Initial Situation

Progress without growth

Since German reunification, many cities and regions in eastern Germany have experienced radical demographic and structural changes. These transpired more rapidly than comparable developments in western Germany and had consequences that are more pervasive. Many cities in Saxony-Anhalt and further afield are characterised by empty housing, superfluous infrastructures and obsolete trading estates. Since its initiation eight years ago, the IBA Urban Redevelopment 2010 has engaged with the phenomenon and futures of these shrinking cities.


The housing situation in the towns and cities of the former GDR shortly after German reunification is paradoxical: On the one hand, by 1989, some 300,000 housing units are already empty and whole streets are abandoned and unoccupied. At the same time, housing of an acceptable standard in the city centres is in short supply. For far too long, too little has been invested in the necessary modernisation measures and in the maintenance of buildings and infrastructure. Many of the municipalities in eastern Germany are therefore faced with ailing city centres, which no longer meet the requirements of the modern age. From 1990, in order to improve the housing situation, the state pours investment into the construction of new housing and the renovation of old buildings.

The people, however, are increasingly drawn to the suburbs. House ownership is for many a dream that is now, after the collapse of the socialist era and its restrictions, finally within reach. More and more citizens move out of the centres and build – again assisted by public subsidies – in the environs and suburbs of the cities. In contrast to the inner cities, where policy prioritises the rights of the original owners (restitution rather than  innovation), the ownership issues here are relatively unproblematic and the building plots are affordable. This spatial shift further depopulates the cities. In the early decades after reunification, the growth of suburbanisation has a far more drastic effect than migration to the West.

Private investments consolidate this development. In a departure from the pattern in western Germany, two thirds of the new shopping centres built after 1990 are built outside the cities, rather than in the centres. Countless trading estates and shopping malls spring up, and both the population and the supply infrastructure increasingly shift to the environs and suburbs of the cities. The vacancy rate in the inner cities grows, however, and has an impact on the state-funded construction of new buildings and the now renovated old buildings in the centres. By 2000, over a million housing units in eastern Germany are unoccupied.

In order to stabilise the housing market, the political focus begins to shift in 2001 with the Urban Development East programme initiated by the federal government. In an unprecedented move, funding is allocated for demolition measures geared to combating the vacancy rate in the cities. The preparation of urban development concepts by the municipalities aimed at taking stock of the local contexts targets the creation of medium-term perspectives for the demographic and economic development of the cities. In the following years, 350,000 housing units are demolished, primarily in the prefabricated apartment blocks in the suburbs. The aim is to draw their inhabitants into the inner cities. Meanwhile, the population decline in the centres continues. The integration of the East German economy in the global market that heralded the comprehensive collapse of the GDR’s industrial structures triggers progressive deindustrialisation in the 1990s. This leads to a massive loss of jobs and high long-term unemployment. Wages drop in real terms and the newly built housing in the inner cities is far too expensive to compete effectively with the cheaper prefabricated apartment blocks.

Despite the demolition measures implemented up to this point, continued population decline means that many cities still have a vacancy rate of up to 20 per cent. Young people looking for work leave for the larger centres and for the old West German states. Saxony-Anhalt therefore loses the founders of the next generation. The subsequent drop in the birth rate will in future continue to affect the housing market and add to the vacancy rate. In 2009, the national-federal state Urban Development East programme is extended, with plans to demolish another 200,000 housing units by 2016.

As a rather sparsely populated federal state without major urban agglomeration areas, Saxony-Anhalt is hit especially hard by the population decline triggered by suburbanisation, deindustrialisation and demographic change. While some cities in the new federal states have managed to consolidate themselves and have by now stabilised their populations, population decline in the cities here will continue over the medium and long term. With the IBA Urban Redevelopment 2010, Saxony-Anhalt therefore faced up to a taboo subject which has barely been explored in the public debate: What is the way forward in cities where growth and population growth cannot be expected in the longer term? How can perspectives be developed and structures generated in shrinking cities so that their future is assured? A laboratory for experimental design has by now developed into a model region, the importance of which extends beyond the national boundaries. The outcome of the IBA Urban Redevelopment 2010 will not end the decline, but it will turn it into something positive with the aid of customised strategies for action and small, streamlined structures: “Less is Future”.