Big cities, empty countryside: why this is better from an environmental point of view

Even before the crown pandemic, many people moved from cities to the countryside. Rising rents and the cost of living in cities, but also the desire for a rural lifestyle and more freedom have attracted many people to the countryside. It is a mistake to assume that this development will have a positive effect on nature, the environment and the climate. Even as people grow more and more fruit and vegetables in their gardens and can thus ensure greater biodiversity, the increase in settlement in rural regions has many negative consequences for the environment and climate.

Increased migration of people from cities

A study by the German Institute of Economics (IW) and the Allensbach Institute shows that more and more people between the ages of 30 and 50 are turning their backs on cities and moving to the countryside. This is clearly demonstrated by the net migration that results when the number of people leaving the city or district is subtracted from the number of people moving to a city or district. In major German cities, net migration is on average less than 6.5 people per 1,000 inhabitants. The situation is different in rural districts, where the migratory balance is positive with an average of 10 people per 1,000 inhabitants. These numbers were determined before the start of the Corona crisis. This trend has accelerated from 2020 onwards. 62% of homeowners are satisfied with their housing situation. Among the tenants it is just over 20 percent. People move to the countryside because they want a garden, more space and fast internet. Rural regions are now often better equipped with fast internet than cities.

Because big cities and empty countryside are better for the environment

The flight of urban dwellers to the countryside is associated with suburbanization, which mainly affects the regions around large cities, commuter belts. There is already a good infrastructure there. People enjoy similar freedoms as in the country, but they don’t have to do without comfort and only have to travel short distances around the city. The expansion of infrastructure in these regions reduces the open spaces that are the habitat of many plants and animals. As the more remote rural areas are also becoming increasingly popular, the infrastructure also needs to be expanded. Many villages have grown rapidly in size in recent years as residential areas and houses have been built there. Meadows, forests and other open spaces had to give way. This fact alone is heating up climate change, because a lot of carbon dioxide is linked to forests and green spaces. Biodiversity is being lost because many plants and animals play an important role

ge livelihood is taken. People who move to the countryside cannot stop this development, even if they focus on sustainability and plant organic gardens. The construction of single-family houses and residential areas leads to increased waterproofing of the surface.

© adobe.stock, Wolfilser

Expansion of infrastructure in rural regions and the consequences

The flight from the city to the countryside leads to more commuters. As public transport in rural areas is often still in its infancy, commuters are turning to cars, resulting in increased CO2 emissions. To get to the city, people have to travel greater distances. If they remained in the city, the impact on the environment and climate would be less, as less CO2 is released into the air. People go to cities not only to work, but also to shop or take their children to schools or kindergartens. These opportunities are often lacking in villages or were lost about 20 years ago as people increasingly moved from the countryside to the cities. Infrastructure in rural areas is often not sufficiently developed. The growing number of inhabitants in rural areas requires an expansion of the transport network. This leads to greater surface sealing. The settlement and traffic area in Germany increases every day by around 60 hectares, which corresponds to around 100 football fields. Half of this area is sealed because the ground is paved, paved, cemented or otherwise paved. This negatively impacts nature, the environment and the climate in several ways:

  • The sealed soil does not absorb nutrients and precipitation. This leads to fewer aquifers. Lack of drinking water and damage caused by drought are favored. As masses of water enter the sewer system and the water does not flow out evenly, the risk of flooding increases.
  • Waterproofing leads to a loss of habitat for plants and animals and therefore to a decrease in biodiversity.
  • Emerging new buildings consume energy because they need to be heated or cooled. Furthermore, the increase in traffic volume due to the expansion of infrastructures leads to higher energy consumption and an increase in polluting emissions, which has a negative impact on the climate.
  • Animals are stressed by noise in settlements and streets and withdraw from their natural habitat.
  • The increased need for lighting leads to increased energy consumption and can affect the natural rhythm of various animals.
  • If sealed floors have to be removed at some point, this is associated with greater difficulties. Soil fertility is affected by remnants of concrete and asphalt.
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The concepts of water in cities and their importance for infrastructures

It is better for the environment, nature and climate if as many people as possible stay in the cities. Cities are urban agglomerations and are characterized by high energy consumption and high polluting emissions. However, there are not only sealed areas in cities. Concepts of sustainable water in cities can contribute to a more economical use of resources. For example, the Berlin Senate Urban Development Department developed a water concept for the use of process water (PDF). Compared to conventional drinking water and wastewater disposal, the use of process water offers economic and ecological advantages. Particularly in urban agglomerations, more underground water is often withdrawn than can be formed by infiltrations. Process water, which includes water from roof, courtyard and street drains, can be collected and used wherever drinking water is not absolutely necessary. The use of process water has a positive effect on the infrastructure, since

  • drinking water supply
  • sewer
  • fire water supply
  • purification plants
  • water bodies

be relieved. However, process water treatment plants must be built.

Innovative concepts for water also include the conversion of brownfields and their revitalization. In this way, water can create new habitats. Local recreation areas can make cities attractive and relieve rural areas. However, sometimes the infrastructure around these areas has to be changed.

Many large cities have already taken climate adaptation measures to combat climate change and conserve resources. Extensive surface waterproofing in large cities leads to increased surface runoff when it rains. Excessive runoff volumes occur in some places due to precipitation runoff on sealed areas and drainage into channels with conventional drainage. The “Green City” concept promotes evaporative cooling by greening surfaces such as roofs, facades or roads and ensures a green infrastructure. Much of the rainwater is retained in the city. The formation of heat islands in the city is prevented. The urban climate has improved because planting favors evaporation.

Climate adaptation in large cities can take place with different measures:

  • Infiltrations with adequate subsoil conditions
  • Precipitation retention by underground and above ground storage
  • Evaporation with extensively and intensively cultivated green roofs
  • Unsealing and decoupling of fully sealed surfaces.

The green city can counteract the problems of heat and flooding and contribute to a better climate balance.

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