Urbanization is taking place worldwide: the relative population of cities is growing compared to the population of the more rural areas. However, this does not necessarily mean that the national population is shrinking because the ratio is considered and not the absolute numbers. Though, in many places, the decline of this rural population is a reality. If this happens on a large scale in a region, it is called a shrinking region.

In a shrinking region, several problems can arise that significantly reduce the quality of life in the area. Examples are that facilities such as shops and schools have to close because not enough people use them anymore. Furthermore, houses can become vacant due to leaving families, which typically does not increase the attractiveness of an area. And there will also be fewer and fewer jobs in the region because companies are moving away because of lesser financial prospects.

The latter is perhaps not only the most significant problem – it reinforces itself over time – it is also an important cause for the start and growth of shrinking regions. Because there are more, and often better-earning, jobs in a city, people will move away from the countryside to a city. As a result, there is fewer suitable personnel for many companies, and the sales market is shrinking. Therefore, at some point, companies will decide to close down or to move. This reduces the quality of life in the region, making it less attractive to live there and making it more appealing to move to a city where these companies and facilities can still be found.

That, in turn, creates new problems. As more and more workers are moving away from rural areas, the average age is increasing, making ageing relatively more of a problem there than in cities. In fact, there is induced ageing: the population living in the area is on average getting older, and young people are leaving; to study, or because of better job opportunities, for example. Therefore, the average age of the remaining population will become higher at a faster pace. This will maintain or even speed up the process of reducing the quality of life.

Preventing shrinking areas

In order to counter this problem, investments will have to be made to prevent an exodus of rural areas. There are several ways to get people to want to stay in, or even move to, rural areas. For example, you can think of subsidies to prevent shops or facilities from collapsing or at a higher level through planning to encourage companies to establish themselves in the shrinking regions. However, these measures require a proactive approach at policymaking levels and can also generate high costs. And the effect of the actions will also lose their impact when it is decided to stop the stimulus policy.

However, there is another way to prevent an exodus of rural areas: creating knowledge hubs. The principle of this is as follows: an effort is made once to attract knowledge in the form of, for example, branches, internships and workplaces, after which the system maintains itself. This has several advantages: this system makes it attractive for more people to stay in rural areas for their education. As a result, the population will shrink less or will even increase, so that the facilities in the region can be maintained. And this, in turn, improves the quality of life. This initiative in the North of the Netherlands is supported by several educational parties, making a positive outcome more likely.

One place where a knowledge hub will be formed is in the new municipality of Eemsdelta, which came into existence on the 1st of January 2021. Although the initial motivations for building the campus had few to do with creating a knowledge hub, this aspect came into play during the development of the plans. As there was a space surplus in educational buildings in this new municipality, formed by the union of the current municipalities of Appingedam, Delfzijl and Loppersum, and because these buildings were not earthquake resistant enough, there was decided upon building a campus. However, this new campus, the Eemsdelta campus, offers great possibilities in attracting and retaining knowledge in the region through collaborations with educational instances and (local) businesses. This way, the campus can prevent a further outflow of people.

This is not only a good outcome for the residents of the region, but it can also have a more than pleasant effect for companies and schools, among others. In this way, they can attract new people while they would typically only have come into contact with these companies and schools at a (much) later age. This is, of course, also beneficial for the students, because they can now come into contact with life after their education in a relatively easy way. It is useful for companies to be the first to have a look at potential future employees, and that this local knowledge is a bonus. If these knowledge hubs are properly organized, they can be very valuable to the region in which they are located. Not only are people retained in that region, which in turn ensures a better quality of life, but also for the companies and educational institutions that participate, it can work out well because they can easily come into contact with new young people and then retain them. That is why knowledge hubs should be considered to be used as a solution for shrinking regions.

This article was first published in the December edition: ‘The future is…’ (Year 51 of Girugten – issue 02 –  December 2020).

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