Wolfgang Kil Architekturkritiker und Publizist

Wittenberge ruins as film set, Foto: W. Kil


Shrinking Cities, Empty Landscapes

The East German Experience

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.

This collapse of the East German regions also can’t be compared to the structural change in traditional Western industrial regions such as the Ruhr district or the Saarland. Have a look only on some examples: Between 1990 and 1993, more than 80 large concerns in the chemical industries triangle Wolfen-Dessau were dismantled, in the course of which the number of those employed in production sank below a third of 1989. The figures are similar everywhere else; Dessau (wagon building, chemical industry) lost 5,500 producing jobs; Görlitz (wagon building, textile and electrical engineering) lost even more than 15,000. Not even a shadow of its strength during GDR days remained from East German economy.

Gainful employment decreased on an alarming scale: from 9.7 million employees in 1990 to 6.4 million in 2000. Add to that the 400,000 commuters who found employment in West Germany, the number of employees even dropped below 6 million. And all this happened within a period of less than five years! Thus, we are faced with the consequences of an economic turn which did not come about as a structural change, but rather as a rapid structural break. Therefore, what emerged in East Germany was not a post-industrial scene (as it had developed in West Germany), but a de-industrialised landscape. The post-industrial society is another thing than the de-industrialised society – not to have grasped that highly important difference, must count as one of the fundamental misconceptions, or say: errors of German reunification politics.

Obviously, it takes examples such as that of Wittenberge to conceive the entire forlornness of an abandoned province where the disappearance of industries and the marginalisation of agriculture were swiftly followed by the gradual disintegration of the infrastructure. Why would an active, mobile and ambitious person stay in a region which has to get used to a permanent unemployment rate of 25 percent and more? Where the state-owned railroad company first shuts down all the smaller train stations and then entire lines? Where savings banks withdraw from the region, clubs and Houses of Culture are shut down, doctors and schools can only be found in remote county towns, where – to the end – the last shops and pubs close down and even the post-boxes are moved away? Finally, the initial drain of employment-searchers will turn into a wave of panic: Nobody wants to be “the last one who has to turn off the lights”.

The reason I have been analysing at length the economic reasons for the crisis of East German cities and landscapes is because I am sure that this crisis has to be interpreted as the end of an epoch. We should talk about the Industrial Age.

When it began, in the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution had set off veritable mass migrations in search of work all over the continents. In order to house the newly emerging proletariat, countless cities in a drastic process expanded beyond their medieval confines in order to get adapted to the new production and consumption needs. Old, noble seats or sleepy provincial towns transformed into noisy, polluted, but popular capitals of factory work. Nameless villages grew up to urban agglomerations. Quiet river valleys and marshes filled with chimneys, workshops and cheap workers’ tenement blocks. High above it all fluttered the banner of progress. But what took place under this flag was nothing less than the total upheaval of any circumstances. This process can only be compared to the tremendous catastrophes which overthrew entire continents and moved them up to new constellations.

But if the age of industrialization was born in such an eruptive way, why could we hope, that – at the end of this era – mankind will escape from similar shakings?

Shrinkage as symptom of industrial change is neither a new nor an especially East German problem. As a crisis of the mining or textile industry, there are many examples in Great Britain, Eastern France or the USA. To the extent in which the Eastern European countries adapt to Western European standards of living, they, too, will be hit by grave crises concerning their sites – the Silesian industrial province illustrates this theory, or the huge brownfields which the once so famed and today derelict Polish wharfs in Szczecin or Gdansk have left behind.

What’s new is the scope of the “superfluity”: not just a single branch of an industry or a type of product, i.e. Bitterfeld’s carbochemical industry, or mechanical engineering in Chemnitz, or copper mining in Mansfeld, but almost the entire range of a modern industrial society was “switched off” as an economic consequence of the East-West German reunification. Even cities with a large diversity in production were not spared: for with the principal products the entire infrastructure of outside suppliers vanished, too. As the Frankfurt Sociologist Klaus Ronneberger explains: “Capitalism creates a geographical landscape which for a certain time corresponds to the actual model of development – only to destroy it in the next cycle”.

The East German situation teaches us various things about the fate of regions which are no longer of value to globalised economic processes. The distance of Berlin, Halle or Leipzig to the new economic boom belt of Western Europe – from Rotterdam along the Rhine down to the Mediterranean – obviously is too far. On the other hand, due to radically open markets within the EU, the domestic demand for profitable, local productions is not sufficient. Such a region can no longer support its current population; it becomes dependent on the help of other parts of the country. Or it is thrown into poverty, becomes a “land of shades” within a neoliberal globalisation model.

With regards to a possible future, the only people being considered by social sciences and planning discussions are – the winners. The losers of this transformation very rarely receive the same, urgent attention. However, in East Germany the main focus is about these losers: their individual behaviour on a mass scale has already changed the social conditions. Because East Germans have to emigrate in order to find employment, a significant change in the structure of settlements and places has become apparent. In the further course this migration could result in the abandonment of entire districts. The city of Hoyerswerda, for instance, by now has lost more than half of its population, with further massive losses likely on the way. More than half of the city’s territory has started to be overgrown by forest.

In order to alleviate the individual fates of those concerned, planners and politicians have to apply totally new social and cultural strategies. In order to cope with the problem of shrinkage, new models of living are urgently needed. So far, this has conflicted with the fact that societies built upon permanent growth have subjected shrinkage or withdrawal to a fundamental taboo. Therefore, in Germany the large-scale, internationally curated exhibition “Shrinking Cities” received enormous resonance. It brought on public discussions in which terms such as de-densification, reduction, temporariness and withdrawal are recognized as arguments without immediately provoking fear or reflexes of defence.

Let us remember again the existential, fundamental upheavals at the beginning of the Industrial Age. Facing its end, we simply cannot avoid a renewed questioning of all our familiar circumstances. Quite contrary: Almost like in a laboratory situation, the dramatic crisis of the East German cities opens our mind for the necessity to think about strategies to withdraw from the old working society on the whole. Strategies, of course, which are sensible and socially responsible. Couldn’t this be the true benefit of this crisis – a benefit which I consider essential for the survival of all of us on this planet: That we finally succeed in bidding a cultural farewell to that devilish doctrine of everlasting growth.


Public lecture at Utrecht (NL) in February 2010