‘Forgotten towns’ searching for a new identity

Property values are dropping and residents are having second thoughts about life in between

Towns like Holsted, Ølgod and Egtved at one time had their own city halls, councils and identities. But after a 2007 municipal realignment centralised services and governments in larger towns, many of the medium-sized municipalities that are no longer municipal capitals are finding themselves uncertain of their identity. Too big to be thought of as cosy villages and too small to have the appeal of a big city, these ‘middle towns’ have, in fact, become the middle of nowhere.

“A town like Glamsbjerg on Funen has over three thousand residents,” Steffen Damsgaard from Landdistrikternes Fællesråd, a rural advocacy group, told Jyllands-Posten newspaper. “They are too big to have the ‘everyone knows everyone else’ vibe of a small town and too small to be able to offer the services of a bigger city.”

Damsgaard said that families are moving away from middle-sized towns in both directions – some to the tranquillity of small villages and others to the services and opportunities offered in the big city. The towns between the two extremes are feeling the squeeze as property values drop and families flee.

“My wife and I thought about buying a house in Glamsbjerg,” said Søren Hjeltoft, a 37-year-old teacher at Vestfyns Gymnasium and the father of two small children. “But we were afraid we would not be able to resell it, so we decided to buy in Odense instead.”

Bent Schmidt, the head of Glamsbjerg’s residents’ association, said that Hjeltoft’s young family is a textbook example of who is taking flight away from the town.

“The town is changing,” Schmidt told Jyllands-Posten. “We have fewer residents in their thirties and more and more in their fifties.”

Schmidt said that the greying of the town makes it hard to offer daycare and the kinds of education and services that would encourage families with children to move in.

Faxe Council in southern Zealand is a classic example of what happened during the 2007 reorganisation that reduced the number of local councils from 271 to 98. Faxe was created when the former Faxe, Haslev and Rønnede councils were combined.

In the new council’s first year, the focus was mostly on the area’s two largest towns: Faxe and Haslev, while Rønnede and other towns faded into the background. With the creation of the new council, municpal offices were centralised in the town of Haslev, while other towns lost things their city halls and libraries.

The council has recently launched a series of initiatives designed to attract businesses and new residents to the entire area.

"Our goal is to create a sense of co-operation and growth in the entire council, not just the larger towns,” said Suzanne Wittrock, a Faxe Council spokesperson. “We are developing a new business park in Rønnede and a long list of acitivities in our more rural areas.”

In an effort to help these towns forge new identities, Landdistrikternes Fællesråd has launched a pilot project with the Ministry of Housing, Urban and Rural Affairs in six towns in Region Syddannmark.

The aim of the project is to encourage the towns to share ideas and co-operate on ways that they could promote themselves in a more positive light.

“The aim is to create cohesion and a fresh perspective,” Kirsten Bruun, from Landdistrikternes Fællesråd, told DR News.

The six cities involved in the pilot project are Gram, Holsted, Ølgod, Egtved, Glamsbjerg and Ørbæk.

If the pilot programme yields positive results, the lessons learned will be applied in other cities around the country that find themselves in similar situation.