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News announcement23 June 2022Joint Research Centre

Not lagging behind anymore: from lonely places to places of opportunities

1200 municipalities in the EU are marked by multiple attributes of lonely places, such as depopulation, poor access to services, slow internet connection. But solutions exist.

From lonely places to places of opportunities
Depopulation and poor services are among the typical characteristics of lonely places
© Cristi - 2022

Remote areas make up almost half of the EU territory and serve as home for 37 million people. They are often susceptible to become what a new JRC report defines, with a newly-coined term, “lonely places”, suffering from insufficient local services, accessibility, or connectivity.

The problem is present across the EU. Indeed, many countries came up with different names for such less-fortunate areas: “España vaciada” in Spain, “Aree interne” in Italy, or “Udkantsdanmark” in Denmark, to name just a few.

These territories are often also referred to as “lagging behind”. However, while the term ‘lagging behind’ is mostly limited to economic aspects, the designation “lonely places” captures the position and connection of places from demographic, economic, social and infrastructural points of view.

To find lonely places in Europe, the authors of the report identified phenomena typically related to them. They then spotted the municipalities affected by two or more such attributes, locating 1200 of them. The highest intensity of territorial loneliness is in Czechia, Spain, France, Greece, Hungary, and Slovakia, while Greece and Spain are the countries with the highest number of lonely places.

Depopulation is one of the typical characteristics of lonely places. Ageing and outmigration mean that these places get lonely in the literal sense. Remote and rural places are the hardest hit: around 30 per cent of the population in remote regions have experienced depopulation. Remote rural areas faced a -0.42 % compound annual growth rate in population between 1961 and 2018, reaching as low as -1.30 % in Spain.

Population decline brings a whole set of other issues with itself. Low population concentration means that services are costlier to provide. Health and education services, but even the provision of public libraries, local shops or schools can be affected.

In such conditions, getting to school is more demanding. In large municipalities, children have to travel 0.9 km on average to the nearest primary school. Their peers in smaller, often rural municipalities must complete three to five times that distance. In 2011, 3,598 municipalities in the EU had no primary schools at all, 90% of them rural.

Lonely places can be disconnected from the rest of the world virtually as well. A digital divide exists between cities and rural areas, with a considerable percentage of residents in rural municipalities having access only to an average Internet speed below 30 Mbps. 

On a brighter note, thanks to older inhabitants being more politically active than average, participation in the EU parliamentary elections, which the authors studied, tends to be higher on average in rural areas than elsewhere, the report published today points out.

Lonely places are not restricted to remote or rural municipalities. They can also be found in cities, where areas with low variety of urban amenities and essential services can have an impact on the daily routines of the residents, especially for people from disadvantaged groups in relation to mobility poverty. Migrants are often overrepresented in such lonely places that exist within otherwise well-connected functional urban areas. They are particularly exposed to discrimination and poverty in these disadvantaged areas.

Silver economy, bicycle roads, e-services: solutions abound

To connect lonely places with the rest, the authors have several recommendations in mind. To diversify the economy of lonely places, which is often reliant on traditional primary sectors and low value-added services and, as a consequence, poorly resilient to shocks such as the 2008 Great Recession, building on the silver economy could work, offering services typical for older residents.

Remote rural areas can often boast stunning wild and natural capital, so environmental restoration and rewilding activities could be economically beneficial.

The green transition also offers plenty of opportunities, such as biomass conversion, carbon fixation, biodiversity enhancement, or sustainable land use.

Digitalisation could mean that the cost of bringing services to remote places would plummet.

For halting rural flight, multi-locality could be promoted. Living costs in lonely places are frequently lower and they also have to endure less pollution but are close to natural beauty, making them ideal for second homes.

To make schools easier to reach, the network of bicycle roads could be further developed.

For urban areas, they propose an integrated place-based approach, combining different policy areas and funds and also possibly place-based and people-centred approaches. This could contribute to truly leaving no place and no one behind.

The EU greatly supports such initiatives, as achieving cohesion among and within regions and cities is one of the Commission’s priorities. A chapter in the report examining four national strategies on territorial inequalities shows France and Italy are already successful in integrating domestic resources with European funds, while Portugal and Poland are in a favourable position to do so in a more structured way in the future.

EU action to support lonely places

The Cohesion Policy  for 2021-2017 includes the objective to draw up tailor-made, bottom-up strategies for fostering the sustainable and integrated development of all types of territories. It can be used to develop the untapped potential of lonely places, both in urban (as, for example, deprived neighbourhoods in functional urban areas) and rural areas (for example peripheral inner areas). The JRC is currently working together with Directorate-General REGIO on a handbook for integrated strategies in non-urban areas, which will complement the Handbook of Sustainable Urban Development Strategies published in 2020.

The most recent Cohesion report revealed that, on average, each euro invested in cohesion policy generated 2.7 euros of return in GDP 15 years after the respective policy programme ended.

The Long Term Vision for Rural Areas, which identifies areas of action towards stronger, connected, resilient and prosperous rural areas and communities, can be a game-changer for lonely places. The Rural Pact connected to the vision is implemented starting this month.

The Territorial Agenda can also help lonely places. It calls on policy makers at all governance levels to contribute to an inclusive and sustainable future for all places and to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals in Europe. The agenda involves two pilot actions that could particularly benefit lonely places: A future for lagging regions and Small places matter.

Finally, small municipalities can enjoy technical support on the ground for local initiatives and regeneration projects along the principles of the New European Bauhaus.

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Publication date
23 June 2022
Joint Research Centre