Planning for sustainability in shrinking mountain communities

By Hans Olav Bråtå, Ph.D. Research Professor. Eastern Norway Research Institute, Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences. Lillehammer, Norway.

Many rural municipalities have a shrinking population, an increased share of elderly and a decreasing share of young people. This is frequently the case in mountain communities.

Shrinkage causes economic problems and a need to reduce the cost level for municipal services, including reducing staffing and the number of service locations   public services or centralise them within the municipality. This is painful to local communities. Another issue is over-investments, based on wishful politics of a future population growth which turns out to be absent. This often accelerate economic problems.

Mountain Norway
Planning sustainability in shrinking mountain communities in Norway. Image: Hans Olav Bråtå.


The actions of the municipalities are typically “fire-fighting” with a lack of long-term planning which is based on a heavy and persistent trend with declining population base. They do also have problems because the administration is often small and occupied with mandatory duties, leaving less room for planned development following new paths. Municipal master planning is generally based on the wish for growth, fronted by the politicians, despite that local administration often looks for another approach, such as a planned degrowth. Degrowth does not mean no development, but is an approach emphasizing other aspects than growth, such as the good life and sustainability (Bråtå, 2020).

Such an approach is challenged by several issues, amongst others how the municipalities and the inhabitants view themselves and rurality. Planning in general is based on urban values, concepts and growth, and an urban view on sustainable development. Planning in mountain areas is imprinted by the same approach, the urban questions related to sustainable development and the urban answers. An example is to centralise and concentrate built-up areas to reduce transport and emissions. This may be against the aspects favouring the rural life and the broader spectre of sustainability issues. Researchers such as Sousa and Phino (2018) state that there is no theory on planning for shrinkage, and that the literature is unclear and confusing. This is particularly so for rural and peripheral regions (Syssner, 2020).

Rural planning for shrinkage may therefore need to view the world from the rural and mountain point of view and define it on its own terms, and not solely as the contrast to urbanity and growth. A first step is to define rurality – from a mountain community point of view. Subsequently to develop planning having shrinkage as point of view and how that approach may lead to a planning for degrowth based on the broad aspects of sustainability and the good life in e.g. the mountains.

Shrinkage has been on the international research agenda for several years, but most often focusing on shrinking cities in North America and in parts of continental Europe (see, e.g., Gans, 1975; Hollander et al., 2009). For rural areas, there is a small but growing body of research on planning in shrinking mountain regions and communities (Küpper et al., 2018; Bråtå, 2020).

Mountain Norway
Image: Hans Olav Bråtå.


There are some interesting contributions to new theoretical and practical approaches (for example in the special issue of European Planning Studies on ‘Re-thinking non-core regions: Planning strategies and practice beyond growth’ (Leick & Lang, 2018)). Still, the need for the further development of theories, concepts, and models, as well as approaches to planning in shrinking mountain regions, is pressing. From the applied perspective, ESPON (2020:31), for instance, calls for ‘… practical guidance and support for local action, across a wide menu of interventions, [to] increase its potential for real changes’, and that approaches for shrinking areas must be based on evidence and reflect an analysis of pathways to shrinkage. ESPON (2020:31) emphasizes the need for a policy for shrinking rural areas that ‘… reflect broader societal objectives than economic growth, such as inclusion, spatial justice, and wellbeing, and support a Just Transition’ – towards a sustainable society.

These thoughts reflect the need for research on planning and policies in mountain areas with a shrinking population base, both from the broad perspective of understanding the issue and to develop practical guidance. An overall theme ought to be a planning and a future based on the premises of mountain communities. A joint international approach, based on cooperation between researchers and practitioners, would hopefully advance the issue.


Bråtå, H.O (2020). Kommuner med befolkningsnedgang. – Hva sier forskningen om strategier, planer og tiltak, og hva er kunnskapsbehovet? Lillehammer: Høgskolen i Innlandet (Skriftserien nr. 17).

ESPON (2020). European Shrinking Rural Areas: Challenes, Actions and Perspectives for Territorial Governance. Final Report. Luxemburg: ESPON.

Gans, H.J. (1975). Planning for Declining and Poor Cities, Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 41:5, 305-307.

Hollander, Pallagast, Schwarz & Popper (2009). Planning shrinking cities. In Blanco, Alberti – Progress in Planning, 2009.

Küpper, P., Kundolf, S., Mettenberger, T. & Tuitjer, G. (2018). Rural regeneration strategies for declining regions: trade-off between novelty and practicability, European Planning Studies, 26:2, 229-255. L

Leick, B. & Lang, T. (2018). Re-thinking non-core regions: planning strategies and practices beyond growth, European Planning Studies, 26:2, 213-228.

Sousa, S. Pinho (2015). Planning for Shrinkage: Paradox or Paradigm, European Planning Studies, 23:1, 12-32.

Syssner, J. (2020). Pathways to Demographic Adaptation: Perspectives on Policy and Planning in Depopulating Areas in Northern Europe, Springer International Publishing AG.