In any case, Carsten and Nina Meier-Hahasvili noticed this immediately when they spent a few weeks in the country at the beginning of the Corona lockdown in spring. Together with their two-year-old son, they swapped their lives in the 100 square meter apartment in Berlin-Friedrichshain for a house belonging to Carsten’s family in the Main-Taunus district.
“You have a clearer head when you don’t have to constantly watch out that the little one runs in front of the car or someone complains about the stroller in the subway,” says Carsten Meier.
Half a year later, the family is walking across the cobblestones of Altena, a small town with 17,000 inhabitants in South Westphalia, a good 180 kilometers away from Carsten’s parents’ house. Together with around 30 other interested parties, they came to get a taste of the country air – in the truest sense of the word: if you want, you can live and work in Altena for six months in the coming year.
It is a kind of country life on trial for all those who want to get out of the big city but don’t really know where to go and are not sure whether this is just a short-term wish or a long-term goal.
Keeping your distance, working from home and staying calm may all be easier in the country than in the city. The longing for the province has grown not only among the Meiers.
At least three factors are currently driving people out of the metropolises. On the one hand, there is the development on the real estate market, which is making an apartment or even a house unaffordable for many. On the other hand, there is the increasing narrowness and the restrictions during the corona pandemic, which tarnish the comforts of city life. And last but not least, there is the forced digitization push and cultural change in many companies, which has raised the home office to the new normal within a very short time.
Getting to know each other in the corona pandemic
A good 30 people want to find out whether small-town life in Altena is an option for them.
(Photo: Arne Piepke)
Even before the pandemic, more people were moving from major German cities to the surrounding area than the other way around. A new phase of “suburbanization” has begun, as the Federal Institute for Population Research puts it. The metropolises continue to grow, but only because of the influx of young people and migrants.
The remaining groups are increasingly drawn to the countryside. This effect can also be observed in international metropolises. New York, for example, has been losing residents for years. With the outbreak of the pandemic, numerous real estate companies reported that more and more people were moving to the suburbs.
So far, the decision whether to live in the city or in the country has been an uncompromising either / or question. Either short distances, hip trendy cafés and collaboration in the co-working space – or lots of space and closeness to nature, but no access to pulsating life. What the city has to offer cannot be taken into the country and vice versa. Or does it?
The Friedrichshain of the province
Frederik Fischer does not want to accept this dualism. The 39-year-old serial founder from Berlin has thought of a new form that will combine the advantages of urban and rural life. He’s just building his own village. More precisely two: one is being built in Wiesenburg, located in Fläming between Leipzig and Berlin; the other in the Westphalian town of Erndtebrück. In the so-called KoDörfern, the alternative to cow villages, settlements with residential and guest houses, community gardens, farm shops, co-working spaces, studios, cafes and playgrounds are to be created. A co-operative neighborhood in the middle of the country.
The Meier-Hahasvili family is also interested in this new form of living. The KoDörfer will be ready for occupancy in two years at the earliest. In order to bridge the gap – and also develop a business model in urban development – Fischer has come up with something new: the “Summer of Pioneers”. Small towns struggling with vacancies should become experimental fields for digital workers who are tired of big cities for six months. And that’s what brings the Meier-Hahasvili family to Altena on this Saturday afternoon at the beginning of October.
Admittedly, it doesn’t seem really inviting here at first glance. Dark clouds hang over the place that once housed 32,000 residents and has now shrunk by half. An empty kebab shop awaits those arriving at the train station, while empty shops and closed shops and cafes are lined up in the pedestrian zone.
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One can find that dreary. Or you see it pragmatically as an opportunity, like Frederik Fischer. “A lot can be made of it.” He came by train from Berlin, and it’s his third visit to the small town. And yet he guides the curious crowd, who accepted his invitation, like a long-time city guide through the town.
He stops in front of an empty shop and points to the shop window. One of the co-working spaces is to be created here. “We can put a long table in here or set up several small rooms. We can design everything as we want. “
A colorful mix of interested parties has gathered around him: from the agency founder to the communication trainer to high school graduates. Some, like the Meiers, came from Berlin, others grew up in the region and are considering taking a step back, and still others come from other large cities in North Rhine-Westphalia, such as Dortmund, 40 kilometers away.
On this introductory tour you will hear the full load of location advertising. The mayor praises cheap real estate and neighborly togetherness. The city treasurer raves about an old industrial ruin, for whose redesign new ideas are being sought.
And representatives of regional marketing have come to present the most beautiful corners of the small town: including, of course, the medieval castle that towers on the hillside above the town. And actually the sky tears open in the course of the afternoon and the rays of the sun, which make their way through the cloud cover, make the town appear much friendlier.
Hygge dream in Wendland
And yet: Most people have something else in mind when they dream of country life à la “Landlust” and “Hygge”. A half-timbered house made of red brick in the middle of the green. Fruit trees are in bloom in the garden, and the fire crackles in the fireplace in the living room.
Anne and Jan Bathel have fulfilled this dream of an old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. The digital entrepreneurs have renovated a 150-year-old farmhouse in southern Wendland over the past two years. If you scroll through the world of images of the two on Instagram, you will already see yourself sitting at the campfire with freshly baked cinnamon rolls in your hand and a feeling of comfort in your stomach.
There is only one problem: the poor internet and cell phone connection in the village with 185 people. To make calls, Anne Kjær Bathel occasionally had to position herself outside under a large oak tree, as the reception was only good there.
Born in Denmark, she founded the ReDi School of Digital Integration in 2015, where she offers programming courses for refugees and brings them together with companies. “In the start-up world we always talk about getting faster and thinking bigger,” she says.
“But there is also a need for slowing down and depth.” In order to strike the right balance, the couple commutes back and forth between Berlin and the Wendland: Tuesday to Thursday appointments in the capital and then back to the farmhouse. Since the corona pandemic, however, they have spent most of their time in Wendland.
For a study, Susanne Dähner from the Berlin Institute for Population and Development conducted interviews with urban refugees trying out new forms of living and working in the countryside. Accordingly, creative, digitally savvy people, for whom sustainability and freedom to design are important, are drawn to the countryside.
Since the dream of owning their own farmhouse is not affordable for most of them, they join forces in cooperatives and renovate old manors, monasteries or former factory buildings. “These are people who are looking for like-minded people who come to the country with similar ideas and experiences,” says Dähner.
So far, however, regions that are connected to the fast internet and are relatively well connected have benefited from the influx of the digitally-savvy metropolitan area. That is why a large part of these innovative residential projects can be found in Brandenburg. For most, commuting distance to the capital is still important. Will the trend towards urban evacuation continue due to the increasing acceptance of home work? Unclear, says Dähner: “To permanently relocate is a long-term decision. You don’t meet them overnight. “
That is how Carsten and Nina Meier-Hahasvili see it. The ten-strong team of the founding couple is based in Berlin, the city is their center of life. Even if you decide to do a test summer in Altena: You want to keep the apartment in Friedrichshain for now.
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