Rural regional learning in ‘Upper Lusatia’ (Oberlausitz), Germany

Following my visit to Alytus County, Lithuania in October, I travelled to Leipzig, Germany to visit our DERREG project partners Michael Kriszan, Robert Nadler and Joachim Burdack (Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography) in their case study area ’Upper Lusatia’. In this blog, Michael, Robert, Joachim and I would like to share some of our experiences.

We first discovered that the case study regions Westerkwartier and Upper Lusatia are very different in their geographical and demographical characteristics. The LEADER region Westerkwartier in Groningen province comprises four municipalities on an area of 374km² and has a population density of 173.4 inhabitants/km² (as of 2007). In 2006, its GDP per capita was estimated at 55,400 Euro and the area has recently witnessed a population increase due to its popularity amongst young families who work in the city of Groningen and value the countryside as their residential area. The Southern part of the Westerkwartier is thus characterized by a high population density and a number of conflicting interests regarding the use of the countryside while the North of the Westerkwartier is primarily used for agriculture.

Upper Lusatia consists of the two Saxon districts Landkreis Görlitz and Landkreis Bautzen that have only been established in 2008 in the process of a reform of the administration units in Saxony. The case study region has an area of about 4,500 km² and has a population density of 135 inhabitants/km². It comprises 122 municipalities- of which 30 are urban centers- and had a GDP per capita of 18,329 Euro (district Görlitz) respectively 19,396 (district Bautzen) in the year 2007 . The region is divided into ten rural development areas, six ILE regions and four LEADER regions. In contrast to the Westerkwartier, the population of Upper Lusatia is shrinking rapidly. Young inhabitants are leaving the area due to a lack of employment opportunities, leaving the elder people behind. Rural development in this region is therefore not only affected by an aging population but also by a shrinking human capital available for development purposes. Through the reform of administrative units altogether four previously distinct districts (Landkreise) and two cities (kreisfreie Städte) have been incorporated into the two “new” districts of Görlitz and Bautzen. The previous Landkreise, however, are very distinct in their physical appearance. The former district Niederschlesien-Oberlausitz for example is characterized by a low population density and shaped through past and present coal mining activities while the hilly district Löbau-Zittau is recognized as a touristic area and winter sport resort. Due to the lack of a common history and the physical distinctiveness, there is no regional identity of the population within both districts.

To evaluate the support and facilitation available for learning and innovation within local grassroots development initiatives in Upper Lusatia, Robert, Michael and Joachim organized a workshop for regional stakeholders.

Workshop in Upper Lusatia, Germany

During this workshop, we presented some of the grassroots development initiatives active in the Westerkwartier and outlined well-running arrangements for support and facilitation in the Westerkwartier The subsequent discussion with regional stakeholders revealed two major points regarding differences in the support and facilitation of learning and innovation amongst grassroots development initiatives in the Westerkwartier and Upper Lusatia:

1) The different grassroots development initiatives present in the Westerkwartier are, according to the regional stakeholders, better integrated into a regional development community than in Upper Lusatia. Possible reasons for this difference have been argued to be the lack of human capital due to ageing and a shrinking population but also the lack of feeling of identity of the citizens with the recently established districts. Compared to the Westerkwartier, Upper Lusatia is much larger and the lower density of development initiatives refers to the lower population density. In Upper Lusatia, the single development initiatives are often located in large distant to each other so that a regular exchange between them is difficult.

2) A further differences was noted between the scale at which public administration is able to interact with grassroots development initiators. In the Westerkwartier, the Countryside House provides a single, low-level access point to different support levels of administration. This facilitates a close contact between public administration and the citizens of the Westerkwartier, enabling the citizens to receive easy information and support regarding information and subsidies while providing public administration with the opportunity to realize policy objectives in cooperation with the local population. In Upper Lusatia, initiators can approach the regional management teams of the LEADER/ILE programmes. These are often located in great spatial distance to the rural initiators making it difficult for them to locate and approach them.

Interestingly, however, regardless of the scale at which contact with public administration is facilitated, stakeholders in the Westerkwartier and in Upper Lusatia are both raising concern regarding the bureaucratic procedures for initiators to receive support and facilitation from public administration. In both case study areas it was therefore remarked that the bureaucratic procedures, rules and preconditions demanded from initiators by public administration would cause many initiators to dismiss their development plans before commencing their realization.

Similarities were also found in the informal (sometimes even coincidental) ways in which the knowledge infrastructure gets involved in regional research questions in the Westerkwartier and Upper Lusatia. In both cases, contact between regional stakeholders and knowledge facilities is often established through specific persons which have a well-functioning (often informal) network within the region and knowledge facilities. This also means that in both cases the involvement of knowledge facilities in regional learning and innovation depends on the presence of these “informal knowledge brokers”. In contrast to the formalized arrangements between the regions and public administration, arrangements between knowledge facilities and the regions are therefore highly vulnerable since they will likely terminate if the relevant persons leaves the area.

The support and facilitation for rural regional learning and innovation amongst grassroots development initiatives is further investigated in Comarca de Verin (Spain), County Roscommon (Ireland) and Saarland (Germany). Check the weblog for future comparative reports between the case study areas! For more information on the presented information you can contact, (Westerkwartier), or (Upper Lusatia).