Polish rural areas: How to stop migration to cities?

Checiny, small village in Poland. [Shutterstock/PTDZ]

The latest report on the state of the rural areas in Poland indicates these areas face a number of demographic, economic and social challenges. Is migration to cities one of them? EURACTIV Poland had a closer look.

This article was published as a part of the project “Policy drivers for economic recovery in the EU from the V4 perspective”.**

“The problem is that young people and people of working age do not see opportunities in the countryside, so they decide to move to the city to work there,” Professor Zbigniew Karaczun from the Department of Environmental Protection at the Warsaw University of Life Sciences told EURACTIV.pl.

The standard of living in the Polish countryside is lower than in cities, due to numerous factors like lower earnings, both official and hidden unemployment, as well as poorer access to quality technical infrastructure, including telecommunications, such as broadband Internet.

Are the rural areas in Poland depopulating?

However, the depopulation story of the countryside is more complex, demonstrated by the fact that there has been constant population growth in rural areas since 2000, according to the 2020 Report on the State of the Rural Areas by Jerzy Wilkin and Andrzej Hałasiewicz.

Between 1989 and 2018, the rural population increased by 4.9%, or almost 700,000, but this increase is attributable only to a third of rural and urban-rural municipalities in Poland.

“Mostly large city dwellers move to the countryside, but this mostly applies to villages that are close to urban centres. Living in suburban areas is more comfortable than in cities,” explained Karaczun.

Such ‘residential migration’ has increased the population of suburban areas around large cities.

Which regions of Poland are depopulating?

At the same time, the majority of rural or urban-rural municipalities have seen negative migration tendencies.

“This is the case of areas with poor soil, where it is difficult to make a living from agricultural activity. There is no well-developed labour market there,” said Karaczun.

These are mainly former state-owned villages, where the main problem is a lack of jobs, as well as lack of access to services.

Central Poland has seen the greatest decreases in population, as did some areas in the East, according to the report. These are areas with a relatively low population density, and the outflow to cities further depopulation.

The migration also changes the demographic structure of the population, as the proportion of elderly people increases and men outnumber women.

The ‘bachelor surplus’ creates a vicious cycle, as it influences the birth rate and translates into further depopulation of the countryside, leaving fewer younger people who could work in agriculture.

What are the problems in rural areas?

“It very often happens that the countryside lacks basic things,” Piotr Kijanka, who runs the farm “Eko Farma u Piotra” in Kromnów village near Jelenia Góra, told EURACTIV.pl.

“One problem is a lack of pavements and bicycle paths, where you can move around safely. In addition, some streets are poorly lit. Another issue is poor access to cultural institutions and public transport.”

“In the city, one can, for instance, eat out, which is rarely possible in the countryside,” Kijanka added.

The education level of the inhabitants is also relatively low. Only 12% of rural residents have a university degree, while the average in cities is 29%, and even 48% in the largest cities.

Karaczun said the “depopulation of rural areas concerns not only Poland but the whole of Europe,” as it leads to structural changes like a decline of traditional agriculture.

“Commercialisation, growing farms and the rise industrial forms of agriculture are killing the countryside. Industrial agriculture is pushing smallholders and family farms out of the market,” Karaczun added.

What can be done to stop migration to cities?

Karaczun pointed to the need to support the family forms of farming and medium-scale farms – a measure which could improve the living conditions of people who decide to stay in the countryside or plan to return there.

He also underlined the necessity to modernise rural areas to enhance their attractiveness as a place to live.

In the time of COVID-19, more and more people work from home. However, only 47% of rural households in the EU have access to broadband internet compared to 80% of their peers in the cities.

According to farm chief Kijanka, “the great advantage of the countryside is that you live close to nature and away from the hustle and bustle which you cannot escape in the city.”

Clear air and silence are increasingly appreciated as a crucial element of well-being.  However, green solutions will be necessary to protect the environment.

“The problem is the negative image in our society of a rural resident … as a loser who has failed to succeed in life. Changing this stereotype could encourage more people to stay in the countryside or move there,’ Kijanka concluded.

[Edited by Vlagyiszlav Makszimov/Zoran Radosavljevic]

** The project is co-financed by the Governments of Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia through Visegrad Grants from International Visegrad Fund. The mission of the fund is to advance ideas for sustainable regional cooperation in Central Europe.  

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