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Where the population in Europe is growing or shrinking

A new analysis of the BBSR reveals large disparities in the population development within Europe. Shrinking and growing regions are often side by side.

(June 2015, updated December 2016)

The west is growing – the east shrinking

Declining population figures can especially be observed in the eastern European countries except Poland and parts of the Czech and the Slovak Republic. The highest increases can be mainly found in the western countries. One reason for these trends is the general trend of people in Eastern Europe migrating to metropolises. Another possible reason are migrations from east to west, from the new to the old EU member states.

Urbanisation and suburbanisation

In Western Europe, city regions are growing, the surrounding areas often to an even stronger degree. In Eastern Europe, population increases can often only be observed in capital regions and a few cities. Capital regions in Eastern Europe and nearly all larger centres in Poland show distinctive suburbanisation tendencies with population declines in centres and a partly very strong growth in the surrounding municipalities.

Rural exodus

The development of cities happens at the expense of rural regions. The partly strong population declines in sparsely populated regions indicate a migration trend "from the countryside to the city”. In Nordic countries and in Eastern Europe, this trend concentrates in the smaller and medium-sized towns of rural areas.

Growth, shrinking and concentration of the population

The results of the censuses executed in Europe in 2011 provide the basis for a EU-wide comparison of the population development in 2011 based on the latest census of each country, which was generally carried out in 2001. The 2011 censuses were carried out on the national levels. In order to make their results comparable, a part of the questions concerning population and household structure, activity status and housing arrangements were harmonised. Each country's census had an individual thematic focus, in Germany the focus was on integration.

Between 2001 and 2011, the population in the European Union increases by 16.9 million people, which is a rate of 3.5% of 503 millions. In a larger European context of 43 countries analysed, the population increases by around 4% or 23.5 million people to 612 million inhabitants.

In some European countries, the number of inhabitants stronly increases: in Ireland by around 17%, in Norway by 10% and in the United Kingdom and Belgium by around 7%. In Austria, Italy and Slovenia, the number increases compared with the European average. With under 1%, Poland and Slovakia only record slight increases. In Germany as the only country of the old EU, the population decreases by 1.6%. The hightest decreases can be found in Albania with just under 10%, Latvia with 12% and Lithuania with 12.5%.

Map of Europe: average annual population development in LAU, 2001 - 2011 Population DevelopmentSource: BBSR Bonn

A look at the map shows in which countries and regions municipalities with shrinking and growing population concentrate.

In 2011, around 90% of the population in Latvia and Lithuania, those countries with the highest population decreases, lived in shrinking municipalities, in Romania just under 80%, in Bulgaria 72% and in Albania 62%. In Latvia, the number of inhabitants in shrinking municipalities went down by 14.1% while in growing municipalities, exclusively in the capital region, it increased by 24.4%.

At first glance, the trend in Germany is divided. The proportions of shrinking and growing municipalities in the population with 50.4% and 49.6% balance out each other. Compared with 2001, the number of inhabitants in shrinking municipalities declined by 6.1%, in growing municipalities it increased by 3.5%. In most parts of the country the population is declining. East-west differences can be often found in the context of decline. The concentration of the population growth becomes evident in the large city regions in the west and in Greater Berlin but also eastern German cities like Leipzig and Dresden gain inhabitants during that period. Differences cannot only be found between urban and rural regions. In the German-Polish border region, various development trends meet strong shrinking on the German side and strong growth on the Polish side close to the border.

In the growing countries of Western Europe, the population in the majority of areas is growing. In France, around 75% of the population lives in growing municipalities. The number of inhabitants in these places has increased by just under 11% between 2001 and 2011, in shrinking regions it decreased by around 5%. Especially in coastal regions it is increasing. In south-eastern England those regions with the strongest growth form a pattern of radial axes spreading from London. Even around 81% of the population live within growing territorial units there.

A spiderchart shows the population proportions (2011) and the development of population (2001-2011) of municipalities in Europe Population proportions of growing and shrinking LAU 2Source: BBSR

The development in Spain and Italy is divided as well. In Spain, strong decreaes in the western parts face increases in the populous central and eastern regions. The number of inhabitants in Spain is increasing especially in Greater Madrid and in coastal regions. Italy is characterised by the north-south difference of development. In the north and in the centre, i.e. especially in the industrial regions of the north and around Rome, the population is growing.

A piechart shows the population proportions (2011) and the development of population (2001-2011) of LAU 2 according to population density in Europe Population proportions and development of LAU 2 according to population densitySource: BBSR

In nearly all countries, the number of inhabitants in cities and their surrounding areas is increasing. In many countries, especially in Eastern Europe, they are often the only regions where the population is growing. In the Baltic countries and in Bulgaria growth concentrates almost exclusively on the capital regions. While in Western Europe both cities and their surrounding areas are growing, even though to a different degree, very high growth rates can be found in the surrounding municipalities of Polish cities with decreasing numbers of inhabitants in cities.

The differences between city and surrounding area become apparent through their population growth rates. In urban local administrative units with a population density of more than 500 inhabitants and in rather urbanised areas with 100 to 500 inhabitants per km², the number of inhabitants has risen by around 5% each between 2001 and 2011. More than three quarters of the European population live in these two groups of areas. Rather medium-sized urban areas with a density of 50 to 100 inhabitants per km² just record an - even though slight – increase of the population by around 2%. The rather rural regions with less than 25 people per km² altogether lose around 6% of the population, losses in the extremely sparsely populated areas under 10 inhabitants per km² being 8% of the population.


The European 2011 census was the actual reason for statisticians to deal with the development trends in Europe on the local small-scale LAU 2 level in order to have at least once a Europe-wide look below the NUTS 3 level. As in many European countries, especially in Eastern European countries, the latest censuses had been executed in 2001, 2011 principally seemed to be convenient for a comparison.

In those countries in which the demographic information of the 2011 census was based on population registers, the period could be covered without problems. In other countries it was based on latest censuses, in Italy, for example, on the 2002 census, in France on the 1999 census. In Denmark, the basic local government restructuring of 2007 resulted in big gaps of data so that another period had to be chosen based on the available register data. As a consequence, the population trend is depicted for the period 2007 to 2013.

In Germany, where the latest census had been carried out in 1987 and where the census results largely differed from the population update, another strategy had to be taken. This is why the 2011 census was taken as a basis. The time comparison with 2001 was based on data calculated back by the BBSR Development based on that census.

Although in some countries, the average annual population development is based on different time periods, the development trends become comparable on the European level.

In general, the population figures were taken from the websites of the national statistical offices, that means, according to availability and accessibility from online databases or retrievable tables. The statistical offices’ willingsness to provide information and data, if not online, underlined the European idea of statistics.

Looking for a municipality in Europe

The municipalities of the European Union are depicted through a harmonised system of so-called Local Administrative Units (LAU). They are defined on two levels. The LAU 2 level contains the smallest administrative units which generally consist of political local authorities. In the United Kingdom and Ireland, the LAU 2 level is formed by the electoral wards independently from the administrative level.

The LAU 1 level is categorised above the LAU 2 level and normally comprises associations of municipalities. In some cases, such as Denmark, Greece or Bulgaria, this level comprises the actual municipalities. Some other countries, e.g. Belgium and Spain, do not have this level.

The map is principally oriented towards the LAU 2 level, which is possible for the EU member states and the EFTA countries except Bulgaria with the municipalities on the LAU 1 level. For the non-EU member states in South-Eastern Europe, those administrative units principally defined as "municipalities" were used, they were neither classified as belonging to the LAU 1 nor the LAU 2 level.

Comparability on this level is limited by the, compared with the NUTS levels, even larger differences in the population, in the size of area and in the administrative units. The reason is that the LAU 2 level comprises both "one-person municipalities" in France like Rochefourchat in the Drôme department and large cities like Berlin, Rome or Madrid. And a LAU 2 like Kiruna with the approximate size of the German federal state of Rhineland-Palatinate is put on the same administrative level like a ward in London with an area of 0.1 km². However, the intention was to make administrative units identifiable and comparable thus creating a possibility to code and classify them geographically.

Territorial changes during that period turned out to be a challenge. They had to be traced so that the development could be depicted, which was done based on data of the national statistical offices, as far as available.

Additional Information



Volker Schmidt-Seiwert
Division I 3 - European Spatial and Urban Development
Phone: +49 228 99401-2246

More details