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Prof. L.J.G. van Wissen: ‘Population decline is not a threat’

23 February 2010

Empty towns, young people looking for success elsewhere, buildings in disrepair, boarded up homes and shops – this is the negative image associated with population decline. But it is an image that is seldom seen in reality in the Netherlands. The consequences of population decline need not be that dramatic, according to Professor of Economic Demography Leo van Wissen. ‘It is pointless to combat population decline, but dealing with its consequences is worthwhile’, he says.

Population decline is a demographic development that we can observe in various marginalized communities in the country, particularly in northern and eastern Groningen, parts of Friesland and Drenthe and in Zeeland and Limburg. Young people are leaving, fewer children are being born and the ageing population is left with declining retail and care facilities.

‘In those regions it is a phenomenon that cannot be avoided’, Van Wissen stresses. Yet this is not always realized, he says. ‘When I read that a local political party in Delfzijl is using the motto “Build, build, build”, I can conclude that some people there have not quite understood the situation’. Building new housing does not stop the decline in population, Van Wissen explains. ‘It might, at most, attract people from neighbouring villages, where there is also a decline in population. Essentially, the building activity will lead to vacancy in a few years’ time. In other words, it is better to demolish than to build during population decline’.

Using policy to try to combat population decline is also a waste of money, Van Wissen argues. ‘A child does not have great prospects for the future in eastern Groningen. That may sound harsh, but that child would simply rather be in a place that will offer more’.

Ghost towns

Even though the consequences of population decline can be observed in peripheral areas, Van Wissen thinks that the Dutch situation can be put into perspective. ‘Of course we don't have ghost towns here like they do in France or Spain. In those countries the countryside has seen population decline for many years. People there accept it as an unavoidable phenomenon.The government does not tend to intervene too strongly’.

In fact, in the Netherlands, and even in Groningen, the population is still set to increase until 2035. In places like middle and eastern Germany and the poorer East European countries, that is certainly not the case. There, the rate of population decline is alarmingly high.

Reason to exist

At the same time, it is beyond question that the villages and communities where there is a strong decline in population do experience serious problems. ‘These consequences must certainly be dealt with’, says the professor. ‘If you let them develop, you end up with a socially and economically untenable situation'.

The way to deal with the consequences varies from town to town, as each is unique. Social facilities, healthcare, retail facilities, education options and accessibility all vary strongly between villages. Because of this, Van Wissen emphasizes that customized solutions are important.

The first thing to do is to acknowledge that there is decline. The citizens of the villages concerned tend to assume that it will all simply blow over, says Van Wissen.

The next step is to make plans for individual villages or neighbourhoods to manage housing, schools, retail and healthcare. Revitalization plans, such as those made for the Groningen village Ganzedijk, are, however, pointless, says Van Wissen. ‘It isn't possible to revitalize declining villages. Ganzedijk no longer has a long term reason to exist’.


Even though there is a strong tendency at village level to try to keep things as they are, the subject of decline is a prominent one among corporations, welfare organizations and, for example, the provincial governments of Groningen and Friesland, Van Wissen explains. And ever since the Minister for Housing, Communities and Integration, Eberhard van der Laan, was appointed, the subject has become prominent at a national level. ‘He sees that there really are issues in some areas, and is acting accordingly', says van Wissen.

Healthy pensioners

Meanwhile, the emergence of a group of healthy, relatively wealthy and still very mobile pensioners will have a positive effect on the decline. ‘This group will soon form a quarter of the population’, Van Wissen adds. ‘These are people who will provide a stimulus for liveability of villages’.

Additionally, there is an opposite migration of middle-aged people from the cities to the smaller villages. Van Wissen: ‘It counterbalances things, to an extent. Villages can take advantage of this, but it is certainly not sufficient to compensate for the loss of the younger population’.

Curriculum vitae

Professor L.J.G. (Leo) van Wissen is Professor of Economic Demography at the Faculty of Spatial Sciences at the University of Groningen. He is also Vice Dean of the Faculty.

Van Wissen studied geography at VU University Amsterdam and was awarded his PhD there with a thesis entitled ‘A Dynamic Model of Household Relocation’. He has worked as a researcher at the University of California at Irvine and at the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium. From 1991 he worked for the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute (NIDI) in The Hague, where he was also on the management team. In 1999, Van Wissen was appointed as Professor of Corporate Demographics at the University of Groningen. In 2004 he was appointed as Professor of Economic Demographics.

Note for the press

More information Leo van Wissen

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.10 p.m.
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