For some years the lore of demographic change has continued to dominate the media and politically-seasoned debates – “threatened by emaciation”, “collapse” or “ageing” are examples of the most frequent terms that are heard.
According to information from Germany’s Federal Statistical Office, the population in Germany has actually dropped every year over the last few years by up to 0.2 per cent, or by 200,000 people (as of 2009). These figures normally fluctuate from year to year – in 2010 it was “only” 51,000 people fewer.
In its “medium”, or realistic variation, the population forecast, the Federal Statistical Office expects the population level in Germany to fluctuate only between 64.7 and 70.1 million people in 2060. The age pyramid, whose “pear-shape” we have since become familiar with, will gradually take on a “mushroom” shape in the 2020s – the ageing-peak in German society will then have been reached. Also, the fact that Germany – contrary to suggestions in the recent, more or less knowledgeable, public debates – has no longer been a real country of immigration since the early 2000s can be seen in the statistics. In 2010, 798,000 people came to Germany while 671,000 left during the same period. With the exception of 2008 and 2009, when Germany was a net emigration country for a short period, annual immigration has always been under 100,000 since 2004. In the case of German citizens, emigration losses of 40,000 were recorded in 2009; in 2010 this figure was minus 26,000.
To put it in a nutshell, it can be said that “Germany is shrinking”; “Germany is ageing”; “Germany does not play first violin in global migration”.
To put it another way, Germany is not only faced with a radical social and demographic change, this process has already begun.
If one transfers these plain facts to Germany’s states, regions or even cities, the risk of serious errors at strategic, planning and even investment level become apparent – not only for the public purse but also for the private sector. The mainstream attitude that “demographic change equals shrinking” may often be correct; however, this is not always the case. On the contrary, demographic change has extraordinary effects and, in many cases, contributes to a heavy increase in regional disparities.
If one looks at population trends at district and municipal level until 2020, then – apart from the massive losses in rural areas in Eastern Germany – it is very obvious that even the states of former Western Germany geographically adjacent to former Eastern Germany are still overwhelmingly passive regions, this means regions with population loss. Another line of major population loss runs southeast from the Ruhr region, through Northern Hessen and down into the Bavarian Forest. Particularly noticeable losses can also be seen in the Saarland and the west of Rhineland-Palatinate. The active areas, those with population growth, include not only Munich and Southern Bavaria and Stuttgart and the Central Neckar, but also the Rhine-Main region. However, due to development over the last ten years (as from 2002), it can be assumed that the major urban centres in the region in particular, also including Darmstadt, would show greater population increases if these figures were re-calculated.
In a synthesis of the three major trends in demographic change, population dynamics, ageing and a greater number of people with an overseas background, Germany’s Federal Office for Building and Regional Planning (BBR) shows the consequences that will result for town planning in Germany. The winner regions of demographic change show a clear population increase across the board and a simultaneous increase in the number of the very old people and in the number of people immigrating to Germany, without whom the number of people of compulsory school age would drop significantly. Darmstadt, as can be easily seen, is centrally situated in a growth belt running south of Stuttgart to not quite north of Frankfurt am Main and in a south-western bypath to Freiburg and Basle. What is very clear here is a development axis of continental significance covering three metropolitan regions (Stuttgart, Rhine-Neckar, Rhine-Main). As a cue, the use of the international orientation by the Federal Office for Building and Regional Planning should be understood against this background. Migration and its social side-effects should be understood less exclusively in respect of integration problems and more as an opportunity and potential for an urban society.
This observation is confirmed on a national scale and is refined in the interpretation of qualified forecasts for Hessen and for the science city of Darmstadt itself respectively. The population forecast by the Hessen Agentur from 2009 to 2050 shows extremely clearly how this state is divided. A strongly shrinking north (except Kassel) contrasts with the prospering Frankfurt/Rhine-Main metropolitan region in which the major centres (in particular Frankfurt, Darmstadt and Offenbach) together with the Main-Taunus district will, in the long term, be the engines of population development. How small-scale the impacts of demographic change will be, however, is shown in an intraregional comparison. In Southern Hessen, too, the majority of districts can expect slight-to-medium decreases in population. What is more, if broken down at municipal level, it has been shown that even a few kilometres’ distance from an urban core or a commuter transport route can have considerable effects on population trends.
Population development in Darmstadt itself has not been steady since 1960 by any means; on the contrary, it can be subdivided into phases. By 1972, it had grown to a population of just over 142,000 residents. This was followed by waves until 1998, each of which took Darmstadt to an even lower base level – the city had become a victim of suburbanisation, residents departing to the direct surrounding region.
In the mid-1980s, there were even fears that Darmstadt’s population would slide to under the 130,000 mark (as of 31 December 1985, it had 132,685 residents). Since the late 1990s, it has started to grow continually again and wave-like movements are now no longer apparent. The trend to move back to the city, altered mobility patterns, the modernisation of the traditional concept of the family with all consequences in respect of family management in cases of two working parents in a household and Darmstadt’s attractiveness as a business-cum-scientific centre all reinforce each other. Consequently, re-urbanisation reached the historic mark of 142,237 residents in late 2009. Darmstadt has never had so many residents ever since it was founded in 1330.
Since those days, this trend has continued. Recently, the special effect of the introduction of a tax on second residences is still in the process of losing its effectiveness in the face of the still-increasing property values. In late June 2011, 146,182 residents were registered as having primary residences in Darmstadt.
In terms of further development, the Hessen Agentur assumes that Darmstadt will see further population increases to 153,000 (2030) and 157,000 residents (2050); to a large extent these calculations correspond to the forecasts in the city’s own 2008 Demography Report.
In times in which the far-sighted companies have long since learned to distinguish between a short-term economically-based shortage of skilled employees and a long-term demographically-based shortage, it is not only the absolute number of residents in and around a given location that is important. Apart from the excellent tertiary and other educational institutions for which Darmstadt is particularly well-known, another crucial factor for the future availability of skilled employees is in particular the so-called “youth quota”, the percentage of the population aged under 20 years. If this youth quota drops significantly, the “carpet will be pulled away from under German society’s feet”, there will be no more young recruits for the employment market and the natural population trend will lose its base. Although the percentage of older people in Darmstadt will increase, particularly from 2030, forecasts assume that the youth quota will remain stable or even increase slightly. This statement is doubtlessly one of the most important findings which will cause urban development in Darmstadt to mushroom. For the private sector, this is also a signal that investment in Darmstadt is very rewarding since, from a demographic point of view, the local social structures will remain stable and, in spite of the competition for qualified skilled employees here, recruiting will be easier than elsewhere.
In short, the science city of Darmstadt offers both security and opportunities for growth. It is no island but an active part of the prospering Rhine-Main region, one of the leading urban agglomerations in Europe with ideal opportunities for the future.
The author was born in 1970 and studied geography at Darmstadt University of Technology. After various positions there and for the Baden-Württemberg state government, he has been deputy head of the Darmstadt business development corporation since 2000. He has been head of Darmstadt Department of Economy and Urban Development since 2005.