When exultant crowds sledgehammered the Berlin Wall in 1989, the historic moment was a turning point for a divided city and nation, touching off a decades-long urban reinvention that healed the wounds of war while creating one of the world’s most dynamic capital cities. But reunification had its downside—a catastrophe across the former East Germany, where plummeting populations, high unemployment, and rampant disinvestment have brought scores of small and mid-size cities to the brink of ruin. As shops, industries, housing estates, and whole urban quadrants vanish seemingly overnight, the once-resurgent German nation has become a laboratory for the fate of shrinking cities.
For the past eight years, 19 of those cities in the East German state of Saxony-Anhalt have been the subject of the 2010 International Building Exhibition, the latest iteration of Germany’s visionary program, known as IBA, that has anchored innovative architecture and urban thinking in Berlin and beyond. But IBA 2010 is different. Unlike exhibitions of years past—including the 1987 effort that built new housing in West Berlin by an all-star cast of architects, and the earlier Interbau exhibition in 1957 that raised apartment blocks by the likes of Walter Gropius, Alvar Aalto, and Oscar Niemeyer—this was the IBA of unbuilding.
Against a backdrop of dwindling government budgets and a continuing exodus of residents—Saxony-Anhalt’s 2040 population is projected to be half what it was in 1950—the current exhibition set out to prove that it is possible to be smaller and be better. To that end, IBA 2010 has developed a range of pilot schemes for urban innovation, positing that public spaces, social services, and even economic opportunities can all improve despite the region’s demographic death-spiral.
The Bauhaus Dessau Foundation, which staged IBA 2010 with the state development company SALEG, recently invited a group of journalists to seven IBA cities to survey the results. A first impression offers a portrait of urban resilience made possible by an emerging toolkit of tactics—new kinds of ecological infrastructure, small-scale urban interventions, targeted demolition, and citizen-activism—coupled with economic development strategies like tourism, education, and high-tech incubators. In Magdeburg, for instance, a revitalized riverfront is the core of a new urban identity, with an old port reinvented as a science center and other brownfield sites returned to nature. The city of Köthen tapped its heritage as the birthplace of homeopathic medicine, building a new European library for homeopathy and exploring how alternative medical principles might even heal the urban landscape. And Aschersleben has reconcentrated development from the suburbs to the city core, building a new education center and freshening up a once-grimy central thoroughfare with a “drive-thru art gallery” of vibrant installations in vacant lots.
Of the many shrinkage strategies, perhaps the most inspired can be found in Dessau-Rosslau, home to the famed Bauhaus and seat of modernist innovation. Enjoying full employment and a thriving industrial sector prior to reunification, after 1990 Dessau’s job base essentially vanished thanks to competition from the West and the state’s own failed privatization policies. Young, skilled workers bolted, leaving the city with a mortality rate twice as high as its birth rate and a population drop of 25 percent.
The town worked with the Bauhaus on redevelopment efforts, targeting a ribbon of landscape where derelict housing, factories, and infrastructure could be razed to create a contiguous swath of public space in the city center that links different “islands” of urban density. This large-scale landscape zone has been acquired by a variety of means, including negotiations with creditor banks for foreclosed properties and land swaps with owners for parcels in redeveloped areas. The project’s optimistic emblem is a series of 400-square-meter “claims” adopted by individual citizens throughout the new green zone. To date 19 claims have been awarded with 10-year leases, resulting in new public-oriented uses such as an apothecary garden, a multicultural meeting ground, and a BMX bike course. A new path known as the “red thread” weaves through the landscape of low-maintenance wildflower meadows, connecting the claims and the archipelago of smaller, stable urban districts.
IBA 2010’s reinvention of Saxony-Anhalt offers several instructive lessons. Even for a budget-conscious IBA without grand building programs, these efforts required a hefty capital investment: More than 200 million euros from various sources were spent on current IBA initiatives. But that sum is dwarfed by a pot of nearly 2 billion euros from European Union structural funds that have supported programs in all 19 IBA cities over the last decade, plus an ongoing infusion of another billion from European Regional Development Funds that target economic, ecological, and social challenges in urban areas. While Detroit’s urban homesteaders on the inner-city prairie are a good start, it is clear that America’s shrinking cities will need much more federal, state, and local funding to get innovative urban thinking off the ground.
Beyond financial backing, shrinking cities require an equally crucial investment of political capital. For many IBA city mayors, embracing shrinkage was a non-starter. “At first, it was politically almost fatal for any decision-makers to stand up in front of citizens and say: We have a problem. We are shrinking,” said Sonja Beeck, project director for IBA 2010. But in the end, the project’s mounting successes eventually got the region’s stakeholders to adopt the “grow by shrinking” message. That support was made possible by what is perhaps this IBA’s most powerful tool: not urban design or green buildings, but an immersive process of storytelling through stakeholder workgroups, forums, “city stroll” events, and the torturous negotiations that are essential for both public and political buy-in.
Finally, this IBA argues for a trend we’ve seen in postindustrial places everywhere: the key role of landscape architects working at the head of multidisciplinary teams shaping the 21st-century city. While the program’s limited budget and time-frame made a virtue of modest interventions, IBA cities show what’s possible when holistic ecological thinking ties together biodiversity, shared social spaces, and new urban freedoms. Shrinkage is by nature a dynamic process. As these pilot schemes play out over the coming years on one of the richest canvases imaginable—a backdrop of industrial monuments and world-renowned historic fabric—IBA 2010’s open-ended approach to urban reinvention offers a courageous, even uncharted path toward the city of the future.