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Calm ocean or stormy sea? Tracing 30 years of demographic spatial development in Germany

Océan étale ou mer agitée ? Retracer 30 ans d’évolution démographique spatiale en Allemagne
¿Océano en calma o mar tormentoso? 30 años de desarrollo demográfico espacial en Alemania
Manuel Wolff, Annegret Haase, Tim Leibert et Emmanuèle Cunningham Sabot
Traduction(s) :
Océan calme ou mer déchaînée ? Retracer 30 ans de développement démographique et spatial en Allemagne


Depuis la réunification de l’Allemagne en 1990, plusieurs tendances démographiques ont modelé l’évolution de la population locale. L’interaction complexe et en constante évolution des facteurs décrits à l’échelle du pays s’accélère de manière inégale au niveau local sous forme de tendances caractéristiques. Les variations observables dans les modèles spatiaux d’évolution de la population locale, d’une part, et l’effet cumulé et variable de dynamiques locales sur ces modèles spatiaux, d’autre part, n’ont pas été retracés avec précision ces 30 dernières années, donc depuis la réunification allemande. L’objectif de cet article est de présenter une synthèse des tendances de l’évolution de la population et de mettre en lumière la façon dont leurs modèles et représentations spatiales ont évolué dans le temps et en intensité.
L’ampleur des migrations internationales et internes depuis 2011, associée à un taux de natalité inférieur au seuil de renouvellement naturel et à un surplus de décès entraîne des évolutions démographiques très différentes au niveau communal, qui se traduisent par quatre tendances : différences à petite échelle, boom urbain, différenciation entre zones suburbaines et consolidation des tendances démographiques. Les tendances démographiques doivent être comprises comme des processus imbriqués dans des évolutions bien plus complexes, impliquant également le développement économique, les systèmes de retraite ou les perspectives politiques.

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1Since the reunification of Germany in 1990, several demographic trends have shaped the local population development. In particular, trends such as suburbanisation or reurbanisation are the product of uneven aging, migration, or birth-death-ratio depending on the spatial configuration of a municipality such as size or location (Wolff et al., 2013). The impact of these tendencies produce variations in local population trends in a comparative nationwide perspective (Bretagnolle et al., 2002). The fine-grained detection of a) variations in spatial patterns of local population development, and b) the combined and varying effect of local trends on these spatial patterns for German municipalities has not been traced for a 30-year period since the German reunification. Combining both a high temporal and spatial resolution taking also into account several demographic components such as aging or migration helps to evaluate to what extent existing concepts of spatial and demographic trends in Germany need to be scrutinised when also illuminating underlying factors (Brenner and Schmid, 2013). This is the starting point of this paper which will synthesise the impact of demographic trends on spatial patterns of local population development since 1990. We will start by presenting some driving factors of demographic development in Germany before we present underlying concepts and methods which have been used in section 2 and 3. Lastly, we will shine light on each of the four trends and provide a synthesis of the results.

2A variety of driving factors play a key role for demographic development in Germany. Between 1990 and 1995, the loss of 1.4 million jobs in eastern Germany led to a massive out-migration, especially to economically strong regions in western Germany (BPB, 2010). In addition, eastern Germany, similar to western Germany, was characterised by a short but intensive suburbanisation process until the mid-1990s (Kohler et al., 2002). Both processes are indicated by the peak of internal migration – people relocating across municipality boundaries – in figure 1. Other important drivers of population changes include international migration and natural population development. After an early peak in 1992, the number of international migrants constantly decreased. This was due to the introduction of third-country regulations in 1993, which declared several previously important countries of origin, e.g. Serbia, to be safe (BBSR, 2015). In parallel, birth rates dropped very fast during the 2000s, accompanied by a very fast aging process since 2005 (indicated by the share of people aged 65 and older in figure 1).

3Over the course of the recovery from the economic and financial crisis after 2008, the introduction of the free-movement-regulation within the European Union in 2012, international conflicts and the associated massive refugee migration which reached a peak in 2015 (BBSR, 2015), the number of international migrants has increased significantly in recent years. A first consequence was that birth rates slightly increased between 2010 and 2015. A second consequence was that the rate of internal migration increased as well, because refugees from initial-reception-centres have been re-distributed to the counties and larger cities, and approved asylum seekers are moving to metropolitan areas using ethnic networks (Glorius 2017). However, in recent years both international and internal migration have slowed down and the birth deficit has increased again leading to an accelerated aging process. In 2020, this led to a stable population in Germany for the first time since 2010 (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Selected demographic developments in Germany 1991 to 2019.

Figure 1: Selected demographic developments in Germany 1991 to 2019.

4The complex and constantly changing interplay of the factors described at the national scale accelerate unevenly on the local level as concise trends. We define trends as demographic processes on the level of municipalities, which are (1) measured by population trajectories over time, (2) form clear spatial patterns depending on the size and location of municipalities, and are (3) rooted in changing demographic developments such as fertility and mortality, migration streams, or ageing. The natural population development remains negative in almost all German regions due to the unbalanced age structure (Swiaczny, 2015). In contrast, the spatial patterns of internal and particularly international migration are much more diverse. Young population groups are especially mobile and particularly drawn to large cities or areas attractive for living, working, or education (Slupina et al., 2016). Consequently, the population structure is changing in terms of ethnicity, age or gender both in the regions of origin and destination. In particular, changes in the age structure are slowly evolving, affected by age-selective migration and the level of fertility, and impact the future migration potential. The out-migration of potential parents and, hence, missing births, leads to a decreasing number of mobile young people in the long run and, thus, to a decreasing migration probability predominantly in rural and remote areas.

5The intention of this paper is to present a synthesis of trends of population development and illuminate how their spatial patterns have shifted over time and in intensity. These trends cannot be assessed sufficiently at the level of districts or counties (Grasland et al., 2006), because significant small-scale differences such as core-periphery patterns within regions due to unbalanced economic or demographic development would be masked (Leibert et al., in press). We will not be able to capture all local details, but systematising four trends for Germany allows unpacking of the different and partly contradicting developments and explains their effects on local population development. The four trends are guided by the following research questions:

  1. From regional to small-scale differentiation of population development: What are persistent and new spatial patterns on the local level?

  2. From slow urban growth to re-urbanisation and “urban boom“: How is population growth shifting through the urban hierarchy?

  3. Towards an increasing differentiation of suburban areas: What are variations of population development of cities and their surrounding region?

  4. Increasing impact of structural ageing processes: To what extent has aging a long-term impact on population development?

Discussing selected concepts of demographic spatial development

6We want to shortly summarize how literature covers the trends we will deal with without claiming to be exhaustive. The following section serves to set the scene for the empirical findings and their discussion.

7Concepts of urban growth and reurbanisation, among others, explain the trajectory of cities largely associated to population development (Wolff & Wiechmann 2018). The literature argues that urban growth depends on the functional and spatial aggregation of particular enterprises, industries and labour, as well as on the organization of global production processes, networks and strategic decisions of specific industries, i.e. electronics, automobiles, banking etc. (Soja 2000; Dunford 2003). As these decisions are made by multinational corporations that are predominantly located in command and control centres of the global economy, cities can also be susceptible to temporary or permanent population decline (Martinez-Fernandez et al. 2012; Morel-Doridat and Hamez, 2019). The reasons are diverse and range between demographic explanations to socio-economic discourse about shifting employment constellations, the divergence of job and life due to multi-locality, and economic explanations such as the shift from fordist to postfordist modes of production triggered by deindustrialization and globalization (Reckien and Martinez-Fernandez, 2011; Baron et al., 2010). In a similar vein, re-urbanization is a phase in which the city regains population accompanied with a new attraction to urban life and economic activity (Haase et al. 2020).

8The trajectory of cities has impacts on their hinterlands. Most prominently, the concept of suburbanization is described as the increasing accumulation of economic and demographic growth in the cities’ hinterland, also referred to as ‘counter-urbanization’ (Champion 2001). This deconcentration was seen as a direct consequence of the strategies of economic agents aiming to maximize their satisfaction (Fol and Sabot 2010), of an increasing personal retreat and longing for privacy and individual freedom (Couch et al. 2005), and a rapid privatization of the housing market and a lack of planning (Kotus 2006). However, the classical suburban lifestyle characterised by the focus on children, recovery and ownership which was expressed by a certain homogeneity of the suburban areas in terms of building structure or social and lifestyle patterns got under increasing pressure (Couch et al. 2005). This leads to a differentiation of suburban areas in terms of aging, housing prices, or transport accessibility.

9The impact of structural aging is, in particular, described for rural areas and the associated peripherisation. Due to the weakening and disconnection from transport networks, and the continuous cut of central place functions (Fol and Cunningham-Sabot 2010; EC 2007) rural areas struggle to retain services and to adapt to changing economic conditions leading to out-migration, dependence, stigmatisation or social exclusion (Roth, 2016; Leibert, 2013). In particular the strong and selective out-migration, especially of young adults, has led to a decreasing level of qualification among the remaining population, increasing unemployment rates as well as strong aging, and dropping fertility rates (Leibert, 2016).

Materials and methods

  • 1 Data refers to the 31.12 of each year. We calculate the annual population change for 2005-2010 and (...)

10Our analyses are based on demographic data at the municipal level which was provided by the regional statistical offices for 1990, 1995, 2000, 2005, 2010, 2011, 2015, and 2019 (StÄdBL 2020).1 We used 2010 as the recovery of Germany after the financial crisis 2008/2009, and 2015 as the peak of the immigration of refugees and asylum seekers. Consequently, we used 5-year intervals in order compare the trends between 1990 and 2019. In order to ensure comparability over the decades we used the municipal boundaries as of 31.12.2019 (BKG, 2020) and recalculated all data accordingly. First, we calculated the annual population growth rates for each 5-year-period as follows (see Appendix 1): ([POP]_T2- POP)_T1 ]*100)⁄(POP)_T1* ∆Years).

11Second, we contrasted the population growth rates with indicators relevant to the selected four trends. For the trend “from regional to small-scale differentiation of population development” we contrasted the natural and migratory balance for the reference years in order to investigate how the combined effect of birth-death ratio and migration impact the local population development and which characteristic spatial patterns can be observed. For the trend “from slow urban growth to re-urbanisation and urban boom” we used a classification of settlement types for each reference year according to population size developed by the Federal Institute for Research on Building Urban Affairs and Spatial Development (Appendix 2, BBSR, 2020). For the trend “towards an increasing differentiation of suburban areas” we analysed the proximity (shortest Euclidian distance) to the nearest centre, defined as municipality of the next higher settlement hierarchy for each reference year (following international standards, ESPON 2013, Appendix 2). For the trend “increasing impact of structural ageing processes” the change in the share of elderly aged 65 or higher is calculated (Appendix 3). All calculated indicators are then contrasted with the individual annual population growth rate for each decade using R² as a measure for the relation between the two sets of values.

12Third, for the synthesis of the results we developed a simplified classification which uses types for the two structural components (size and relative location) and the two processes (population development and ageing). For each structural type (size and location type) we calculated the frequency for a) growing vs. shrinking municipalities (distinguished by <|>0% change), and for b) slow vs. fast ageing municipalities (distinguished by <|>1% change). In addition, we plotted the spatial patterns according to this classification for the most recent period 2015-2019 and discussed three major points along the developed synthesis.

Trends of the demographic spatial development in Germany since 1990

13In this section we elaborate the four concise trends (1) from regional to small-scale differentiation of population development, (2) from slow urban growth to reurbanisation and “urban boom”, (3) towards an increasing differentiation of suburban areas, (4) increasing impact of structural ageing processes. These trends will be synthesised in section five.

Trend 1: From regional to small-scale differentiation of population development

14The difference between population growth in western and population shrinkage in eastern Germany was very pronounced in the early 1990s but has dissolved during the following 30 years (figure 2). As a consequence of high out-migration in combination with low birth rates in eastern Germany parallel to immigration and birth-surplus in western Germany a very obvious regional east-west difference was visible during the 1990s. Due to a weakening migration from eastern Germany several regions in western Germany turned into population loss during the 2000s as the negative demographic losses have not been compensated by international migration. Still, regional patterns remained with population growth having been persistent in the northern and southern regions (e.g. in 2005, Figure 2).

15With the recovery after the financial crisis, a rather small-scaled spatial differentiation in the population development can be detected since 2011 which is characterised by the growth of major cities and urban regions. Most of these areas benefit from both internal and international in-migration and a positive natural population development. Population loss is characteristic for regions distant to these growth poles and is hardly recognised as a pure urban but as a rural challenge. With the peak of international migration in 2015, the majority of municipalities have experienced population growth basically due to migration gains (Figure 2). In many rural regions which had been affected by long-term depopulation, (international) in-migration has compensated the losses due to the negative population development. In addition, the strong growth of urban centres also led to strong suburbanisation activities in prosperous city regions.

16In 2019, a new small-scaled and fragmented spatial picture can be observed which displays a combination of the spatial patterns of 2011 and 2015: growth of major cities and their surroundings e.g. around Berlin, parallel to the growth of entire regions such as Southern Germany in contrast to long-term population loss in many rural areas as well as in some small and medium-sized cities. In addition, this spatial pattern is overlaid by the population growth of successful rural areas and small to medium-sized cities.

Figure 2: Change of demographic components for the population development in Germany 1990 to 2019.

Figure 2: Change of demographic components for the population development in Germany 1990 to 2019.

Trend 2: From slow urban growth to reurbanisation and “urban boom“

17The combined effects of a significant drop in birth rates and massive out-migration as a consequence of German reunification has led to a severe population loss in eastern Germany during the 1990s. The additional effect of suburbanisation all over Germany lead to a situation in which 80% of all larger cities lost population between 1995 and 2000– the larger a municipality the stronger was population loss. (Figure 3). In contrast, medium-sized and small cities experienced a substantial population increase during the 1990s – in particular those being located close to larger centres.

18From 2000 onwards, the relation between population development and size changed: basically, larger cities grew relatively fast while smaller municipalities experienced stronger population loss (Figure 3). In addition, a new population growth after a period of decline became apparent for larger eastern German cities like Leipzig, Dresden or Potsdam. In eastern Germany this reurbanisation accelerated in parallel to a decreasing suburbanisation activity. In growing metropolitan areas in western Germany, suburbanisation is still dominant (Annex 1). However, in western Germany structurally weaker regions reported population losses and out-migration of their larger cities. In addition, 62-79% of medium-sized and small cities (depending on the location) also started to experience population loss (Figure 6) during the early 2000s.

19The accelerating growth rates in previously growing cities such as Hamburg, Cologne or Stuttgart and the eastern German cities experiencing reurbanisation, has led to an urban boom between 2011 and 2015 with 97% of all larger cities growing (Figure 6). The catch areas of migrants to these cities is not limited to adjacent regions but is increasingly national, international, and between larger metropolitan areas. This leads to a more balanced age structure and, in some cities (e.g. Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Leipzig or Dresden), to a positive natural balance (Figure 2). The strong international migration has led to stagnating population trends in particular in small and medium-sized cities and some centrally located rural municipalities with moderate population losses in eastern Germany and moderate growth in western Germany. However, most of the rural and peripheral municipalities are following continuous population decline. The average population size is lowest amongst the fastest declining municipalities compared to all other trajectories (Figure 3).

20However, in the most recent period, 2015 to 2019, the speed of cities’ growth slowed down and several western German larger cities returned to a trend of population loss such as the Ruhr-area. The average size of the fastest growing municipalities indicates that growth is still – to a certain extent – a matter of larger cities (the difference was esp. significant 2005-2010 while it is lower 2015-2019, Figure 3). The slow-down of international migration has revealed the strong impact of natural population loss in in Germany. Except for rural municipalities, there are more declining cities in this period compared to the previous period 2011-2015 amongst all size classes (Figure 6). Consequently, the relationship between population development and municipality size lost its significance (Pearson’s R in Figure 3).

Figure 3: Relation between size and population development of municipalities 1990 to 2019.

Figure 3: Relation between size and population development of municipalities 1990 to 2019.

Trend 3: Towards an increasing differentiation of suburban areas

21During the 1990s, a massive wave of suburbanisation in eastern and western Germany can be observed which peaked between 1995 and 2000 (Annex 1). This allowed in particular smaller municipalities to grow very fast - the more centrally located the more municipalities grew during the 1990s. Between 1995 and 2010, large distances to centres have been a clear attribute of population losses (Pearson’s R in Figure 4). However, the relation between population development and distance weakened until 2010 due to the fact that population growth was exclusively dedicated to larger cities and suburbanisation slowed down. This development was particularly visible in suburban areas of eastern Germany e.g. around the cities of Halle (Saale), Schwerin or Erfurt which have lost population after they experienced strong population growth during the 1990s.

22After 2011, population growth was not limited to large cities but increasingly covered the suburban hinterland again. 80% of medium-sized cities and 49% of rural municipalities being centrally located experienced growth in this period (in contrast to 66% and 29% in peripheral locations, Figure 6). The mean distance of fast declining municipalities was lowest between 2011 and 2015 (Figure 4). International migration has overlain the described spatial patterns leading to a homogenisation of population development independent of distance since 2011 (no significant Pearson’s R 2011-2015 in Figure 4). The suburban areas of cities in the Rhine-Main area, in Southern Germany as well as around Berlin and Leipzig show a very strong population growth parallel to the densifying urban centres.

23With the slow-down in growth of larger cities most of suburban areas have stagnated in their population development between 2015 and 2019 (Figure 4). In addition, municipalities located in rather peripheral locations have continued or restarted to decline. The mean distance of fast declining municipalities, which was lowest 2011 to 2015, has increased again (Figure 4). Consequently, a good relative location and accessibility towards larger urban centres plays an increasing role for the population development (Pearson’s R is again significant in this period, Figure 4). Still, demographically and economically prosperous rural areas continued to grow: more rural municipalities have grown between 2015 and 2019 compared to the previous period even in peripheral locations – a clear difference to cities (Figure 6). In consequence, the differences in terms of population development depending on the distance to nearest centres increasingly diversified between 2015 and 2019 (Figure 4 and Annex 1).

Figure 4: Relation between distance to next centre and population development of municipalities 1990 to 2019.

Figure 4: Relation between distance to next centre and population development of municipalities 1990 to 2019.

Trend 4: Increasing impact of structural ageing processes

24The aging of the population was quicker the faster a municipality lost population during the 1990s – a relation which was particularly strong between 1990 and 1995 (Pearson’s R in Figure 5). Between 2000 and 2010, ageing was particularly dynamic all over Germany as a consequence of a drop-in birth rates, a very low level of international migration, and the fact that cohorts with high birth rates reached the age limit of 65 (Figure 1 and Annex 3). The difference in aging between growing and declining municipalities has decreased as result of the nation-wide ageing process (decreasing Pearson’s R until 2010, Figure 5). The interrelation of natural population development and migration balance is particularly relevant for aging in structurally weak regions. While in almost no growth municipalities population increase can be recorded without migration gains (Figure 2), declining municipalities are kept in a vicious circle of out-migration of young adults and further decreasing fertility rates. This leads to a rapid aging of the population like Annex 3 shows for the period 2000 to 2005 for Germany and 2005 to 2010 for eastern Germany. In particular, small and medium-sized cities experienced fast ageing processes (between 70 and 81% depending on their location, see Figure 6) as a consequence of population decline. However, the in-migration of elderly people to these cities fostered the aging as these localities provide urban infrastructure in terms of transport or public health.

25Between 2011 and 2015, the fast ageing was mitigated by international immigration. Without the influx of international migrants, the majority of municipalities would have recorded a negative migration balance after 2011. The accelerating international migration increasingly impacts the population structure as foreign citizens are predominantly of childbearing age (2020: 54% between 15 and 45, Destatis 2021a) and thus contribute to a rejuvenation of the population. Consequently, the share of dynamically ageing small and medium-sized cities halved between 2011 and 2015 compared to the previous period 2005-2010 (Figure 6) and also the share amongst rural municipalities decreased due to the assignment of refugees to the corresponding regions. However, a positive impact of increased international immigration on the natural population development is only limited, as immigrants are predominantly male (57% of the age between 15 to under 25-year-olds among the refugees who arrived in 2015, Destatis 2021b).

26In view of the unclear prospects and preferences of the refugees in terms of staying in Germany in general and structural weak regions in particular, many municipalities saw again a fast ageing process in the most recent period 2015 to 2019 (Annex 3, Figure 6). Recently, the relation between ageing and population development has gotten as strong as in the early 1990s (Person’s R in Figure 5). Reasons are an unfavourable population structure and consolidating long-term out-migration in western and especially in eastern Germany (Annex 3). In contrast, 94% of large cities see only a slow aging process due to the previous influx of young adults which results in a younger age structure. Also, half of medium-sized and small cities have seen a very slow aging process as they benefit from their attractiveness as place of living, working and tourism e.g. in Northern coastal and Southern mountainous regions (Figure 6).

Figure 5: Relation between ageing and population development of municipalities 1990 to 2019.

Figure 5: Relation between ageing and population development of municipalities 1990 to 2019.

Synthesis: New dynamics of demographic spatial differentiation

27From the simultaneity and complex interplay of the outlined trends, it can be concluded that Germany underwent a complete remix of its spatial-demographic patterns between 1990 and 2019, shaped by dynamic but also persistent factors and impacted by crisis symptoms e.g. the so-called “refugee-crisis” in 2015 (BIB, 2019; Fink et al. 2019). We will now discuss a synthesis of the described trends by a) summarizing their key characteristics as displayed in table 1, b) provide a spatial synthesis focused on the most recent development 2015-2019 (Figure 6), and conclude on the explanation power of the concepts for spatial development outlined in chapter 2.

Table 1: Summary of four detected trends and two synthesis points.




Recent (see Figure 6)


Spatial pattern perspective

Clear east-west dichotomy with clear migration and birth deficit patterns

Wide-spread shrinkage with some islands of growth caused by negative migration and natural balances

Nationwide migration gains largely overlay natural population losses

Fragmented patterns of regional natural population loss, urban islands of growth, and metropolitan areas with (international) migration gains

Shifting growth through the urban hierarchy and across city regions

Ageing as a persistent factor of current and future population development

Core aspects of conceptual improvements for spatial-demographic explanations

Urban perspective

Slow growth or shrinkage


Urban boom and rejuvenation

Rebalance of urban growth in larger cities and new differentiation between cities

Urban-regional perspective

Suburban hype

Selective city-regional growth, suburban decline

Revival of suburbanisation, growth of small and medium-sized cities

New differentiation of non-urban municipalities and small and medium-sized cities depending on relative location to cities and natural or economic attractiveness

Population structure

Peripherisation with ageing and outmigration (esp. in eastern Germany)

Nationwide ageing due to low international and interregional migration

(International) migration masks ageing (in western Germany already since the 2000s)

Return to marked ageing (esp. in fast declining rural areas) with marked east-west divide; some small and medium-sized cities grow and age

Shifting population growth through the urban hierarchy and across city regions

28After the slow urban growth and fast suburbanisation during the 1990s, larger cities faced a re-urbanisation in the 2000s which finally led to an urban boom during the 2010s (BBSR, 2015; Chatel, 2011). In the most recent period 2015-2019 the average growth rates of larger cities slowed down and the share of growing rural municipalities increased while for small and medium-sized cities the share remained comparable high (Figure 6). Consequently, population growth is not only concentrated in large cities nor is population decline only visible in rural municipalities (BIB, 2019), but the differences in the population development within the hierarchy of different settlement types will increase as a consequence of complex demographic, economic, and location-related factors. There can be considerable differences between the development of cities e.g. between attractive and live-able university cities (e.g. Tübingen or Greifswald), and large cities which are increasingly struggling with continuing ageing, poverty, investment backlog and poor economic opportunities such as in the Ruhr area, Saarland or eastern Germany (BIB 2019b).

29Moreover, the fastest population growth 2015-2019 can be detected for small and medium-sized cities as well as rural municipalities located in the hinterland of fast-growing larger cities such as around Munich, Frankfurt am Main, Berlin or Leipzig. This trend was already detected around the 2000s (Herfert, 2002). Increased mobility and tight housing markets in the major cities may make the areas surrounding the major conurbations more attractive as destinations for migration (Münter, 2014). Housing markets have become increasingly tight in the wake of strong population growth since 2011, especially in larger cities, but also in parts of their suburban hinterlands. Deficits in new construction or in the refurbishment of affordable and/or family-friendly housing are leading to housing market bottlenecks and to the displacement of low-income or price-sensitive households (DMB, 2016). It is not foreseeable that rents and land prices will significantly decrease in the medium term (Feld et al., 2017). This is favoured by the current phase of low interest rates and the resulting easier acquisition of owner-occupied homes. In addition, the increase of the mobility of households and the respective preferences for living, working and education are decisive soft factors. Due to extensive and long-distance commuting flows as well as new transport infrastructure networks and technologies it can be expected that working and living places will increasingly diverge (Figure 6). The extent to which municipalities in the hinterland of large cities will also show population growth depends largely on the balance between enabling and constraining factors of the municipality itself as well as on the development of and competition between surrounding municipalities (Geppert and Gornig, 2010). Several suburban areas which have experienced strong population growth in the 1990s face a significant aging process, dropping housing prices and increasing probability of vacancy due to the orientation towards cities like figure 6 shows (Münter, 2014; Zakrzewski et al., 2014). Due to the Covid19-pandemic, urbanisation rates slowed down considerably in Germany while several suburban and rural areas benefited from reinforced population growth (Wolff et al., 2021).

30In addition, it has been shown that in recent years larger cities such as Berlin, Munich or Hamburg have benefited from immigration of non-Germans (Wolff et al., 2020). As housing markets remain tight in these cities it can be expected that population growth will slow down when international migration is decreasing like in 2020 (Figure 1). In other larger cities e.g. in the Ruhr area international migration has led to population increase after 2011 due to existing ethnic networks and low living costs (Brücker et al., 2013). But the immigration of low-income households e.g. from south-eastern Europe into these poor cities exacerbates existing problems leading to public debates about immigration policy and the access to social benefits.

Figure 6: Frequency of municipalities classified by location and size as well as by population development and ageing 1990-2019 and location of classified municipalities 2015-2019.

Figure 6: Frequency of municipalities classified by location and size as well as by population development and ageing 1990-2019 and location of classified municipalities 2015-2019.

Ageing as a persistent factor of current and future population development

31Natural population losses have intensified over the observed 1990-2019 period in almost all parts of Germany. This indicates a long-term impact of natural population development which increases over time depending on the earlier age structure and the absence of births (especially of future mothers) – also known as "demographic momentum" (Swiaczny, 2015). High international migration, particularly during the period 2011 to 2015, masked the long-term natural population losses. In addition, the quantitative magnitude of international migration and in particular the distribution of refugees and asylum seekers to federal states, counties and municipalities masks the migration patterns of Germans (Wolff et al., 2020). People who have already moved to Germany are migrating to cities where they see better integration, existing cultural networks and job opportunities that improve their prospects of staying (IWH, 2019).

32Overall, international migration can lead to population increase even in areas with long-term natural population decline and an unfavourable age structure: between 2011 and 2015, 51% of all municipalities experienced migration gains in parallel to natural population losses (Figure 2). Even when international migration slowed down after 2015, the share of such municipalities stayed high (43%). This indicates that the number of people with the highest probability of migration (mostly qualified people between 18 and 30) is gradually decreasing under the influence of natural population decline, in particular in eastern Germany (Leibert, 2016, BIB, 2019). The shift in the age structure is slowly evolving and can, at best, be mitigated by immigration to a limited extend, but not reversed (Weber, 2015). Known differences between western and eastern Germany with regard to ageing became visible again after 2015. The effect of the long-term natural population loss is visible in a landscape which is largely characterised by aging and population decline, not only in eastern Germany but in almost all parts of the country except metropolitan areas and rural areas in Southern and North-western Germany. This ageing will intensify due to persistent spatial differences in terms of income, economic power, and employment opportunities (IWH, 2019; BIB, 2019b). Therefore, despite a current "demographic respite" due to increased international migration, many areas continue to face long-term consequences of demographic change, in particular ageing. Above all, the slow-down of international migration and the again visibly marked ageing process after 2015 will translate into severe population decline in the future: the aging of today is the shrinkage of tomorrow.

33In contrast, several rural municipalities and small and medium-sized cities face a strong ageing process even though they grow in population showing that these settlement classes are extremely heterogeneous spatial categories (Figure 6). In particular, the development of small and medium-sized cities, for example in peripheral areas, can make a decisive contribution to the question whether an entire region will shrink in the long term or stabilize (Bretagnolle et al, 2002). As these cities provide certain anchor functions such as schools or hospitals for the ageing surrounding area they might benefit from immigration. This in turn results in a triple ageing due to the outmigration of young people, an increasing life expectancy, and the in-migration of elderly persons from the surrounding rural areas (Steinführer, 2019). A similar ageing can also be observed for health resorts and tourist regions with supra-regional immigration of older people. For rural municipalities a development can also be observed differently to the 2010s (Table 1): Even after international migration slowed down considerably after 2015, there are still more growing rural municipalities than in the decades before as an effect of economic specialisation or attractiveness for e.g. tourism or retirement. Still, population growth is not equal to attractiveness. For example, the population growth of some rural communities had nothing to do with the attractiveness of the destination, but rather with the centrally managed allocation of refugees or the pressure of the housing market in adjacent cities. In contrast, population shrinkage in some tourism-oriented municipalities is the result of a particular attractiveness: The conversion of housing into second and holiday homes leads to displacement processes of inhabitants with a primary residence. The result is the paradoxical combination of tight housing markets and significant population losses.

Core aspects of conceptual improvements for spatial-demographic explanations

34The existing concepts for urban, city-regional or rural development are still relevant. However, the results have shown that the relation between variables constantly changes over time. In consequence, known spatial patterns of demographic development dissolve (IWH, 2019) while others return such as aging (Figure 6). This underlines that concepts of spatial-demographic development need to be re-thought in order to sufficiently understand how the combined impact of factors shape local trends of population development in the long and in the short run. We do not propose an alternative concept but display two core aspects of arguments which are relevant for further conceptualizations.

35Consideration of the range of spatial scale and the mechanism between different settlement types: Several concepts for spatial-demographic development refer to a specific settlement type such as to cities or rural areas. However, this isolated handling of these concepts does not consider the various interplay between and within the different types (BIB, 2019b). In contrast, the concept of uneven spatial development considers this interplay but is largely associated to the way capitalism works and reproduces in spaces (Harvey, 2006). Depending on the labour market potential, indicated by the size of a city, industries and services concentrate and dissolve when forms of production or demand are changing, or in case of economic, social, and political shifts, leading to job-driven migration and changes in the territorial division of labour (Soja, 2000). However, although this paper has not analysed economic conditions, the detected shifts of spatial patterns indicate that population loss can also occur in economically prosperous areas, and the size of a municipality is not that decisive for population growth in recent years. Consequently, new conceptual ideas need to simultaneously consider all settlement types from rural villages to large cities, and their interplay e.g. local potential for living and working, or relative location and infrastructure connectivity in-between (Lang and LeFurgy 2007). An assessment of shifts of spatial patterns is a first step in detecting changing economic and social conditions of uneven geographic development.

36Consider the coupling mechanism of fast and slow processes and the large scale impacts of sudden events across the spatial scales: economic concepts usually have explanatory power for the economically-induced and dynamic component of population development e.g. job-driven migration. However, structural and long-term effects are hardly considered e.g. as shown with the example of ageing (Fink et al. 2019). Neither migration nor ageing are decisive for the emergence and dissolving of spatial patterns of population development, but the interplay of fast processes e.g. changing migration preferences or restrictions, and slow processes such as ageing and decreasing fertility. The concepts of shrinkage and re-urbanisation largely address the interplay of fast and slow processes, but remain limited to cities. In addition, crises, whether economic, ecological or even epidemiological, are becoming more frequent and complex, and affect the entire country (although with significant regional or even local variations). These numerous 'singularities' or 'bifurcations' (Pumain, 2017, p.4) challenge any conceptual explanations which are, however, mostly focusing on explanations within a growth paradigm. In contrast, the so-called disequilibrium concepts are particularly appropriate for describing crisis situations in systems as they provide conceptual explanation of emerging imbalances in existing systems in all spatial scales (Helbing, 2010, p.9). Combined with demographic explanations, those concepts can help to access the impact of external factors e.g. the financial crisis or Covid19 pandemic, on population development and, thus, help to understand the dialectical tension of internal and external factors that produces and reproduces uneven geographic development (Hadjimichalis 2011).


37Since the turbulent demographic developments in the 1990s, Germany faces new demographic dynamics that are coupled with long-term processes. The magnitude of international and internal migration since 2011, combined with birth rates below the reproduction level and death surpluses, are leading to very different population developments at the municipal level, which are reflected in four trends: small-scale differentiation, urban boom, differentiation of suburban areas, and consolidation of demographic processes. At present, a favourable population trend can be observed in many areas of Germany. However, this positive development masks structural demographic processes such as birth deficits and age- and sex-selective patterns of migration in some regions. It remains to be seen to what extent the currently still very strong internal migration will be weakened by these processes in the near future and migration flows will take place more strongly between larger cities, or whether intermediate areas such as urban hinterland municipalities and small cities will play a stronger role in regional population development.

38The present article underlines that migration movements are to be understood as fluctuating processes which are interrelated with long-term developments such as the evolution of birth and death rates and ageing. Developing a corresponding understanding of the complex demographic trends is essential for recognising and interpreting current and future processes. Moreover, demographic trends need to be understood as nested processes of far more complex developments including implications for economic development, retirement provision or political attitudes. Future differentiated analyses and discourses beyond the dichotomous consideration of growth and shrinkage, or cities vs. rural areas are therefore necessary.

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Annex 1 : Population development in municipalities 1990-2019.

Annex 1 : Population development in municipalities 1990-2019.

Annex 2 : Municipalities classified by size (left map) and location (right map) 2019.

Annex 2 : Municipalities classified by size (left map) and location (right map) 2019.

Annex 3 : Aging (change in share of people ≥65 years) in municipalities 1990-2019.

Annex 3 : Aging (change in share of people ≥65 years) in municipalities 1990-2019.
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1 Data refers to the 31.12 of each year. We calculate the annual population change for 2005-2010 and 2011-2015 because, in consequence of the 2011 census, population numbers of 2010 and 2011 are not directly comparable.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: Selected demographic developments in Germany 1991 to 2019.
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Titre Figure 2: Change of demographic components for the population development in Germany 1990 to 2019.
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Titre Figure 3: Relation between size and population development of municipalities 1990 to 2019.
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Titre Figure 4: Relation between distance to next centre and population development of municipalities 1990 to 2019.
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Titre Figure 5: Relation between ageing and population development of municipalities 1990 to 2019.
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Titre Figure 6: Frequency of municipalities classified by location and size as well as by population development and ageing 1990-2019 and location of classified municipalities 2015-2019.
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Titre Annex 1 : Population development in municipalities 1990-2019.
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Titre Annex 2 : Municipalities classified by size (left map) and location (right map) 2019.
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Titre Annex 3 : Aging (change in share of people ≥65 years) in municipalities 1990-2019.
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Manuel Wolff, Annegret Haase, Tim Leibert et Emmanuèle Cunningham Sabot, « Calm ocean or stormy sea? Tracing 30 years of demographic spatial development in Germany », Cybergeo: European Journal of Geography [En ligne], Espace, Société, Territoire, document 1003, mis en ligne le 19 janvier 2022, consulté le 26 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Manuel Wolff

Department of Geography, Lab for Landscape Ecology, Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, Berlin, Germany,
Department of Urban and Environmental Sociology, Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Leipzig, Germany

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Annegret Haase

Department of Urban and Environmental Sociology, Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Leipzig, Germany,

Tim Leibert

Research group “Mobilities and Migration”, Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography, Leipzig, Germany,

Emmanuèle Cunningham Sabot

Département Géographie & Territoires, École normale supérieure, Paris, France,

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