European countryside(s) Stadtland or Countryside Nostalgia?
This essay is based on the Stadtland or Countryside Nostalgia lecture, given by Martina Doehler-Behzadi, the director at IBA Thüringen, at Umeå Architecture School the 27th of March 2019. The lecture is a part of LABLAB’s public program Hinterlands +, funded by the Goethe-Institut.
Does that sound like “countryside nostalgia”? Certainly, there are plenty of picturesque areas and bucolic landscapes in Thuringia, and I could show you pictures of country life, farmhouses and vegetable gardening. But what does the underlying socio-economic foundation look like?
Living in the country is no longer about living from the land, working in the fields and tending livestock. People are tradesmen and women, work in offices, go shopping in the supermarket or order what they need online.
The French sociologist Henri Lefebvre described a process of general modernisation in society as the process of urbanisation in which the town and the country, while still distinct realms, have grown more similar.
Remarking on Henri Lefebvre, Christian Schmid writes:
“In a completely urbanised world, there is neither ‘city’ nor ‘countryside’, only different urban configurations.” And André Corboz has remarked on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s famous commentary on Switzerland resembling a big city: Switzerland as so-to-speak a megalopolis “… has many areas that bear little resemblance to a city in the conventional sense.” These spaces also determine the character of the city.
Meanwhile, doubts are growing about our highly industrialised, consumerist, resource-consuming way of life. The French philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour proposed an end to the old dichotomy of nature and society and humans and things. Acording to Latour, an actual distinction never existed; it is merely a mental construction, a way of ordering our thinking in the modern age. In the present day, when climate change and migration flows are coinciding, we are perhaps beginning to realise this. In this – Latourian – sense, we should not read city and country as cultural or natural artefacts, but rather as hybrids.
Rem Koolhaas likewise sees the countryside as being
“... the frontline of transformation. A world formerly dictated by the seasons and the organisation of agriculture is now a toxic mix of genetic experiment, science, industrial nostalgia, seasonal immigration ... massive subsidies, tax incentives, investment, political turmoil, in other words more volatile than the most accelerated city.”
In his view, too little attention has been paid to the countryside.
Given the aforementioned tendencies, we too have looked at Thuringia and asked ourselves:
Is the village still rural?
Is the city still urban?
Is nature still natural?
As soon as one begins to delve beneath the surface and looks in-depth at the spatial, social infrastructure and cultural patterns, the definition of what is urban, rural or provincial begins to blur. Wherever one looks, one sees not the idyll of local farming (which was never very idyllic anyway) but large-scale industrialised agriculture. One sees commuters who return home at the weekend and home office workers, people returning to their home region who have not completely capped their connection to previous work relations and social ties but have loosened them. One sees new entrepreneurs who live and work in several places simultaneously, or regular visitors who have perhaps a second home in the country. These are just some of the many urban-rural relationships that exist on a day-to-day basis. In short: appearances can be deceptive; it is instructive to look more closely.
Why hold an IBA in Thuringia?So, given the illustrious history of the IBA and its international relevance, why are we holding an IBA in Thuringia?
Thuringia lies in the centre of Germany and is one of the smaller federal states with 2.14 million inhabitants. One need only look at a map of Thuringia to understand why we chose “StadtLand” as the primary theme of the IBA Thüringen. StadtLand describes the dual condition of town and country. And this is borne out by the map: the majority of Thuringia is small towns and villages – rural areas.
One sees compact urban configurations bedded in a wider rural landscape. Even the larger towns are surrounded by rural areas. The term “Stadtland” is written here as two words in one to denote the idea of town and country as a characteristic and reciprocal experience: a kind of town-country-village-landscape-continuum. StadtLand describes the pattern of settlement and the everyday reality of Thuringia. Only 4 cities in Thuringia have more than 50,000 inhabitants.
Even the capital Erfurt is quite small with a population of 214,000, followed by Jena, the scientific and industrial centre. The poster child of Thuringia is Weimar, the city of classical literature and the arts. There is a much larger number of medium-sized, historical cities that were once the seat of nobility or small rural towns and villages. Scattered amidst the wooded hills and valleys of the Thüringer Wald or in the verdant meadowland of the Thuringian basin, they are the fabric of a rich and varied historical and cultural landscape. The image of Thuringia as “the green heart of Germany” is readily apparent. The identities of the Thuringian people reflect this and are strongly rooted in history, and perhaps also a little resistant to change – in a word provincial!
Within this spatial constellation and pattern of settlement, considerable changes are underway. By 2035, the population of Thuringia is forecast to decline to 1.88 million. This trend will not be evenly distributed: the larger towns and cities are expected to grow while the rural areas and small towns will experience a disproportionately high exodus of inhabitants. Despite wishes to the contrary, rural areas and small and medium-sized settlements will not have a sufficient influx of new inhabitants to maintain the status quo. This results on the one hand in increased pressure on aspects such as the housing market in larger towns, and on the other to tensions resulting from population decline, vacant properties and shrinkage. As such, we must conclude that the larger towns and cities, diverse and attractive as they are, are sucking the most valuable inhabitants out of the ‘Hinterland’.
Thuringians feel at home in their region: in a representative survey, 96% declared a strong or very strong attachment to the region – significantly more than the national average (77% according to the Allensbach Institute). 80% indicated they intended to stay in the federal state, significantly more than in the years before. The majority of those surveyed rated quality of life in the state as very good or good and more than three-quarters see a positive future for the region. At the same time, exclusion and intolerance towards other ethnic groups is rising. The Thüringen-Monitor 2018 reported that while right-wing and xenophobic tendencies in the region have neither risen nor fallen, approval of ethnocentric, i.e. xenophobic and nationalistic statements has risen to 47 percent. Only 50 percent of the respondents were optimistic about the successful integration and coexistence of people of different origins, religions and cultures in Thuringia compared with 68% in 2012. The proportion of foreigners in Thuringia is only 4.5%.
A look at the election results also reveals that the different dynamics in urban and rural areas are gradually acquiring a political dimension. While sweeping generalisations abound about the parochial nature of villages, small towns and rural communities – supposedly mired in tradition and lacking in progressive spirit – the ongoing public discourse on rural deficits and the negativity surrounding the exodus of the population, the shrinking of communities, the increasing number of disused properties and the gradual erosion of democracy manifests itself in a general sense of dissatisfaction. In the general elections in 2017, the right-wing AfD party (Alternative for Germany) achieved a result of 22.7% in Thuringia. That figure was 16.5% in 2013.
Countryside Nostalgia? Yes, the wistful reminiscence of country life does exist. Rural populations move to the cities. There they dream of the countryside. But this, I would argue, is just one dimension of the countryside – at least in our region. People are ever more willing and able to move to areas, places and communities that suit their respective way of life. Where one comes from, where one’s family lives, where one’s work or studies are or where one can afford to live are no longer the only factors that influence where people choose to live. Other questions also play a role, such as how much space do I need in my house, garden or backyard? How much sky and horizon do I want to see? Do I need animals and plants to be happy? Where does my food come from? And increasingly also: Can I have both, the city and the countryside?
Current trends such as the call for green space in the city, the willingness to leave some areas natural and undeveloped, guerrilla gardening, urban farming or roof-water farms are all expressions of new forms of urban living that have their origins in rural, agricultural and horticultural patterns of living. We are beginning to see an erosion of the strict separation and unambiguous categories of the ‘urban’ and 'rural'.
All these suggest that conceptual ideas of the city and the country are constantly being adapted as ideas of personal happiness and a fulfilled way of life change. StadtLand has the potential to become a formula for quality of life. Through our framework for experimental projects and approaches, we aim to respond to the StadtLand of Thuringia without turning our backs on the city or being disloyal to the countryside. Urbanism and ruralism are overlapping into what has been called rurbanism, and it is this that forms the context and basis for the experimental projects of the IBA.
 TMIL: Landesentwicklungsbericht Thüringen: Angabe nach 1. regionalisierte Bevölkerungsvorausberechnung 2015, p.3, Erfurt, 2016 – Comparative figure for 2015: 2.16 million inhabitants.
 https://www.komrex.uni-jena.de/komrexmedia/Literatur/Thüringen_Monitor+2018+Zusammenfassung-p-435.pdf, accessed 6 March 2019
 http://www.wahlen.thueringen.de/datenbank, accessed 6 March 2019
LABLAB is a research and design think tank dedicated to understanding the social, ecological and spatial transformations in the Nordic and Baltic Sea Region.