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The divide between the rural and the urban world

Jordi Sevilla, Economist;

Key points
  • 1
       In Spain, the geographical specialisation of the economy is increasingly concentrating the creation of wealth and employment in certain areas (cities and coastal areas), with the growing risk of depopulation across large swathes of rural and interior areas.
  • 2
       As pointed out by the National Strategy to Combat the Demographic Challenge: by 2019, depopulation has become a generalised phenomenon in 50% of Spanish municipalities (fewer than 12.5 inhabitants/km²). This situation affects the smallest municipalities and the least populated areas most intensely. According to the data published in the Strategy, between 2001 and 2018 some 63% of municipalities lost population, although in the period 2011-2018, it became clear that over 80% of municipalities are now losing population.
  • 3
       In 2020, some 90% of the population was concentrated into just 30% of the territory, while 10% of the population was distributed across the remaining 70% of the territory . Around 61% of Spanish municipalities have fewer than 1,000 inhabitants, and are therefore facing the risk of extinction in the medium term. According to Eurostat, 19 Spanish provinces are some of the least dense in Europe. The lowest population density in the whole of Spain is in Castilla-La Mancha, with 25.69 inhabitants/km², followed by Castilla y León (25.97 inhabitants/km²), Extremadura (26.13 inhabitants/km²) and Aragón (27.42 inhabitants/km²).
  • 4
       The divide between the urban and rural spheres analysed in this report has important and varied consequences in social, economic, environmental and even political terms. This means that, added to the territorial tensions produced by the divide, there are consequences affecting demographics, social harmony, pressures on the welfare state, etc. Prominent among other consequences are the ageing of the population, with over 1,000 municipalities having no children aged under five years old, as well as the masculinisation of the territory. In 75% of Spanish municipalities there are more men than women, and this tendency is more pronounced in territories with a lower density.
  • 5
       There are notable effects of the territorial divide on the economic situation and vulnerability of households The lower the income levels in the more depopulated and rural areas, the higher the poverty rates. The High Commissioner for the Fight Against Child Poverty stated in this respect in 2019: “Child poverty acquires specific overtones in non-urban contexts and, especially, in depopulated areas”. Thus, in 2019, the child poverty rate exceeded 25.1% in very populated areas, 28.7% in intermediate areas, and up to 34.3% in sparsely populated areas.
  • 6
       This divide causes rural and interior areas to cease to be attractive for many citizens due to a lack of employment opportunities and of quality public services, especially for young people and women, two of the groups that find fewest opportunities in these areas.
  • 7
       Finding the balance between the urban and the rural, between inland and coastal areas, should be a political priority so that thousands of citizens do not find themselves forced to abandon their place of residence for reasons beyond their control. Spain presents a generation gap that is not only a problem in the present but also for our future as a society. On the one hand, it is important to mention the young people who grew up during the economic crisis and who are now facing major difficulties in developing their life projects. These were the group most jeopardised by the recession, and they are the great forgotten ones when it comes to sharing out the earnings from recovery within a context marked by a climate of uncertainty, the digital revolution, and globalisation. At the opposite pole of the generational divide are the over-65s, a group essential for the maintenance of entire families, and the one that has best endured the effects of the crisis on its economy and wellbeing, despite the loss of purchasing power due to the insufficient rise in pensions.
  • 8
       At this moment in time we should add that covid-19 appears to be timidly influencing the rural/urban balance, although it is still very early to assess the size of its impact. Lockdown, which is resulting in part of the population wanting to live closer to nature; remote working, imposed upon a large part of the working population; cuts in income as a product of temporary layoffs (ERTE) or even the loss of their jobs have led people to head back towards rural villages, with the idea that these are places where they can enjoy greater freedom, a healthier environment, and a more economical lifestyle.
  • 9
       Whether this tendency will be a permanent effect or whether, to the contrary, once the pandemic has disappeared the tendency will revert still remains to be seen. The challenge of attracting people to rural areas is already progressing. The next challenge will be retaining this population and, to do so, there can be no other route than closing the divide in the basic services and employment opportunities offered by rural environments.
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