Endpoint: A World Without Villages?


The 21st century migration of populations all over the world from the countryside into cities has become well-known in recent years.  In fact this particular cycle of urbanization began at least as early as the late 18th century, when the Industrial Revolution in Britain started to draw workers from the land into the emerging factories towns and cities.  It may even be that there are far earlier examples.  The resulting discussion of contemporary urbanization has focused on the impacts of these floods of population into existing cities and on the need, for example in China, to construct hundreds of new cities.  Among other factors, urbanization is driven by perceived opportunities for a better life, if not for the migrants themselves, then for their children.  It is also reinforced by the apparent preference of the millennial generation for high density, urban lifestyles in contrast their parents’ preference for suburban sprawl. Recent studies by Richard Florida, Geoff West, Ed Glaiser, and many others have shown the economic motivations for urban life compared to rural or suburban life.

But what of the other end of this pipeline of humanity?  What of the places left behind – declining cities and suburbs, sub-critical cities, isolated towns, remote village communities?  What is the endpoint of urbanization?  In the late 18th century, a substantial fraction of the population was still needed to work the land and produce food.  Today food production in developed countries requires only 2-3% of the total population and yet developed countries are also seeing contemporary urbanization as dominant cities, for example London, act as “black holes” for mobile young workers.

What is the endpoint of urbanization?  By the end of the 21st century will we see 90+% of the population happily living in cities, the surrounding constellations of smaller satellites, and the connected corridors, leaving behind a largely depopulated countryside?  What countervailing forces could establish a new equilibrium?

Consider Japan, where the Tokyo Metro Region contains almost 25% of the total population, leaving large rural areas with ageing populations.  The Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of March 2011 further stimulated the depopulation of the region as young people, living in rented apartments, quickly moved away to find jobs.  Consider England, where, despite decades of attempts by the central government to move jobs and investment out to the provinces, London and the southeast have an irresistible attraction similar to that of Tokyo.  Consider France, where massive investment in road and rail infrastructure to provide one of the most highly connected countries in the world has not had the desired outcome of distributing business investment through the country, but instead has enabled it to be concentrated in Paris and the Ile de France, albeit it offering the opportunity to commute long distances, e.g. from Bordeaux.  As Mike Weinstock of the UK Architectural Association noted in a recent meeting, the UK’s proposed High-Speed 2 rail link between London and Birmingham has the ambition to push work out of London and into the provinces, but will likely have the reverse consequence of making Birmingham a suburb of London.

This essay considers the challenges of sustaining viable communities in small and remote locations and concludes with questions for the urban planning profession about the impacts of urbanisation on these communities.

Case Study:  Preserving Swiss Mountain Communities

Consider also Switzerland, a country that has perhaps done the most for well over one hundred years to combat these forces of urbanisation.  Switzerland is a highly decentralized federation of 26 cantons that are integrated through a relatively limited central government.  As early as the 1840s when the Swiss railway system was being built out there was much debate about ensuring that this was pursued in such a way as to ensure that connectivity was developed uniformly among all the many isolated regions of this mountainous country.  Such developments have long been carefully managed to avoid giving advantage to one canton over others.

In the mid-19th century as industrialization took place, there was nonetheless a significant exodus from the mountain valleys into the cities.  A problem with farming communities worldwide is that unless family size is very carefully managed, it becomes impossible for all the offspring to hold enough land to for a sustainable life.  The emergence of well-paying jobs in the cities was therefore a great attraction.  To counteract this attraction, new industries were encouraged by explicit or implicit agreements not to compete.  Watch-making was developed in the Jura mountain regions of the cantons of Geneva and Vaud.  Fine embroidery, exploiting the fine Swiss cotton being spun and woven in canton Zurich, was developed in canton Appenzell to provide occupations for the women.  Hand-made lace was likewise developed as an occupation for the women of the mountain valleys of the Bernese Oberland.

A reprieve for some of the mountain valley regions came in the late 19th and early 20th century with the development of Alpine tourism, pioneered by wealthy English tourists.  This spurred the development of an extensive hotel business and novel mechanical infrastructure such as mountain railways and ski lifts.  These occupations reached their peak in the 1960-70s and declined as new, exotic tourist destinations in Asia, South America, and Africa emerged.  Some Swiss resort towns – Gstaad, St. Mortiz, Verbier, Zermatt – have been successful in developing high-end economic niches, but elsewhere there are many mountain villages with large, empty hotels, few of which serve a useful purpose.

The present generation of Swiss is noticeably less sporting that its parents and there has been a decline in many older forms of Alpine sports (skiing, mountaineering), although this is somewhat offset by newer forms (hang-gliding, para-gliding, B.A.S.E. jumping, and snow-boarding).  With the growing wealth of the Swiss, but more importantly of their neighbours, many second homes have been established through the conversion of older homes and hotels as well as through new construction.  The federal government is trying to limit the fraction of such second homes to 20%, although in some areas it is already as high as 60%.

Like many European countries, the Swiss are proud of their farmers and of the village lifestyles and extend considerable subsidies to support them.   By tradition every Swiss citizen retains a permanent link back to his or her own birthplace and even after moving away they will return for specific festivals.  (A similar custom exists in Japan.)  Yet overall, the population of these villages continues to decline, the remaining population continues to age, and after one or two generations the link is broken.

Private industry also supported the effort to sustain the remote communities.  The two largest Swiss supermarket chains – Migros and Coop – were both founded early in the 20th century to offer households in remote villages a more diverse selection of food and household goods than the independent village shops could provide.  The cantonal banks have also maintained local branch offices or mobile banking services, although the Giro payment system and highly developed Internet banking also contribute to enabling remote payments and receipts.

One region that is well known to me is the valley of Lauterbrunnen in the Bernese Oberland.  The valley stretches some 25 km south from Interlaken.  Famous mountains such as the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau (all close to or over 4,000 m) form its south-eastern flank, which is part of the continental divide.  On the west flank is the Schilthorn (almost 3,000 m), famous under the false name “Piz Gloria” as the setting of one of the early James Bond films.  The end of the valley is closed by the Breithorn (3780 m).  It is a classic U-shaped glacial valley claiming 72 waterfalls that cascade down its sheer cliffs.  It is said to have the inspiration for Rivendell in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”.  The commune of Lauterbrunnen consists of the villages of Gimmelwald, Isenfluh, Lauterbrunnen, Mürren, Stechelberg, and Wengen with a combined population of some 2,900.

Lauterbrunnen Valley small

Figure 1:  The Lauterbrunnen valley looking south from above Wengen.  To the left is the Jungfrau, in the centre the Breithorn, and on the right the Schilthorn.  The village of Lauterbrunnen itself is down on the floor of the valley.

In the Middle Ages the entire valley belonged to the Abbey of Interlaken and was an important source of wood for fuel and construction.  During this period the glaciers were in retreat and the col beside the Breithorn was passable and provided an important north-south route between central Switzerland and the Rhone valley.  During the wars of the late middle ages mining of iron ore in the back of the valley was begun and the forests provided wood from which charcoal could be produced in order to extract iron.  Other mines produced lead and small amounts of silver.  Mining died out in the early 19th century as industrialization demanded much larger-scale production of metals.  Farming had developed on the fields created by the clear-cutting of the forest and villages were established in the mid-section of the valley to exploit agriculture.

The 19th century brought lace-making and tourism and small Alpine villages such as Mürren and Wengen became important centres for summer and winter tourists.  The railway network was expanded to increase the flow of tourists in the late 19th century and early 20th century, culminating in the astonishing narrow-gauge railway that leads up to the Jungfraujoch at 3,454 m.  The intent of these investments was the increase the flow of tourists into the valley and to develop the tourism industry.  But they had also the perverse effect of allowing the population of the valley to commute into the neighbouring towns (Interlaken, Spiez, Thun) or as far afield as Bern, the capital.

Tourism developed strongly up to the 1960-70s.  Mürren and Wengen have good claims to be among the originators of winter sports and the Lauberhorn races continue to be part of the international skiing championship series.  But tourism is a seasonal business – three or four months during the winter and four to five months during the summer – which does not make for good jobs.  The emergence of new tourist destinations throughout the world (together with the strong Swiss Franc) has resulted in declines in Swiss tourism in general.  As China, India, and other emerging economies develop, this might result in an overall growth in global tourism that could restore some of this loss in coming decades.  In 2001 the Jungfrau-Aletsch region immediately adjacent to the valley was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.  But while there is great prestige and pride in the World Heritage designation, it imposes strict limits on commercial development.

As with the development of the national and local railway network in the 19th century, the build out of the mobile telephone system in the 1990s and later the deployment of the broadband Internet access were both undertaken with a view to not disfavouring the mountain valleys .  As a result one can make mobile telephone calls from high in the mountains and Internet access bandwidths are around 50 Mbps even in the smallest villages.

In a recent visit the number of vacant or under utilised business premises or hotels has again risen and even some operating businesses have posted signs announcing the retirement of the owners and soliciting offers to lease.  But who will run these businesses as the millennial generation prefers to work in larger towns or cities and to commute home daily or weekly?

It is often remarked that cities are highly resilient and almost impossible to kill.  But these small communities are far less resilient and face or have already crossed tipping points that lead to gradual but inevitable decline.  Recently I was able to discuss this problem with Toni Graf, the Town Clerk for the commune of Lauterbrunnen.  He was very aware of the challenge the valley faces and noted that the commune had considered already many possible plans to reverse the trend.   These include:

  1. Re-development of the tourism infrastructure to attract the 1% demographic.  The Bernese Oberland is a very large region adjacent to Bern, the national capital, with a significant population in the 1% demographic.  The Alpine village of Gstaad is equivalent to St. Moritz or Zermatt.  But Gstaad is considerably further from Bern and more difficult to reach during the winter.  Lauterbrunnen could capture some of this wealth just below the 1% demographic, but faces a major limitation due to lack of space.  There is no room in the valley for an airport that could take private jet aircraft; the nearest commercial airport is in Bern-Belp some 60 km away.  There is no room in the valley to expand the access road to the village of Lauterbrunnen, nor to continue an expanded road or railroad further up the valley.  Likewise, there is limited space in Mürren and Wengen to develop the prestigious chalets that are found in Gstaad and similar resorts.
  2. Development of modern industries.  The advent of the Internet and new additive manufacturing techniques such as 3-D printing permit novel business models that are less dependent on large-scale, centralized facilities.  This approach requires considerably less investment in expensive machinery and less dependence on specialized industrial buildings.  It does however require a skilled community that has expertise in mechanical design and also business expertise for specific industries and customers.  The technical design community probably has a significant overlap with the outdoor sporting communities (snowboarding, paragliding, B.A.S.E. jumping, and so forth) and so this could be an attractive way to combine work and hobbies.  However, this novel industrial form is still nascent and an economically sustainable industrial model and such business skills are certainly lacking today in the valley.
  3. Re-development of the community to attract families from the adjacent towns and cities.  While the millennial generation has shown to date a preference for high-density, urban living, as its older members pass into their thirties and begin families, some of them may prefer to raise their families in less urban environments.  Given the excellent public transportation services, it may then be attractive to move to the mountain valleys, where housing is more affordable and “quality of life” as it concerns families may be superior.  This would require new investment in the older housing stock and also in the provision of better facilities in schools and in local medical facilities.

All of these and other possibilities pose challenges for such small communities.  While in the 1970s the wealth and entrepreneurial spirit might have been available to support such transformations, these are noticeably absent today.  Also today the local population has aged and may be less receptive to significant changes, necessary as they may be.  To Toni Graf, it was very difficult to see any workable plan among these possibilities.

Endpoint Policy

As the 21st century world becomes increasingly a population of city dwellers, what heed should we take of the draining of population out of such smaller, remote communities?  Left to market forces, the trend seems likely to continue unabated until equilibrium is found that provides the minimal labour force required for agriculture and the absolutely necessary local services to support that labour force.  Given the pace of automation in agriculture, it seems likely that this equilibrium will be well below current population levels.  If that transition continues, wealthy countries will lose lifestyles going back many centuries and with them much cultural wealth.  Such losses are not new.  Family-based coastal fishing has already died out in most developed countries.  Do we believe this scenario to be true?  Are we content to allow this process to go forward?

If we choose to resist this transition, what can be done in practice to slow or reverse the trend?  The example above shows how Switzerland, which has a relatively liberal economy, has been willing to make large, social investments for over one hundred years to try to stabilize its mountain communities to little avail.  What new countervailing forces can we foresee or invent?  There is certainly a fraction of the population that values life in small communities amid natural surroundings.  But is this fraction large enough to be sustainable?

If we choose to resist this transition, what purposes will these communities serve beyond agriculture or tourism?  Just as new, model towns developed in the 19th and 20th centuries struggled to find their sense of place, their souls, so these remote communities need to find theirs.  What can these be and how will the transition from the legacy purpose to the new purpose be accomplished?

Urban design proceeds from the assumption that urban areas are in equilibrium and that the balance of forces that exists today will determine the evolution of the city.  What we see here however is that the balance of forces is breaking down and the heritage of our villages is teetering on the edge of free fall.