Misc 17/01/2021

Territorial imbalance stifles small towns

Access to services is the key to attracting new neighbors

Maria Garcia
5 min
L'infermer Xavi Ensenyat en una casa del petit poble d'Estac, al Pallars Sobirà

GironaThe coronavirus crisis has triggered the popularity of the rural world: natural landscapes and low population density are now trading on the rise. However, not all are advantages, as it has also become visible with the snowfall. The further you live from the metropolitan areas of the four capitals, the fewer basic services you have within reach. The nearest hospital can be an hour's drive away, the high school 70km away, the pharmacy in the next town, or to go to piano lessons or buy clothes you must travel to a big city.

This territorial imbalance has been especially evident during the pandemic: less populated areas cry out to heaven because the same restrictions are being applied in Barcelona (which has more than two million inhabitants) and in towns like Blancafort, which has less than 400. However, at the same time, the covid has shown that it is possible to telework in many jobs where, until now, this option had not been considered. And this has opened up a range of opportunities for uninhabited rural areas: internet would facilitate the arrival of new families and economic activities that would rekindle desolate territories and that have long been begging for effective policies to avoid losing its few remaining neighbours. To achieve this, according to experts, a country pact is necessary to put an end to the territorial differences that cause unequal opportunities; and that for decades have aggravated the depopulation of certain regions.

Depopulation and aging

In the last two hundred years, there have been several migratory processes from the rural to the urban world. The first important one was in the 19th century, as a consequence of industrialization and the phylloxera crisis, and the second took place between the 50s and 70s of the 20th century. "Now we are not in a depopulation phase, although we notice the effects of this migration from the countryside to the cities", the geography professor at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) and former secretary of territorial planning, Oriol Nel·lo, says.

If the population of 1920 is compared with that of 2020, according to Idescat data, the three regions that have lost the most population in the last 100 years are Priorat (-55%), Terra Alta (-51%) and Pallars Sobirà (49%). They are followed by Garrigues (-36%), Ribera d’Ebre (-28%) and Conca de Barberà (-25%). Parallel to the loss of residents, aging has increased: between 20 and 30% of the residents of Priorat, Terra Alta and Pallars Sobirà are 65 years of age or older. "When grandparents die, there is no generational change", the geographer and technician of the Chair of Local and Regional Economy at the Rovira i Virgili University (URV), Josep Maria Piñol, laments.

Schools and doctors nearby

For families and older people, one of the most important requirements when choosing where to live is proximity to educational and health centers, which are often far from less populated areas. "Rural school is amazing when they are little, but every year we have to fight so that they don't close them in one town or another. And if you want to go to university, you have to go away from here, with the increased spending that this entails for families", the technician of the Prioritat entity (promoter of the candidacy of the Priorat as a Unesco heritage landscape), Joan Vaqué, describes, who is also a resident of Vilella Baixa. There is no hospital in the region and the closest ones are 30 or 60 minutes away. "We have to go to Reus or Móra d'Ebre, and when a woman has to give birth, she is an hour’s drive away from the hospital," he laments.

Lack of housing

One of the main issues concerns the lack of housing. In many villages there are empty houses and flats, which are holiday homes or inheritances from children or grandchildren who have allowed them to deteriorate. "In tourist areas the rents are at exorbitant prices, and in others, like in Molló, we have many houses that are neither rented nor sold, and some are on the verge of collapse. There are many families who want to come, but we do not have housing to offer", the mayor of Molló and geography professor at the University of Barcelona (UB), Pep Coma, explains.


One of the other disadvantages of rural areas is connectivity. Although most regions have minimally passable roads, public transport continues to be one of the pending duties. "The R3 of Rodalies, between Barcelona and Puigcerdà, would have more users if the schedules were competitive and the service was fast and efficient", Coma says, and considers that rail connections are "extremely important".

Without forgetting one of the demands all families and companies have: a good internet connection. "There are urban centers where fiber optics still does not reach, others, like Les Llosses, which have very bad connection; and without internet, you cannot work", the mayor of Molló emphasizes. Vaqué regrets that there are areas, especially in the south, that do not even have a good electrical connection: "We have the nuclear power plant next door, but every now and then we lose power. And when it snows, three days without electricity. There are companies that cannot be installed due to lack of power", he says with his hands on his head.

Essential services

Work, housing, schools, health centres and connectivity are the main elements that determine if a family will settle in a place. However, once the most basic needs have been covered, it is also important to have services such as supermarkets, shops, recreational centres, language or music schools, gyms, pharmacies, cinemas or theaters close. "Many residents have ended up going away because after six in the afternoon there is nothing, all the streets are empty”, Mario Urrea, president of the Micropobles (“microtowns”) Association of Catalonia, says.

Territorial imbalances

"We only exist when nuclear power plants, wind farms or infrastructures that nobody wants have to be installed. We are like a second-class country and they never listen to us", criticizes the Prioritat technician. Theirs is one of the most common complaints in the less populated territories: they feel that the Generalitat makes decisions from Barcelona, without taking their reality into account. For this reason, according to experts, one of the key points is territorial rebalancing: "That everyone, regardless of where they live, has equitable access to income and services", Nel·lo underlines.

Rethinking the future

In recent years, several projects have been promoted throughout the territory to attract residents to uninhabited areas. Now, in addition, as a result of the covid, new initiatives have emerged to try to facilitate the transfer from the city to the countryside. However, according to experts, it is necessary to rethink the future of less populated regions, and draw up a roadmap for the whole of Catalonia, made from and with the municipalities and their neighbours. "It is a problem for the country as a whole, not for a city council or a territory. All actors must be involved: city councils, county councils, Ministries..." Urrea encourages. From the Micropobles Association they have drawn up their own Statute that seeks to "positively discriminate against towns with few inhabitants."

To try to break the gap between the rural and the urban world, the Commonwealth of Catalunya was born 100 years ago, which set itself the goal of not having a single town without "police, school, library, telephone and road." And, although it could not be completed, they managed to modernize much of the country, despite the lack of skills and resources. The key to their success, according to the historian and member of the Institute of Catalan Studies Albert Balcells, was that they elaborated "a national, viable and plausible project that won the trust of citizens, who believed it was worth the effort and sacrifice to make it happen". A century later, the challenge of territorial balance is still on the table.