Although there are some exceptions, the big picture shows that the population is shrinking and aging in Finland’s rural areas as growth is concentrated in a few larger cities and their surrounding areas, and many smaller cities are struggling to avoid facing reality.
Many Finnish municipalities are turning a blind eye to the gloomy future prospects as the population and tax revenues fall, several experts have told STT’s Finnish news agency.
"Unfortunately, Finnish municipalities have developed the practice of self-deception. Unrealistic growth strategies are being developed year after year, even though the reality has been declining [in growth]", says Jenni Airaksinen, Senior Lecturer in Municipality and Regional Administration, Faculty of Management and Business Administration, University of Tampere.
Kaisa Lähteenmäki-Smith, a leading expert at MDI, a regional development consultancy, agrees. According to him, municipalities are reluctant to accept population decline because it is seen as a political failure.
"It creates a difficult situation where municipalities are reluctant to take a position on their public strategies for reducing the fat of the population, so they should cut services or change their practices altogether," Lähteenmäki-Smith says.
The beginning of wisdom
In his time, President JK Paasikivi described the geography of post-World War II Europe as the recognition of facts at the beginning of all wisdom.
Jenni Airaksinen recommends that municipal leaders also look reality into the eyes of the square and admit that they cannot reverse global urbanization.
Jarkko HuovinenThe director of the Association of Finnish Municipalities for Vitality and Economy points out that there is no single tool for developing vitality.
All three experts highlight three capitals related to the future of small towns.
The first of these is the concept of smart contraction or smart adaptation. Instead of waiting for growth, municipalities should look for ways to secure their services despite the declining population. This is easier said than done, but Kaisa Lähteenmäki-Smith hopes that with this attitude, the municipalities will find ways to cooperate before moving to the merger to alleviate their problems.
"A municipality that loses population is not always a loser. If a municipality that is losing population is able to reform its operating models, it can be a pioneer. It can, alone or together with other municipalities, create solutions that have not yet been considered," he says.
Admitting the facts at least provides a healthier basis for looking to the future.
"When you invest, you know what kind of investment is worthwhile. If a new school is built, care must be taken to ensure that it can be a service house in the future," Airaksinen points out.
Even smart adaptation will not succeed if the municipal coffers are empty. According to Lähteenmäki-Smith, municipal strategies have placed more emphasis on traditional corporate policy, which helps companies with, for example, zoning.
She wants the voices of women and young people to be better heard in decision-making at the municipal level.
"When families make a decision about where and how to live, young women have a great say. Perhaps the future lies in human resources, where the importance of comfort and softer factors also emphasize" Lähteenmäki-Smith reflects.
According to Jenni Airaksinen, business activities could also be diversified by encouraging local residents to become entrepreneurs. In addition, she calls for young people to be involved in municipal affairs so that once they have acquired education elsewhere, they will bring new skills back to the development of their home community.
Jarkko Huovinen supports traditional corporate policy, such as supporting companies through zoning, recruitment and innovation. Yet he also sees the diversification of rooms. As examples, he cites well-established cultural and sports events across Finland, such as the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival, Skiing Events in Lahti, the Jyväskylä World Championships and the Sodankylä Midnight Sun Film Festival.
"The events generate tourism, but also support the marketing of the area as a potential place for new residents," Huovinen says.
The future of teleworking uncertain
Teleworking and the many locations that live and work in more than one apartment have received widespread attention, where possible, to address the problem of depopulation in smaller cities. But there is also a lot of uncertainty associated with these developments.
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The coronavirus pandemic increased teleworking and, according to the real estate industry, also increased the value of more spacious homes and sparsely populated areas. Still, last year the population decreased in 70 percent of Finnish municipalities. In addition, it can be seen how employers and employees view telework in the wake of the pandemic.
"I don’t think telework will bring any radical change in the population’s transition to urban areas, but at least there will be a collapse. At the same time, a new way of thinking has emerged about what people expect from their living environment and homes if teleworking increases," Jenni Airaksinen says.
Jarkko Huovinen believes that in some areas a countercurrent to urbanization may arise. Areas such as Finland’s eastern lake district, the southwestern archipelago and the ski resorts of northern Finland, all of which already have a large number of holiday homes, would be strong competitors in this development.
Huovinen points out that during a pandemic, many people have spent more time in their vacation homes, and in some cases, this can lead to a decision to make the change permanent.
"In areas with multiple holiday homes, the transition is easier and more likely than in areas where people would have to move directly to new permanent homes," he notes.
Jenni Airaksinen hopes that the candidates who are now looking for elections to local councils will show perseverance, honesty and creativity in dealing with the future of their municipalities, no matter what it looks like.
"While you have to be realistic, you have to give people hope, not illusions," he says.
Source: The Nordic Page