Volunteers Wanted: Locals Help Save Germany's Shrinking Towns

"Civic engagement is a fundamental issue," says Hans Jörg Rothen, a project manager at the Bertelsmann Stiftung, a nonprofit think tank advocating social change. "It's important to involve citizens and to include them in the decision-making process."

As part of an ongoing project, the Bertelsmann Stiftung recently compiled a report on expected demographic trends between 2009 and 2030 in municipalities with over 5,000 residents. In addition to publishing the data online, the foundation's Web portal, called "Municipal Guide" (Wegweiser Kommune), provides local authorities with concrete ideas for dealing with rapidly declining and aging populations.

Time as Currency The small town of Eggesin lies some 700 kilometers (435 miles) northeast of Altena, in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. The community has lost about half its population over the past few decades. Those remaining are mostly elderly -- the average age is 54 -- and face difficult economic prospects.

With money tight, it has implemented an innovative, grassroots initiative that focuses on using time as an alternative form of currency. Those who have the time but little cash to spare offer services such as babysitting, assisting elderly neighbors with repairs or minor construction, or teaching computer classes. In exchange, volunteers receive help from other residents, whether it's with gardening or a ride to the supermarket.

Nevertheless, many towns in Germany may need more help than their citizens can provide. "The further a small town is removed from a city, the faster it will shrink," says Manuel Slupina, a researcher at the Berlin Institute for Population and Development. "One of the reasons is that young people want to study and have to move to a big city. And then they want a job that fits their qualifications." According to Slupina, even with stable birthrates and an estimated 100,000 immigrants every year, Germany will still lose 17 million residents by 2060. "Civic engagement can only partially close the gap," he says.

When it comes to Altena, no one knows whether the combined efforts of its residents will be enough to keep younger generations from leaving. Sixteen-year-old Lea Burgardt has her doubts. As a 10th-grade student in Altena, she has volunteered to teach seniors classes on how to use mobile phones. And though she says she enjoys helping out in her community, she still plans to move away after graduation. "I never thought Altena was that great," Burgardt says. "I mean, it's tolerable."

Other residents, however, are cautiously optimistic. Renate Schwager, 60, a retired sales assistant, has mostly lived in the outskirts of town since 1973. She now shops at a volunteer-run local store that also functions as a community center. And when Schwager bought a new touch-screen mobile phone, volunteers from the local high school helped her figure out the new technology. "I do think that some things are changing," she says.

Back in the central part of town, a brand-new wheelchair-accessible boardwalk hugs the banks of the Lenne River. Neat clusters of bushes defy the winter chill, carefully tended by Altena's volunteers as part of an "adopt a plant" initiative. Not far from the town's volunteer-run art gallery, the retiree Hins points at cheerful patches of yellow wool festooned across a concrete bridge. "Our knitting group made these," he says.

As to whether Altena's volunteers will be able to revive the town's flagging center: "The prognosis is still bad," Hins says. "But it's not as terrible as it used to be."

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