Shrinking Cities, Empty Landscapes

The East German Experience

Part 1

If you take a look on any statistical dates and figures, mapping districts in Germany for their economic power, peoples income, quote of joblessness, losses or wins by migration movement or many other items, and if you mark the results in colors, you’ll suddenly find an old, well known phenomenon: the former border between GDR and West Germany. Only Berlin, the new capital, and its surrounding areas – the so-called bacon belt – will sometimes show an exception. Several data items – such as joblessness, poverty or population losses – show little islands also in Western parts: in the Ruhr region, or in the Saarland, near to the French border. One could believe, that here two different countries are portrayed – not a federal, but unified state, that since 20 years with gigantically financial efforts tries to generate almost the same living conditions all over the country. What is going on here? What kind of reality hides behind the figures and dates?

Following the statements of the Federal Department of Environment in Germany today around 140.000 hectares of former industrial plants, traffic surfaces and military land are gone out of use. That sums up one and a half time of the city area of Greater Berlin! Added to this we’ve got a number up to 1.3 million empty apartments. And this enormous number still exits after the demolition of nearly 200.00 dwelling units within the last eight years, following a large, state financed demolition program, called Stadtumbau Ost (Urban Transformation East). Additional to that economical shrinkage, the Federal Department of Statistics forecasts an ongoing decline of population in whole Germany of about 8 million until the year 2050.

You see: We will have a lot of more free space for fewer and fewer people. Who says, this would mean a terrible future? Shouldn’t we better say: What a vision?

Top positions in this negative scale were there the cities of Leipzig (35 % empty), and Görlitz (48 % in the historical city center), as well as Stendal (more than 42 % in the social housing settlements) or Halle (about 28 %). In 2000 a governmental commission collected all these dates and brought them to the public as a social-political time bomb of a dimension hard to believe. “If we do not transform the political framework in a drastic manner, the emptiness will grow on towards 2 Million apartments within the next 10 years.” – so the commission’s oracle. Their advice: “300.000 to 400.000 apartments should been taken away “from the markets”. Since then words like “shrinking” and “demolition” are normal in the everyday-speech of German mass media.

Among planning experts the apocalypse of the East German shrinking cities has a name: Wittenberge.

After reunification, the former industrial town at the banks of river Elbe has lost the largest plant for sewing machines in Europe, an oil mill, a factory for cellulose products and a vivid harbor. In the same time, and as a result of this, almost a third of the population has left the town. In some former workers quarters whole streets fell empty and so offered the background to film-productions, which looked for “realistic” sceneries of World War II. After the third film the mayor of Wittenberge understood that such kind of publicity could be the worst PR to his city. After 5 years the “historical filmpark” street was totally broken down. Now you can build small country houses on the tidy place, or better be prepared to meet wild nature there.

Perhaps it was necessary, that such a ghost town had to appear right in the middle of Germany, to bring an end to all illusions. For - the terrible overflow of dwelling space in East Germany doesn’t react in the common way of shortage and overproduction. The crisis in East Germany has won its own stability and its own functional dynamics. The mechanism is very simple: You need four inhabited apartments, to compensate for one empty. That means: The point of rentability is 15 percent. If you’ve got more empty dwellings, you are on the way of loss. More than 20 percent empty, you’re ready to go bankrupt. 2001 in Leipzig the first housing company broke down. Following this there had been a lot of take-over-manoeuvres to rescue the failed companies.

But none of these shrinking cities will find help by the old known planning instruments – for instance by attracting the left quarters by town-villas or so. Not “better citizens” are missing but citizens at all. At the end you should be glad to find poor people for the empty houses. Because the price of land is the first to decrease. Where people disappear, even the ground loses all its economic holiness.

This crisis can neither be explained nor solved as a mere problem of housing policy. First of all, the vacancy did not signify a mass exodus from bad reputation of “slab architecture” of the prefabricated mass housings: In shrinking cities such as Leipzig or Görlitz the development took place in the old parts of inner cities. (And even villas are not saved from everlasting emptiness.) Secondly, depopulation on such a massive scale can only be insufficiently explained by general demographic tendencies or even the extreme drop in birth rates after the political change in East Germany. The actual wave of demographic depopulation is yet to come! Thirdly – and this seems to be an important fact – it is the rural regions especially which bleed out, to dramatic extent in the Uckermark and in Western Pomerania, but also in parts of Mecklenburg, the Altmark and Lusatia. During GDR days, these traditionally sparsely populated landscapes had received massive structural aid with extensive industrial investments and modern, mechanised farming. But now, after the whole system had changed back to Capitalism, the market – left to itself – leads back to the pre-industrial state: the impoverished agrarian province. For several of the industrial towns which had been created with greatest efforts after the war, this will mean mainly one thing: They have quite simply become dispensable.