Urban Lure Thins Rural Greek Villages

Associated Press Writer

The houses and the church are in ruins. The narrow streets are silent. Everyone is gone.

"Aghios Pavlos is totally deserted and the buildings have collapsed," said Eftyhis Sfakianakis, the former community president in this forsaken region of southwestern Crete.

Greece's 2001 census listed two residents for Aghios Pavlos, but they have since died, he said.

The same fate may someday befall the nearby village of Voutas, which has five children among its 61 residents. The nearest school is a 20-minute drive. Bus service has ended.

The villages in this part of Greece's biggest island are falling victim to the lure of urban living, as are many rural areas throughout the world.

According to the World Bank, in 1999, as much as 60% of Greece's population -- or 6.3 million people -- lived in urban areas, a slight increase from 1980.

The rate is still far less than in most European countries. In the Netherlands, 89% of the people lived in urban areas in 1999, trailed closely by Denmark at 85% and Germany at 87%.

"The issue of rural depopulation is a serious one in all of the countries of Western Europe and the U.S.," said Richard Taub, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago. He said the issue is mainly economic opportunity: Jobs are in cities, and people would rather work in an office than in agriculture. Moreover, rural areas don't have access to quality medical care.

According to the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau, only 14% of the world's people lived in urban areas in 1900. Half a century later, 30% did, and by the end of the century, urban areas held a record 47%, or 2.8 billion people.

"People had hopes that the rise of computer-based communications systems would allow rural people to work at home. So far, that has not happened in any important way," Taub said.

Many European governments are trying to find ways to entice people to stay in rural areas. But urbanization is not the only threat to life in rural Greece. Efforts to revive villages are hampered by the rapid aging of the population, which is due to a birth rate at a 20-year low and increases in life expectancy.

"The future for rural Greece is very dark because most of them living there are elderly people and sooner than later, they will die," Sfakianakis said.

According to Greece's 2001 census, the population stood at 10,964,000 people. That was a 6.9% increase from 1991, but the figures showed that the increase came from an influx of about a million immigrants rather than natural population growth. The latest figures from the European Union and Greek state agencies say Greece has the lowest birth rate in the EU and the highest proportion of elderly people.

The EU's statistical service says the 65-79 age group makes up 12.3% of Greece's population, compared to an EU average of 11.7%. But the number of Greeks younger than 14 has decreased steadily since the mid-1950s to 15.2% in the 2001 census.

Moreover, foreigners now account for 70% of the births that do occur in Greece.

Although no part of Greece has escaped the decline in the birth rate, the mainland suffered the most, reporting a 41% decline between 1980 and 1998. Other areas with big drops included the islands of the northern Aegean and the area around Athens, the capital.

This trend is not limited to Greece. It can be seen in varying degrees throughout the industrialized world. According to studies, population growth from births has stopped in many industrialized countries, with the preponderance of births coming in the less developed countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

A report last year by the Population Reference Bureau said of the 83 million people added to world's population yearly by the difference between births and deaths, only 1 million are in industrialized countries.

"Many of the economically developed countries can no longer reproduce themselves and are turning to immigration in order to provide a young working population," Taub said.

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