Some 35 representatives of EU regions and cities, the European Commission and the Dutch government met in Brussels on 23 March 2011 for a seminar on “Serious gaming and the consequences of a shrinking population for local communities”. Organised by the Dutch Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations and the European Commission (DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion), the seminar explored European policy responses to population shrinking and introduced a learning tool or “serious game” designed to help authorities and stakeholders make appropriate decisions.
Shrinking cities are a result of three main developments, according to Professor Thorsten Wiechmann of the Technical University of Dortmund: suburbanisation, economic restructuring, and demographic change. Prof. Wiechmann’s presentation looked at five European cities experiencing population loss. While the specific factors behind population decrease varied from one case study to the next, all five had common features, including ageing populations and limited financial capacity to respond to pressures. Urban planning, he also pointed out, “is traditionally growth oriented”; planning for shrinkage therefore “demands a paradigm change”.
Dr. Anna Kurowska of Warsaw University focused on Poland, where population has been shrinking since the late 20th century, and is expected to fall further over the next 25 years. Central-Southern and Eastern regions are especially threatened by population decline. Policy responses include those tackling the low natural population increase (family policy measures such as maternity leave); those tackling negative net international migration (such as tax credits and lower social security contributions for returning emigrants); and those tackling internal migration (regional development measures such as investing in transport and supporting entrepreneurship).
Negative growth is more common in Central and Eastern Europe, but also affects the Netherlands, for example. While the national population is set to grow to 2040, said William Segers of the Interior Ministry, 45% of municipalities are expected to face shrinkage by 2025. This may have positive implications such as lower house prices, less congestion, and more space for landscape development, but there are also negative outcomes, including degeneration of industrial areas, decreased income for municipalities, and fewer employment prospects.
The policy approach in the Netherlands is based on anticipating problems in advance, learning from experience, and cooperating with other parties. An example of this policy put into practice is the ICT tool or “serious game” developed by the Dutch Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations. Designed to be played as a group, the game aims to raise awareness of the issue but also to allow users to practice and experiment with complex policy choices, while recognising others’ interests.
Already used by Dutch policy-makers, the game has now been translated into English. The seminar participants took part in a demo of the game (a full session takes a whole day). For Paul Engelen of the House of the Dutch Provinces, who hosted the event, a key aspect of the game was discovering that to deal with a shrinking population, “you have to cooperate with other organisations. For example, a provincial government can’t do anything without cooperating with communities, housing associations, hospitals, schools.” With 18 of the 27 EU Member States seeing populations shrink in one or more regions, the Dutch Interior Ministry hopes the game can be useful to other European countries too. As Mr Engelen says, “It’s a good way of rehearsing a very real situation”.