Urban versus Rural Areas: How Can Integration Work?

How is integration implemented in German communities? A recent study, titled “Two Worlds? Integration Policy in Urban versus Rural Areas”, examines local integration policies in close to 100 German municipalities. In the following, we present two examples: The extremely sparsely populated Ludwigslust-Parchim County and the town of Kaufbeuren, which has greater experience with immigration. Despite many differences, both communities have certain wishes in common, namely greater leeway for individual solutions and integration as a mandatory duty of the municipalities.

Alexandra Wolters | June 2020
Story Zwei Welten
Photos: Landkreis Ludwigslust-Parchim / Harald Langer

Communities choose their own individual approaches

While there are many differences in integration policy in German communities, these differences cannot be classified as urban versus rural. This is the finding of a study, titled “Two Worlds? Integration Policy in Urban versus Rural Areas”, carried out by the University of Hildesheim and supported by the Robert Bosch Stiftung. For the study, data was gathered from a total of 92 municipalities in twelve German states, including 23 autonomous towns, 24 counties, and 45 county towns. Among other things, the study shows that due to the 2015/16 immigration peak, many communities have adapted a broader and more strategic basis to deal with migration – while choosing their own individual approaches.

The two examples presented here, rural Ludwigslust-Parchim County and the autonomous town of Kaufbeuren, demonstrate that local prerequisites and conditions can be a vital reason for differences in integration policy. Consequently, the sparsely populated and at the same time very large Ludwigslust-Parchim County relies primarily on regional offerings and visits with a counselor. Kaufbeuren, a town with immigration experience, on the other hand, focuses on bringing all its citizens together in as many ways as possible.

Landstraße aus Kopfsteinpflaster

Landkreis Ludwigslust-Parchim

State: Mecklenburg-Vorpommern
Type of community: county
Inhabitants: 212,618 (as at Dec. 2018)
Share of non-German citizens: 5.5% (as at Dec. 2018)
Size: 4,752 square kilometers
Population density: 45 people per square kilometer
Travel time by car once across the county: just over two hours

As far as Germany goes, it doesn’t get any more rural. Ludwigslust-Parchim is one of the most sparsely populated counties in Germany and comprised of almost exclusively rural communities: Of the 145 communities in the county, many have only 100 or 200 inhabitants as well as very different, sometimes extremely small-scale structures. In addition, there are five small towns with between 5,000 and 20,000 people, and in between, lots of huge fields, meadows, and lakes. Ludwigslust-Parchim is the second largest county in Germany, measuring 118 kilometers east-west and 75 kilometers north-south.

One of the greatest challenges in the county is mobility. The distances between the individual communities and towns are long. There is a bus system that serves the most important routes in the county on a regular basis, as well as an on-call bus system that takes people to the next main route. But if people have to travel 40 kilometers to get to a language class, most will consider this too far. Due to the long distances and great dispersion, it is a major challenge in Ludwigslust-Parchim County to find easily accessible places for group integration offerings where a sufficient number of participants can meet.

The lion’s share of integration activities is managed by the county and run by full-time staff. “Many communities are so small that there is no possibility to establish a structure for full-time integration staff,” explains Heidrun Dräger, head of the department for equality, generations, and diversity in Ludwigslust-Parchim County. In recent years, a decentralized integration and participation network has been developed. An important element is the counseling service. “Everyone who comes to live here has a right to free counseling for two years. We fund this service from our county budget.” In order to reach migrants who live in different places across the county, there are seven full-time counselors in Ludwigslust-Parchim who visit households and families.

In addition, some larger places also offer their own local services, such as integration and language courses. “These are a huge challenge for us because the courses require a certain minimum number of participants to run. In our county, however, it’s often difficult to get the necessary number of people together in one location,” explains Heidrun Dräger.

Since most migrants hardly know anything about the county when they move there, integration activities start with an extensive introduction: How big is the county, where are the towns, which offers are available in the communities. “Migrants who come here do not move to the very small places, let’s be honest,” says Ms. Dräger. Most of these new inhabitants opt for the somewhat bigger towns, which have at least a day care center and a school. 

Another unique feature in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is the network of language course providers. “We have a collaboration agreement with fourteen different language schools, which are actually all competitors – and which we try to coordinate.” The network was created because although the county has numerous employers willing to pay for language training for their non-German-speaking staff, they are not able to organize classes due to a lack of offers in the vicinity. “So the county has offered to cluster the offer and demand. In other words, we try to establish where and when which employees can take part in a language course.” This way, the county regularly manages to get enough participants together who can then learn German close to where they live. “This works amazingly well, also in the longer term, and we are really proud of it.”

Firstly, the county will continue to support efforts to create sustainable structures in the local communities, such as the integration advisory boards, which represent the interests of non-German residents to the outside and also inform and support the community. There are already five integration advisory boards in the county. “If we can no longer maintain decentralized counseling in its current form because it requires too much small-scale effort, we want to divide the county into regions and offer counseling services through permanent contact points,” according to Ms. Dräger and her team. 

“This is exactly what we are championing at the state level – because we need individual solutions and greater leeway.” Heidrun Dräger would welcome it if federal and state governments passed on the bulk of integration activities to the counties and communities, provided the appropriate funding would be made available as well.

Heidrun Dräger
Foto Froehlich, Parchim

Heidrun Dräger, head of the department for equality, generations, and diversity: “If we can no longer maintain decentralized counseling in its current form because it requires too much small-scale effort, we want to divide the county into regions and offer counseling services through permanent contact points”.

Luftbild der Alstadt von Kaufbeuren
Harald Langer


State: Bavaria
Type of community: autonomous town
Inhabitants: 46,199 (as at Dec. 2019)
Share of non-German citizens: 16.14% (as at Dec. 2019)
Size: 40.02 square kilometers
Population density: 1,154 people per square kilometer
Travel time by car across the town: approx. 20 minutes

The autonomous town has extensive experience with immigration. After World War II, many ethnic Germans from what would become part of Czechoslovakia moved to Kaufbeuren, followed by guest workers in the 1950s and 1960s, and Russian-Germans in the 1990s after the opening of the USSR. Kaufbeuren also took in many refugees five years ago. Today, the town situated in the south of Germany has a population of over 46,000 people from more than 100 nations; 16 percent of all residents are non-German. “If you add the more than 5,000 ethnic Germans from the former USSR, who now have German citizenship, the share of residents with a migrant background stands at just under 30 percent,” says Alfred Riermeier. The head of the children and youth department of the town of Kaufbeuren likes to highlight this figure when promoting certain projects. The population of Kaufbeuren has been growing steadily in recent years, partly due to immigration. This means that the town’s structures and offerings must grow as well.

Towns with many migrants from different nations usually have a lot of integration activities as well. “We now have a wealth of experience when it comes to integration,” explains Alfred Riermeier. Even back when the ethnic Germans arrived from the former USSR, Kaufbeuren was not concerned with integrating and fitting them in as smoothly as possible. “Our goal was to live together with them – and to shape society.” In the late 1990s, the town created its Office for Integration. “This was our first step to pursuing in-depth integration activities, both in terms of structures and projects.”

In 2007, the town founded “Kaufbeuren-aktiv”, a coordination center that deals with the socially relevant issues of health, education, and promoting engagement. The main task of its five full-time staff is to support and implement relevant ideas from citizens. To this end, Kaufbeuren-aktiv coordinates and manages projects relating to youth, education, integration, democracy, tolerance, and Europe. 

“This holistic approach automatically includes the topic of integration,” explains Mr. Riermeier. “In a social space with many immigrants, almost every project is automatically also an integration project.” Nevertheless, Kaufbeuren does not leave integration to chance. On the contrary: “We have many small, well-functioning, value-adding networks that the town coordinates in the background to create a an overarching structure.” This allows the town to respond flexibly to changing needs.

“Our major focus is to foster encounters and relationships – for all citizens of Kaufbeuren,” explains Alfred Riermeier. This is why the town does not run specific integration projects, but projects targeted at all locals. These can be education, family, youth, or leisure projects that bring together people who are interested in the specific topic. 

Of course, Kaufbeuren also offers the usual language and counseling courses for migrants. But beyond that, the town focuses on spaces and events that allow residents to meet and build relationships, such as multi-generational homes, repair cafés, family support centers and the Diversity Festival, where the town brings together the offerings of individual organizations to host a multi-day event. 

“The town would like to make the existing structures such as Kaufbeuren-aktiv and its socio-political topics a permanent fixture.” This would help advance relevant topics such as democracy building and cohesion, according to Mr. Riermeier. To this end, Kaufbeuren is cooperating with Germany’s Federal Ministry for Migration and Refugees to plan a new cohesion project, “M³ – mitdenken, mitgestalten, mitmachen” to bring locals together to exchange ideas and get to know one another. The concept includes, for instance, training lay interpreters and hosting intercultural workshops.

“This suggestion could come from me,” comments Mr. Riermeier. He considers it a problem that all the tasks on the municipality level are always seen as voluntary. “That means integration activities may just not happen, depending on the priorities of local administrators and policymakers.” He believes it is important to make sustainable offers that suit the community in question – and to start integration activities quickly. “We shouldn’t wait until we know if someone is allowed to stay or not.”

Alfred Riermeier
Stadt Kaufbeuren

Alfred Riermeier, head of the children and youth department: “Our major focus is to foster encounters and relationships – for all citizens of Kaufbeuren”.