Rural Depopulation

Rural flight (or rural exodus) is the migratory patterns of peoples from rural areas into urban areas. It is urbanization seen from the rural perspective.

In modern times, it often occurs in a region following the industrialization of agriculture when fewer people are needed to bring the same amount of agricultural output to market and related agricultural services and industries are consolidated. Rural flight is exacerbated when the population decline leads to the loss of rural services such as stores and schools, which leads to greater loss of population as people leave to seek those features.

This phenomenon was first articulated through Ravenstein's Laws of migration in the 1880s, upon which modern theories are based.

In the United States and Canada

The terms are used in the United States and Canada to describe the flight of people from rural areas in the Great Plains and Midwest regions, and to a lesser extent rural areas of the northeast and southeast. (See: Depopulation of the Great Plains) It is also particularly noticeable in parts of Atlantic Canada (especially Newfoundland) since the collapse of the Atlantic northwest cod fishery in 1992.

Historical trends

The shift from mixed subsistence farming to commoditized crop and livestock began in the late 19th century. New capital market systems and the railroad network began the trend towards larger farms that employed fewer people per acre. These larger farms used more efficient technologies such as Deere plows, mechanical reapers, and higher-yield seed stock, which reduced human input per unit of production.[2] The other issue on the Great Plains was that people were using inappropriate farming techniques for the soil and weather conditions. Homesteaders generally had family farms too small to survive, and European-American subsistence farming could not continue.

During the Dust Bowl and Great Depression of the 1930s, large numbers of people fled rural areas of the Plains and Midwest because of depressed commodity prices, high debt load, and several years of drought and large dust storms.[3] Rural flight from the Great Plains has been depicted in literature, such as John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939), in which a family from the Great Plains migrates to California during the Dust Bowl period of the 1930s.

Modern rural flight

Post-World War II rural flight has been caused primarily by the spread of industrialized agriculture. Small, labor-intensive family farms have grown into, or have been replaced by, heavily mechanized and specialized industrial farms. While a small family farm typically produced a wide range of crop, garden, and animal products, all requiring substantial labor, large industrial farms typically specialize in just a few crop or livestock varieties, using large machinery and high-density livestock containment systems that require a fraction of the labor per unit produced. For example, Iowa State University reports the number of hog farmers in Iowa dropped from 65,000 in 1980 to 10,000 in 2002, while the number of hogs per farm increased from 200 to 1,400.[4]

The consolidation of the feed, seed, processed grain, and livestock industries has meant that there are fewer small businesses in rural areas. This decrease has in turn exacerbated the decreased demand for labor. Rural areas that used to be able to provide employment for all young adults willing to work in challenging conditions, increasingly provide fewer opportunities for young adults. The situation is made worse by the decrease in services such as schools, stores, and cultural opportunities that accompany the decline in population, and the increasing age of the remaining population further stresses the social service system of rural areas.[5]

Abandonment of small towns

The loss of population in rural areas leads to the abandonment of small towns, turning their once thriving downtowns into empty or underutilized storefronts.[5][6] The rise of corporate agricultural structures directly affects small rural communities, resulting in decreased populations, decreased incomes for some segments, increased income inequality, decreased community participation, fewer retailed outlets and less retail trade, and increased environmental pollution.[7]


Middle ages

Rural flight has been occurring to some degree in Germany since the 11th century. A corresponding principle of German law is Stadtluft macht frei ("city air makes you free"), in longer form Stadtluft macht frei nach Jahr und Tag ("city air makes you free after a year and a day"): by custom and, from 1231/32, by statute, a serf who had spent a year and a day in a city was free, and could not be reclaimed by their former master.

German Landflucht

Main article: Landflucht

In Germany Landflucht ("flight from the land") refers to the mass migration of peasants into the cities that occurred in Germany (and throughout most of Europe) in the late 19th century.

In 1870 the rural population of Germany constituted 64% of the population; by 1907 it had shrunk to 33%.[8] In 1900 alone, the Prussian provinces of East Prussia, West Prussia, Posen, Silesia, and Pomerania lost about 1,600,000 people to the cities,[9] where these former agricultural workers were absorbed into the rapidly growing factory labor class;[10] One of the causes of this mass-migration was the decrease in rural income compared to the rates of pay in the cities.[11]

Landflucht resulted in a major transformation of the German countryside and agriculture. Mechanized agriculture and migrant workers, particularly Poles from the east (Sachsenganger), became more common. This was especially true in the province of Posen that was gained by Prussia when Poland was partitioned.[11] The Polish population of eastern Germany was one of the justifications for the creation of the "Polish corridor" after World War I and the absorption of the land east of the Oder-Neisse line into Poland after World War II. Also, some labor-intensive enterprises were replaced by much less labor-intensive ones such as game preserves.[12]

The word landflucht has negative connotations in German, as it was coined by agricultural employers, often of the German aristocracy, who were lamenting their labor shortages.[10][13]

Russia and Ukraine

In Russia and Ukraine the problem of rural flight is particularly severe, because - in contrast to most developed countries - it's combined with net population loss, where birth rates are low, but death and emigration rates high. This leads to many deserted villages, as the young people move to the cities or abroad and old people die. One of the worst hit areas in Russia is Pskov Oblast, where population declined from 1.67 million in 1926 to 673 000 in 2011, while the rural population declined by more. In Ukraine the worst hit is Chernihiv Oblast, where the population has fallen 23% from the 1959 figure of 1,554,000, the steepest decline of any Ukrainian oblast.

Contemporary developing countries

Today the phenomenon of rural flight is also well known in developing countries, where many people in the countryside live below the poverty line. They migrate to cities to find employment or education. In developing countries, rural exodus is a more recent and rapid process than it was in developed ones. Many of the most populated cities are now in developing countries.



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  • Ravenstein, E. G. (1885): "The Laws of Migration", in London: Journal of the Royal Statistical Society - vol. 48, nº. June 1885, pp. 167–227.
  • Ravenstein, E. G. (1889): "The Laws of Migration", in London: Journal of the Royal Statistical Society - vol. 52, nº. June 1889, pp. 241–301.

See also


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