Those who have studied the history of the shrinking cities movement will know that many policy ideas emanated from the crisis that faced the former East Germany following reunification, as hundreds of thousands of people soon migrated to the prosperous cities of the West in search of a better life. The passage of time and the increasingly innovative ideas that are on display in American cities such as Youngstown, Ohio have naturally meant that the German cities no longer command quite the attention that they once did, even though many of them continue to experience large-scale population loss and all of its attendant problems.
Fortunately, the city planners, academics and other interested stakeholders in these cities have apparently picked up the baton from the trailblazers that preceded them. They are once again demonstrating the kind of radical thinking that may yet succeed in changing the fortunes of such places, devising cutting-edge policies that are designed to turn adversity into opportunity. Among a host of initiatives in the city of Dessau-Rosslau, reported upon in Rainer Müller’s article for Der Spiegel (http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,688152,00.html), perhaps the most eye-catching is that of ‘city islands’. According to Heike Brückner, one of the city planners behind the concept, “buildings will be cut out and in the empty spaces we will insert countryside.”
At first glance, this may not seem like such a novel idea; post-industrial American cities such as Cleveland certainly have their fair share of de facto city islands. But therein lies the difference. In American cities, as well as those facing similar problems in my home country of Britain, we still tend to allow our cities to arrive in such a state by accident rather than by design. The economic growth imperative means that it is nearly always politically unfeasible to admit the population that had been lost cannot one day be recovered, so we uncover every stone in search of a financing mechanism that will enable us to attempt another risky infill regeneration project.
In German cities, or at least in Dessau-Rosslau, the acceptance of the permanence of the shrunken city has allowed the policy-makers to create a bold vision for the future. The means of achieving it may not to be everyone’s liking – the approach to demolitions sounds unusually aggressive, for starters – and there is no denying the report’s assertion that the German vision is ‘not exactly sexy’. However, there is also no denying that the German vision is a good deal more realistic than the rose-tinted versions that continue to prevail elsewhere. German cities may no longer command the attention that they once did among those who concern themselves with the fortunes of shrinking cities, but that does not mean that we should cease to look to them for inspiration. Dessau-Rosslau is admittedly an extreme case, having lost a third of its population in the last two decades, but other city-leaders might do well to consider if they could benefit their citizens by giving up the search for silver bullets and focusing on finding silver linings instead.