - while very rural regions can in turn have a local urban character. In science, hybrid spaces are also used in this context. As already made clear above, this procedure is a purely structural description of the position that a region occupies on the urban-rural continuum. No effect on the socio-economic living conditions or lifestyles of the people living there can yet be derived from this.

In order to demarcate rural areas with this rurality index, a threshold value must be established that separates rural areas from the other areas. Other demarcation methods mostly use poorly founded rounded values, such as the value 150 inhabitants per square kilometer when demarcating according to population density. In the delimitation on the basis of rurality, however, the threshold value was set in such a way that as few of the 361 district regions as possible lie directly around this value and the types are relatively clearly separated from one another. However, such threshold value setting remains problematic especially for the few regions that remain just above or below the value, since they are assigned to different types of space, even if they hardly differ. To make matters worse, the individual regions sometimes consist of very different sub-regions. For example, the regions surrounding Berlin have both densely populated areas that directly border Berlin and very sparsely populated peripheral areas. Against this background, the delimitation presented must also make numerous compromises and includes those areas that are predominantly rural.

As a result of the delimitation, 267 of the 361 district regions are designated as rural areas (see map "Result of the Thünen Approach" in this chapter). About 47 million people live here, which corresponds to about 57 percent of the population of Germany, on about 91 percent of the area of ​​the federal territory. In view of the above-mentioned range of delimitations of rural areas, the Thünen approach delimits this type of area rather broadly. In comparison, the Federal Institute for Building, Urban and Spatial Research counts only 32 percent of the residents and 68 percent of the area as rural areas for ongoing spatial observation within the framework of its settlement structure district types.

Making diversity visible: a typification approach

After the first step of the Thünen typification, rural areas were delimited from the other areas on the basis of their settlement structural characteristics, they are now to be further differentiated in order to depict their diversity. The Thünen approach uses two dimensions for this and thus creates four types of rural areas in addition to non-rural areas. In addition to the rural dimension, which has already been used to delimit rural areas, the socio-economic situation is used as a second dimension. It can be used to distinguish in which rural areas there are rather good and in which rather less good conditions for the people living there. This takes up the knowledge that increasing rurality is by no means automatically accompanied by growing socio-economic problems.

(& copy Patrick Küpper, demarcation and typification of rural areas (= Thünen Working Paper 68), Braunschweig 2016, p. 28)

The index already described above is used for the "rurality" dimension. The rural areas are divided into "rather rural" and "very rural". To determine the threshold value between these two classes of rural areas, a point in the distribution is again looked for where as few of the 267 rural district regions as possible are on the class boundary. On the one hand, regions that are located on the edge of metropolitan areas such as the agglomerations of Munich, Hamburg or Berlin are more rural. On the other hand, this also includes densely populated regions or regions characterized by small and medium-sized towns such as parts of the Saarland or the Vogtland.

The "socio-economic situation" dimension is mapped using the same method with an index for rural areas. Here, nine indicators from the areas of public finance, income, health, education and unemployment are linked to form an index that represents around two thirds of the information originally contained in the nine indicators. This means that favorable constellations and problem situations with regard to the nine indicators under consideration often occur spatially together. The index is again differentiated using a threshold value between rural areas with a good and those with a less good socio-economic situation.

The combination of the two dimensions then results in the four types of rural areas, which are shown on the map and at www.landatlas.de (see chapter Sources, Literature and Links). It is noticeable that in eastern Germany, even almost 30 years after the fall of the Wall, there are no rural regions with a good socio-economic situation (light blue or light green). Rural areas with a less good socio-economic situation (dark blue or green) are not only located in eastern Germany, but also, for example, in Rhineland-Palatinate or Schleswig-Holstein, while rural areas with a good socio-economic situation are more likely to be in southern Germany. Areas that are more rural (light or dark blue) are located in the densely populated regions of North Rhine-Westphalia or Saxony as well as in the surrounding areas of larger agglomerations. In terms of area, the type "very rural / less good socio-economic location" is most strongly represented with around 38 percent of the area of ​​Germany (see graphic "Proportion of area and inhabitants of the individual types" in this chapter). In relation to the proportion of the population, however, the four types are relatively balanced. Their proportion of the population is between about 11 and 16 percent.

Note: All maps in this themed edition are taken from the Thünen Institute's Land Atlas. (The two small maps with the source BBSR are an exception) (& copy Thünen-Institut, 2020 Patrick Küpper, Demarcation and typification of rural areas (= Thünen Working Paper 68), Braunschweig 2016, p. 26)

Of course, the Thünen typology represents a simplification of the much more diverse spatial structures, because there can be considerable differences within the types and within individual regions. For example, within the Berlin suburbs, the rurality increases sharply with the distance to Berlin. Nevertheless, the limitation to four types allows for easily interpretable analyzes and depicts the diversity of rural areas better than pure urban-rural distinctions or one-dimensional typifications.

The comparison of both dimensions also shows that there is hardly any connection between rurality and the socio-economic situation. This confirms the theoretical knowledge that rurality cannot (no longer) automatically draw conclusions about certain economic and social characteristics.Therefore, it makes sense to delimit rural areas on the basis of structural and landscape features as well as their location and to use the urban-rural continuum only to describe the settlement structure and not to explain a certain lifestyle or a "backwardness" in the modernization process.