Today, the perception and role of the countryside is characterised by a particular duality. On the one hand, urbanisation and industrialisation have accelerated the depopulation of already less densely populated peripheral as well as the ageing of their population. On the other hand, the recent crises and the coronavirus pandemic have highlighted that without the countryside, a strong, developing and resilient national economy and, ultimately, national sovereignty are unthinkable.


Hungary’s population trends over the past decade show that natural decrease is, to varying degrees, prevalent throughout the country, while the more developed and industrialised parts of the country have experienced population growth as a result of internal migration. However, migration from less developed regions is not only due to economic or labour market reasons. It has also been driven by harder access to services, poorer infrastructure and the draining effect of big cities, but also by feelings about the place where people live and their way of life, such as satisfaction with their situation in life and how happy they feel.

A new rural development paradigm is needed

Rural depopulation is a pan-European, even global problem, not limited to underdeveloped or developing countries, but also affecting developed and industrialised countries. We face its results every day. Labour shortages, economic crisis, ageing population—to name but a few of the problems.

Global climate change, fundamental changes in the functioning and structure of the economy, and the social dynamics they induce have accelerated this process in recent decades. Recognising the threat, more and more governments and economic or political alliances are making rural revitalisation a flagship issue. However, experience over the last decades shows that the strategies pursued so far are not sufficient to stop the process.

The OECD has developed a mechanism, Rural Policy 3.0, to help national governments in the process of rural development.

Until now, the main aim of rural development has been to achieve territorial equalisation and competitiveness, i.e. to catch up. In the future, economic, social and ecological prosperity based on local assets should be pursued. What does it mean? A livable and healthy place to live, with easy access to quality jobs, services and a social safety net.

To achieve this, it is not enough to focus on a single dominant sector, but to exploit and enhance the opportunities offered by the region. The importance of diversification was a key survival strategy for traditional peasant communities. This wisdom can and should be applied to future spatial planning.

The tools for development are well-prepared integrated rural development plans, which determine the level, objectives and timing of support, taking into account all the viability factors. It is important that the investments made are not just economic, but also pay off in terms of social and individual welfare.

The commonly held view has been that “rural is not urban”. But this thinking is a serious limit to progress and growth. The new paradigm aims to create a fabric of cities and their surrounding countryside, in which each unit has its own role and importance, and cities and their countryside are inseparable and help each other to develop. The most important areas for intervention are therefore the medium sized towns that have been undeservedly neglected so far and their surroundings.

Medium-sized towns are central to rural development

Why are medium-sized towns important? Medium-sized towns with between 10,000 and 100,000 inhabitants are important for rural development because of their role as mediators between urban and rural space, their natural resources and their human-scale ecosystems.

By strengthening their public functions, medium-sized towns can contribute to the accessibility of their surroundings to public services. The seat towns of the Hungarian district system, which has already proven its administrative role, could be suitable to become the centres of an integrated rural development programme. The selection criteria for the district centres, i.e. the distance between the district seat and the furthest settlement not exceeding 30 km, play an important role in this. In addition, district seats have become a platform for multi-level governance reaching out to citizens over the past decade.

Middle-sized towns, as regional centres, need to be developed to ensure that they are able to provide connectivity to the countryside around them, thus creating short supply chains and a circular economy. The resulting urban system is much more resilient to negative natural and economic changes. This requires the development of smart mobility solutions and the extension of rural digitisation. The future role of medium-sized towns is also to bring together the social and technological innovation capabilities of their region. Regional and national resilience will be enhanced by diversifying regional energy supply and creating energy cooperatives based on renewable energy sources.

In developing and implementing the new rural development paradigm, international good practices that have been implemented (or failed) provide useful examples. We look at some of these in the rest of this article.

The Rural Development Division of Századvég Konjunktúrakutató is committed to the study, dissemination and promotion of the new rural development paradigm. To this end, we carry out national and international desk research and empirical studies, identify good practices and disseminate the results to our partners.

The analysis summarises the main findings of a presentation at the Rural Conference organised by Századvég Konjunktúrakutató.