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The Trap Within Anticipated Regrowth : Two Sides of Strategic Response to Urban Decline in Leipzig

Nebojša Čamprag


Although a considerable body of literature on shrinking cities has been produced in the recent years, a majority is focused on the experiences of declining industrial regions from the Global North. Nonetheless, these cases still hold a significant basis for understanding a range of manifestations of urban decline and could also serve as important frameworks for evaluating effectiveness of urban governance models. Thus, the research presented in this paper focuses on the well-known case of Leipzig, which has been represented as a prime example of urban decline in Europe for decades. Through analysis of secondary literature sources, various urban redevelopment frameworks, and media coverage, this study contributes two major insights on strategic response to decline in Leipzig. First, many opportunities that national and international subsidy programmes offered, alongside with entrepreneurial urban governance managed to provide a locally adapted strategic framework that precipitated the return towards the trajectory of urban growth. Second, although the major growth objectives were finally achieved, the example of strategic planning in Leipzig also showed a general lack of preparedness in local governance with regards to considering and dealing with a broader spectrum of challenges that often occur alongside rapid urban regrowth.

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1Even though industrialization during its formative years presented a progressive stance, it also conveniently enabled a long-term reliance on one-dimensional development orientation. This could be considered as one of the main reasons why the most visible effects of urban decline that followed are found among the former industrial centres of the Global North. Additionally, industrial path dependency in these cases were a major impediment in finding effective and timely adaptations to the set of new conditions in the post-industrial society (Bontje 2004; Häußermann and Siebel 1988; Liebmann and Kuder 2012). Conversely, urban decline ended up highly subordinated to a range of local particularities that further required finding unique solutions for each individual case. In Germany the unique combination of socio-political and economic circumstances after the reunification initiated significant outmigration to more prosperous western federal states, thereby leaving a vast urban landscape of its eastern states facing massive population decline. Although urban governance in these and many other cases largely fixated on regaining former growth, international urban scholars recently started to celebrate and promote dynamism, innovation and collaboration, which in return initiated some new perspectives towards the formulation of responses to decline (Katz and Bradley 2013; Tabb 2015). Particularly notable amongst these was an emerging discourse on redefining the crisis as “(…) a ‘laboratory’ for urban governance models” (Oosterlynck and González, 2013: 1076), which stated embracing some aspects of de-growth in the short-term as a potential solution for attaining prosperity in the long-run (Schindler, 2016).

2To illustrate this with an example, Leipzig is one of the biggest declining cities of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) and has become synonymous with urban shrinkage in Europe. Dealing with the problem of urban decline in this particular case required an adequate strategic framework to redefine the city’s long industrial tradition, in order to comply with the new condition-set. The development of strategic solutions commenced with short-term management of the decline process, followed by the determination of realistic possibilities for achieving growth in the long run. However, the supreme objective of achieving re-growth also precipitated a set of new and largely unforeseen consequences. Therefore, this study aims first, to theorize the phenomenon of urban shrinkage within the politics of development in Leipzig and secondly, to analyse the diverse strategic responses for gaining re-growth that structured the interaction between the state, local government and private sector. Through analysis of secondary literature sources, various urban redevelopment strategic frameworks and media coverage, this study examines the dependency of urban development policies on industrial and commercial paths of development that in most of East German cities created “the context for a relatively slow reaction to the economic and social conditions of decline” (Liebmann and Kuder, 2012: 1169-1170). Second, it shows that policy makers opted to not waste the crises, but rather to perceive it as a laboratory for urban governance models as suggested by Oosterlynck and Gonzáles (2013). Third, alongside evaluating the approaches mobilized in the selected case of regaining urban growth, this study also aims to identify implementation challenges as well as highlight long-term consequences and development outcomes. The results of this research could be useful for inspiring more effective urban governance, recovery, and resilience policy in other local contexts.

3The first section of the paper introduces a theoretical background on the shifting perspectives in the study of urban shrinkage. The second section then illustrates the case of Leipzig and provides an overview of the characteristics of shrinkage and the strategic responses towards re-growth in this context. The third section offers insights gained through the critical assessment of the case study for wider debates on strategic approaches for establishing effective urban governance models. Lastly, the paper concludes with an assessment of the case study considering effective strategic responses to urban shrinkage in urban development politics.

Urban decline in discourse: from growth paradigm to urban governance laboratory

4The concurrently expanding global economy and rapid population increase often assume that cities follow a rapid urbanization pattern—especially when considering the case of the global South. However, only a limited number of cities have demonstrated such trends of rapid growth. The upward trajectory that some cities have shown mostly occurred at the expense of a majority of others that have either experienced descending trends or have already started to ‘shrink’, which is particularly obvious among the developed countries of the global North. According to Martinez-Fernandez and Wu, these two opposite phenomena are connected with indissoluble links, thus they cannot be fully acknowledged if considered in separate contexts, for “growth and shrinkage are two faces of the same coin of urban change” (2009: 29). Apart from the well-known major causes of urban decline, such as de-industrialisation, suburbanisation and demographic changes (Fritsche et al. 2007), Reckien and Martinez Fernandez also noticed that all such cities shared the common “shrinkage identity”, referring to “(…) population loss, employment decline or/and protracted economic downturn” (2011: 1375).

5Aside from its relatively recent acknowledgement as a global multidimensional phenomenon, urban shrinkage since the turn of the millennia has also been recognized as a long-term, structural component of urban development (Martinez-Fernandez et al., 2012). Additionally, the failure of this phenomenon to capture international attention earlier may be primarily due to the dominant growth paradigm amongst planners and policy makers since the beginning of industrialisation (Logan and Molotch, 1987; Martinez-Fernandez and Wu, 2009; Oswalt and Rieniets, 2006). However, many potential elements related to the characterization and management of shrinkage processes still haven’t been fully considered, such as social structural dependency or urban sprawl (Reckien and Martinez-Fernandez 2011). Moreover, urban research has faced challenges in providing comprehensive explanations for a variety of manifestations and conditions of decline including investigating its trajectories, contestations, as well as unforeseen overall trends (Martinez-Fernandez et al. 2012; Steinführer et al. 2010). As an example, the case of the Rust Belt cities had shown that the link between decline and the lack of competition in labour and output markets resulted as a consequence of the behaviour of powerful labour unions and a small set of oligopolists who actively stifled competition (Alder et al. 2012). Furthermore, during the onset of the 2008 financial crisis, urban neoliberalisation, as a constant restructuring process, imposed a shift in urban governance and planning practice towards finding new potentials and alternatives for the so-called ‘smart decline’. Therefore, it became especially relevant for planning practice to understand interplays such as those between institutional path dependencies developed during the times of prosperity and successes, and the necessity for innovative responses to crisis. Nevertheless, a lack of “(…) systematic empirical analysis of the crisis as a ‘laboratory’ for urban governance models” (Oosterlynck and González, 2013: 1076) remains evident in urban research. Thus, a general fixation on the objective of growth restoration in urban strategic planning often prevents the recognition of potential opportunities that shrinking process could offer, as well as the adoption of strategic approaches to long-term management of urban growth, when finally attained.

6Another important issue related to previous research on urban decline that deserves to be mentioned here refers to an imbalance in representation of geographical cases. Characterized by the extreme downfall of its former industrial giants, the context of USA so far has attracted major attention. In particular, the main drivers of shrinkage such as post-industrial transformation processes, considerable de-concentration, decentralisation, and suburbanisation has received scholarly attention (Wiechmann and Pallagst 2012; Audirac 2009). Although many scholars have characterized urban shrinkage in the case of European cities as far less dramatic (Pallagst 2009; Platt 2004), significant disparities in its restructuring forces, extents and spatial distributions of decline have created some considerable distinctions, which can further enrich the investigation of the phenomenon of shrinking cities. A renewed focus on European cases could thus provide necessary diversification within scholarly knowledge on the phenomenon; by shifting the focus away from the more frequently studied US cases.

7The specific constellation of de-industrialisation, post-socialist change, ageing demographic, suburbanisation and, in some cases, re-urbanization occurring in the former GDR resulted in a rather extreme case of demographic and economic development. The decline in post-socialist German cities even well surpassed the shrinkage occurring in other European cities (Audirac 2009; Oswalt 2006). Some studies among the declining cities of the former GDR have already provided valuable insights about how to achieve a remarkable shift from the rapidly declining urban economy and the drastic loss of urban population. Because of its extremely dramatic experience with shrinkage and recovery Leipzig has become a perennial topic of study for those interested in urban decline. While there are certainly lessons that can be extracted for replication in other contexts I argue that this case should be considered critically, especially related to a recent, drastic shift in the objectives of its urban governance towards coping with challenges of rapid urban regrowth.

Strategic responses in Leipzig – from federal framework to local initiative

8The ways national and urban governments dealt with shrinkage in Leipzig—carefully adapting strategic efforts to meet the peculiarities at the local level to finally realize regrowth—have been considered as an undisputed example of effective urban governance. However, from a contemporary perspective some of these outcomes could be perceived as strategic shortcomings­. The following section offers a more comprehensive insight into this particular case.

The context of decline in Leipzig

9After the German unification in 1871, the conditions were met for Leipzig to become a prominent national centre of industry, trade and traffic. Emerging economic opportunities, booming industrialisation, and expansion of national and international rail network were only some of the favourable circumstances for rapid urban development (Bontje 2004; Power and Herden 2016). When the city’s population reached historical peak of 713,470 inhabitants by the early 20th century (Rink et al., 2012), Leipzig was already ranked fourth largest in the country and shortly became one of the fastest growing cities in Europe; besides Berlin, Glasgow and Budapest. Along with economic progress and population growth, the build-up area was expanding as well, mostly as a result of many arriving factory workers in need of housing, flourishing financial service sector, and expanding trade fair complex.

10Due to mass deportations and loss of lives within the Jewish community during the Nazi era, in addition to rising out-migrations and low birth rates that followed afterwards, Leipzig’s population in the immediate post-war period has significantly declined (Rink et al., 2012). Although the GDR regime advocated for the continuation of the pre-war industrial traditions and downsized the city’s hinterland, the overall lack of innovations and competitiveness along with the relocation of many national and international institutions to the western federal states finally led to a significant loss in the city’s former national importance. In addition, similar to the trend in many other socialist cities of that time, the GDR regime neither prioritised the renovations of the inner-city areas nor the necessary investments in technical infrastructure. They rather advocated for the construction of new, large-scale prefabricated high-rise areas in the outskirts. Thus, ideology-inspired neglect of the pre-war neighbourhoods in the inner city resulted in deteriorating housing stock that further created challenges for the city’s remarkably decreasing economic performance.

11The scope of demographic and development issues grew further after the German reunification in the year 1990, as a consequence of significant structural disparities between the former GDR and its western counterpart. The complex transition to free market economy, in fact led to a total collapse of the economic structure in East German states. Moreover, the aggregated population loss in the eastern communities for the period between 1990 and 2002 rose to close 1.2 million, which couldn't be fully compensated despite high immigrations from abroad (Bernt 2009). In Leipzig itself, around 85% of industrial jobs were lost within a span of few years (Rink et al. 2012), making unemployment one of the biggest problems in the city that surpassed even the East German average (Power and Herden 2016). Within a single decade (1989-99) the city lost around 100,000 inhabitants (Florentin 2010).

12The consequences of the rapid population decline on the urban fabric in Leipzig became largely visible by the mid 1990s, including growing house vacancies and underused urban infrastructures (Fig. 1). Through the stimulation of urban regeneration and new construction in the city, and driven by the growth-oriented national investment incentives, the German federal government involuntarily contributed to the problem of suburbanisation and emergence of the “perforated” urban landscape (Lütke Daldrup 2003). As a result of generously promoted tax reliefs and direct government subsidies, the total housing stock rose by 10% in only a decade, along with already existing high vacancy rates in the prefabricated housing estates on the fringe of the GDR cities (Bernt 2009; Glock and Häußermann 2004). A general neglect of the inner city areas in the GDR times, in addition to high construction activity in the outskirts, caused nearly a third of historical multi-storey dwellings in inner-city neighbourhoods to become vacant and in urgent need for renovation (Glock and Häußermann 2004). This shrinkage crisis made Leipzig the subject of multiple important studies on the phenomenon (see Bernt, 2009; Bernt et al., 2014; Bontje, 2004; Florentin, 2010; Rink et al., 2012).

Figure 1. The consequences of urban shrinkage are still visible in Leipzig’s perforated physical urban structure demonstrating vast green and open spaces and a hierarchy of urban centres

Figure 1. The consequences of urban shrinkage are still visible in Leipzig’s perforated physical urban structure demonstrating vast green and open spaces and a hierarchy of urban centres

Source: https :// © 2018 Microsoft

Strategic frameworks for overcoming the declining trend in Leipzig

13In contrast to the UK or the US, where the state traditionally played less important role in urban planning, since the early 2000s the German Federal government has actively dealt with the problem of extreme population loss and urban decline in accordance with the specifics of its planning system. Considering the federal, state and local government levels, a decentralised model of spatial planning in Germany generally follows the guiding principles initially set by the federal level. This provides a legal basis for the federal states to actively engage in the planning process. Although the goals are developed at the local level, they comply with both federal and state planning specifications. Within this system, self-governing municipalities keep their financial and planning autonomy (Pahl-Weber and Henckel 2008). The national policy to deal with shrinkage was therefore generally based on subsidised programmes, aiming to motivate affected communities to address the problem at the local levels. The integrated approach to urban regeneration that Leipzig adopted had its origins in the ‘Social City’ programme (Soziale Stadt), which advocated for inclusion of social, economic, ecological, and other important aspects of development, and was thus the first major step to tackle physical and social rehabilitation simultaneously (BMUB 2014). The following action programme ‘Urban Restructuring East’ (Stadtumbau Ost, 2001-2009) had a broader focus that spanned from upgrading old buildings and valuable quarters to whole inner-city areas, although its most important feature was initiating the cooperation between municipalities and housing companies. This was achieved through a strategy of obligatory comprehensive urban development plans (Integrierte Stadtentwicklungspläne) developed in collaboration between local authorities and housing enterprises, as the prerequisite for acquiring funds (BMVBS 2012). These plans were further expected to offer an evaluation of present conditions, define future development steps, and address the problems of vacancies and abandonment. The approach was aimed at enabling communities to determine their policy guidelines according to their own priorities, which was a political decision in each individual case. Nevertheless, the general focus of these initiatives has largely been set on managing shrinkage and regaining growth, as the following analysis illustrates.

14As many other East German cities after the reunification, Leipzig was in an unfavourable financial situation, which not only hindered investments in the city, but also caused its dependency on external subsidies. Urban regeneration and housing renewal of several affected urban neighbourhoods in Leipzig relied primarily on the extensive financial transfers from Western Germany and the national programme Stadtumbau Ost (Bontje 2004), but also received aid from the EU, URBAN II and EFRE programmes (Schetke and Haase 2008; Stadt Leipzig 2012). Considering that the federal programs Stadtumbau Ost or Soziale Stadt were both based on a co-financing logistics, the whole subvention would disappear if a city couldn’t meet the requirements, which would ultimately be interpreted as an indicator of poor local governance. Nonetheless, economic and urban recovery of Leipzig had commenced in the second half of the 1990s, with a strong city leadership. The newly elected Mayor of Leipzig, Wolfgang Tiefensee brought together a number of local stakeholders to produce strategies that put an emphasis on urban renewal, economic development, social integration and environmental reclamation. This strategic approach was, in fact, supposed to attract vital funds from both the German federal government and the EU. Alongside the official urban strategic planning that relied on external sources, the local government initially supported a few creative alternative solutions (Power and Herden, 2016). The so-called ‘guardian houses’ principle (Wächterhäuser) involved a number of decaying buildings in strategic locations being offered free of rent to students or cultural associations; to save them from vandalism and further decay. Furthermore, some incentives were also provided to encourage occupants to make small-scale repairs, while groups of landlords were brought together to look after empty properties in their block. Thus, although the city started to gain a reputation as a model of urban shrinking management, these alternative solutions became highly constrained by a serious lack of financial resources. Until 2010, there were only thirteen Wächterhäuser established, which was rather an insignificant number in comparison to 45,000 vacant houses in the city at that time (Florentin 2010).

15A few initiatives undertaken in Leipzig considered integrative methods of shrinkage management at the local level and leveraged the situation to manage shrinkage to gradually achieve growth. The local government enacted the first integrated strategy for managed shrinkage (Stadtentwicklungsplan; German abbreviation STEP) in the year 2000 (Stadt Leipzig 2000). The main objectives of the plan were developed around the declining reality of the city and have considered renovating and rehabilitating the main qualities of the city centre; the establishment of a new hierarchy of the urban centres; an increase in competitiveness of the selected key areas; as well as defining concrete steps towards consolidating the housing market through demolition and refurbishment. This plan also laid out large green areas at the site of urban perforations (Fig. 1), supported temporary use of private green spaces, and promoted integrated neighbourhood development strategies, while the local government subsidized the acquisition of owner-occupied flats in listed historic buildings.

16Concrete measures of such early strategic approaches to managing shrinkage provided some significant results in a relatively short period of time. Around 60,000 people have moved or returned to the historic inner-city areas since 1998 (Stadt Leipzig, 2012), while demolition of abandoned buildings contributed in reducing vacancies by 10% until 2011. Such improvements in dealing with the issues of decline in Leipzig allowed further revision and adaptation of the strategic framework to meet the new set of objectives. Subsequently, after less than a decade, the City Council approved the following Integrated Urban Development Concept ‘Leipzig 2020’ in 2009 (Integriertes Stadtentwicklungskonzept Leipzig 2020; German abbreviation SEKo). The plan was drafted during a comprehensive, interdisciplinary procedure of the so-called ‘inter-departmental integrated management handling’ (Stadt Leipzig, 2009: 67) that required two years of participatory efforts of local stakeholders, experts and public input.

‘Leipzig 2020’ – the final shift towards achieving regrowth

17The integrated concept ‘Leipzig 2020’ was aimed at laying out the city’s long-term development plan until 2020, in accordance with the principles previously set by the Leipzig Charter on Sustainable European Cities from 2007 (Stadt Leipzig, 2012). This charter envisioned Leipzig as a “European City”, based on the principle of mixed-use urban areas and efficient mobility, and prioritized development of disadvantaged urban districts, inner-urban development and sustainability. The newly drafted integrated concept thus addressed the importance of strong local governance and realistically defined long-term strategic goals. In addition, it also focused on the necessity of overall control over the recovery process, with a strong reliance on political action to motivate and engage the citizens. Although the strategy also emphasized some important aspects of managing the shrinking process, i.e. economic, demographic, and sustainability components, it didn’t consider demolishing physical structures, which was a key component of previous plans. Through the reliance on both federal and European subsidies, the local government in Leipzig was clearly determined in shifting the overall aim of the strategy towards reaching economic regrowth:

18“The potential for innovation, the attractiveness and the current population growth show that the city is well positioned and can take over its role as a regional growth engine” (Stadt Leipzig, 2009: 10).

19‘Leipzig 2020’ clearly advocated for the increase of national and international importance of the city, quality of life, social stability, and overall competitiveness (Stadt Leipzig, 2009: 72-73). The priority became the establishment of good framework conditions for employment and a more balanced age structure in the city (Stadt Leipzig 2012). This was logistically to be accomplished through the proposed cluster strategy, which was focused on making the existing strengths even stronger. In addition, the envisioned shift towards attaining prosperity by 2020 implied several objectives. Firstly, the focus on strategically selected urban areas in need of further intervention focused on increasing their development potential and managing social disparities, within which the city centre got ascribed a special role for economic development and identity building. Secondly, the local government offered business support services to incoming companies over a specially created employment agency. Five major sectors were strategically designated for support: automotive, health care, energy and environment, logistics, and media and creative enterprises (Stadt Leipzig 2009). With the help of the large public subsidies, the officials in Leipzig managed to attract some flagship investments from big car manufacturers BMW and Porsche, as well as from important international players, like DHL and Amazon, in the beginning of the 2000s. Thirdly, significant investments in strategically selected key public infrastructure contributed to potential large-scale investments in the city. Consequently, the rebuilt trade fair, restored train station, and modernised and extended airport had a significant short-term impact. The Head of Corporate Communications at the BMW plant in Leipzig later confirmed that good transport infrastructure was one of the main criteria for large international companies to make significant investments in the city (Sauerwein, 2017). In sum, ‘Leipzig 2020’ enabled a long-term managed regrowth through overall employment recovery and a strategic focus on certain industries, with active engagement and high flexibility of the local government, thus stated in the document as:

20“the development perspectives for the economy of Leipzig are good as far as the city itself can influence the basic conditions. This opens up opportunities for a long-term improvement of the employment situation.” (Stadt Leipzig, 2009: 27).

21As a result of this strategy, a number of important urban mega events have been hosted by the city, ranging from various cultural exhibits, fairs and festivals to international sporting events. The city’s transformation into a cultural hub, along with affordable property prices, has also made Leipzig especially lucrative for the creative class, due to which it earned the nickname “Hypezig” (Sauerwein 2017). Furthermore, the city became an important centre of vocational and higher education, with about 37,000 students enrolling in 2010–nearly double than in 1990 (Haase and Rink 2015). The data provided by the Federal Statistical Office confirmed that various measures to increase overall attractiveness of the city for investors, visitors, students, tourists, and residents further increased the population (Statistisches Bundesamt Deutschland, 2017). This resulted mostly from inward internal-migrations from other parts of Germany for job and higher education opportunities. As the daily newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau noticed,

22“Leipzig is alive, growing and bursting at the seams. Especially young people come and stay. They live and work in former factories or old buildings and help the city to return to its old splendour.” (Honnigfort 2017; authors' translation)

Table 1. Statistical data that illustrate Leipzig’s regrowth.
























































42 678

42 645

43 188

44 094











Source: Stadt Leipzig Informationssystem LIS,​, 2018

23Thus, in the present-day perspective, there are a number of indicators that can confirm that Leipzig has long abandoned its shrinking trajectory. The city’s Big Five - referring to Porsche, BMW, DHL, VNG and Amazon - bolstered the economy in only a decade (Rink et al. 2012). Additionally, there was significant job growth in public and service sector, as well as in small and medium-sized companies (Table 1). Furthermore, from 196,000 jobs in 2002, the latest statistics showed a rise to about 260,000 (Statistisches Bundesamt Deutschland, 2017). This statistic has been rising in parallel with the increase of the urban population, with around 10,000 new residents per year since 2010, making Leipzig one of the country’s fastest growing cities. Along with the improvements of public spaces and city image (Fig. 2), these results illustrate clearly how the local government has managed to reach its anticipated aim of positioning the city back on the growth trajectory.

Figure 2. The biggest square in Leipzig, Augustusplatz, as the new image for prosperous city

Figure 2. The biggest square in Leipzig, Augustusplatz, as the new image for prosperous city

The Opera House, fully renovated in 2007. Author’s photo, 2014.

City-Hochhaus skyscraper, renovated in 2002, and the new main building of the University of Leipzig, Paulinum, opened in 2017, recalling the style of the demolished church during the communist times. Author’s photo, 2014.

24Following the concept of the entrepreneurial city, the municipality in Leipzig not only acquired abundant public subsidies, but also fostered rapid decision-making based on a solid strategic framework that recognized and strengthened the city’s genuine potential to attract powerful global companies. The significance of these results in a relatively short period of time makes Leipzig a rather unique case in comparison to other East German cities. Thus, although the objectives of the local government were clearly set on the long-term economic revival and population increase, apart from some significant results achieved to that regard, the strategic planning still demonstrated some shortcomings in taking into full consideration all the implications of such trajectories. The following section will now discuss this case from a different perspective.

The major deficiencies of the strategic frameworks in Leipzig

25The latest data estimates that Leipzig could reach 600,000 inhabitants by the end of 2017. Furthermore, by the year 2030 the population could further increase by up to 720,000 people (Heinemann and Schultz 2016). Despite some benefits, such a sudden growth commencing after a long and extremely declining period also caused a plethora of problems and posed a new set of challenges for the local government. Among the first consequences were strains on infrastructure and social services as a consequence of increased demand. A significant lack of schools and kindergartens, inadequacy of the transport infrastructure, and inefficient wastewater disposal, quickly became serious urban governance matters (MDR Sachsen 2017). Moreover, an increasing number of unsatisfied citizens complained about the overall inefficiency of the city administration, especially regarding a general lack of prompt responses to accumulating urban problems. The mayor Burkhard Jung blamed the rapidity of the urban expansion for mounting problems and even expressed hope that growth rates would slow. He also called for more understanding of the overall situation stating: no one is taking in consideration the special situation of Leipzig, with the rapid growth and heavily rising numbers of births” (Lausitzer Rundschau 2017, author's translation).

26Besides increasing job and education opportunities, an important factor that significantly contributed to the increase of inhabitants in Leipzig was also the relatively affordable rental fees in comparison to the skyrocketing housing markets in other big German cities, such as in Hamburg, Berlin or Frankfurt (Sauerwein 2017). Furthermore, the rapid growth of asylum seekers and migrants arriving to Germany during the 2015/16-refugee crisis additionally contributed to the increasing demands for accommodation. Thus, the second major issue for the local governance in Leipzig was the sudden rise of demand for affordable housing in the city, which came, ironically, after years of demolishing its excessive housing stock. Construction of up to 5000 new units per year was deemed necessary to satisfy the current demands (MDR Sachsen 2017). Hence, the local government secured a grant of 60 million Euros in order to support social housing by 2019, which should enable construction of only about 500 units in 2017 (FOCUS NWMI-OFF/Stadt 2017).

27In order to provide necessary affordable housing, the city officials advocated for strategic cooperation with all the actors with potential interest, from self-organized groups to powerful entrepreneurs. The responsibilities for successful management of this issue were divided between many stakeholders, including the city-owned housing construction company LWB (Wohnungsbaugesellschaft LWB), several housing cooperatives (Wohnungsgenossenschaften), as well as the network for housing projects ‘Netzwerk Leipziger Freiheit’, founded by the city of Leipzig to strengthen the integrative approach towards finding solutions (Sauerwein 2017). Within the frame of this specific cooperative network of various construction groups, the stakeholders with the common interests were given the freedom to determine their own interventions, including the particular decisions about whether to construct new buildings or renovate existing ones. In spite of such an innovative and inclusive approach to the issue, the provision of affordable housing is still highly dependent on the market rules. This raises the question whether the newly adopted role of the city administration in consulting and coordination services will be effective in achieving desired results while navigating potential pitfalls. However conversely, the freedom in decision-making that the construction groups have gained also raised questions regarding selective historic preservation, and all the potential consequences that phenomenon could have, namely increasing urban fragmentation resulting from upgrading and renewal running next to dilapidation and vacancies.

28Along with the on-going physical fragmentation of urban fabric, restructuring of the social make-up was also underway and is the third and probably the most significant major challenge. Although the exact relation between re-urbanisation and gentrification in the East German states is still being debated, the repopulation of inner-city neighbourhoods was described as a much-wanted process of re-urbanisation, supported by urban policymakers (Haase and Rink 2015). Considering the high level of house vacancies and oversupply, gentrification has rarely been an issue for urban development within this context, and thus represented only an accompanying ‘soft’ factor of social upgrading (Wiest 2000). The displacement of the residential population due to upgrading turned into an important issue after 2010 when dynamic internal-migration had a major impact in Leipzig. While urban hinterland faced general stagnation and even decline, inner-city neighbourhoods demonstrated a rapid reclamation of the population, rejuvenation and diversification of socio-demographic structures, but also reduction of mean household size and eventual rise in gentrification (Haase and Rink 2015). Moreover, the comprehensive reurbanisation and restructuring that has spread to large parts of the inner city in Leipzig, according to Haase and Rink (2015), largely paved the way for gentrification. With increasing level of investments, it even became “a deliberate strategy to develop the most attractive parts of the inner city that are most in demand” (Haase and Rink, 2015: 242). In addition, the municipal housing company has already privatized a large segment of its stock located mostly in the inner city under pressure from (global) investors and austerity measures. Subsequently, the local municipality became nearly powerless in the face of current trends in housing markets and pronounced socio-spatial differentiation. Apart from keeping its focus on some common measures related to housing, business, transportation, and social infrastructure, the latest “Guidelines for the Growing City” presented in 2017 were thus largely criticised due to an absolute lack of a clear vision to tackle the number of negative consequences that the economic upswing has created (Julke 2017).

Discussion and conclusions

29Despite elaborated international and national frameworks to address the dramatically rising housing vacancies among declining cities in Germany, the well-intended and smart strategic federal approach still demonstrated a variety of practical shortcomings. Above all, strategic approaches adopted at the local level generally depended on legitimation from the higher political levels that imposed promising, but at the same time also challenging concept of integrated development (Rink et al., 2014). In addition, lobbying by the most powerful actors in real-estate business and banking interests led the decline of German cities to be primarily tackled as a housing problem, leaving other significant issues to be considered less privileged and thus to be addressed with slower progress (Bernt et al. 2014). Under such circumstances, the provision of innovative and effective strategies to oppose the trend of decline could be considered a highly challenging task for local urban governance in Germany. Although most of the strategic frameworks adopted by planners and officials in Leipzig have reached their major goals, similar to the general situation at the federal level, most of them could still be criticised for the selective approach and prioritisation of structures over social elements.

30The process of shrinkage in Leipzig was driven by a set of extreme socio-political circumstances coming from both national and local levels. They emerged in the course of the post-war recovery and culminated after the German reunification, which was characterised by strong economic inequalities and complex post-socialist transition. Although the local authorities never officially declared a policy that would exclusively cope with shrinkage, they also didn't ignore or deny the reality of decline, as it had happened in some East German communities based on a singular development orientation (Bernt 2009; Liebmann and Kuder 2012). The strategic approach adopted in Leipzig aimed at dealing with the processes of shrinkage and perforation at an early stage, in order to convert it into an opportunity in the long run. That shrinkage was in reality, however, handled in a fragmented way, which above all lacked a coherent strategy that could bring all the interventions under a common umbrella (Bontje, 2004). The implementation of the Stadtumbau Ost programme in Leipzig in particular followed some general short-term objectives, but failed fully to adapt to the local circumstances or predict the lack of social housing in the long-term. As it has tackled only a few amongst the many identified problems caused by the urban decline phenomenon - namely housing vacancies – the approach cannot be considered comprehensive. Moreover, considering the three pillars of the STEP strategy that aimed at achieving a more sustainable and dynamic urban development, the actual implementation however, equally showed some serious deficiencies. Firstly, renovation and rehabilitation of the old city centre raised the questions of selective historic preservation that caused a two-fold, contrasted image of the city. Secondly, conversions of urban perforations into green or open spaces were pretty much in conflict with the economic priorities of the landowners. Finally, the hierarchy and competitiveness of centres in the city required a complete redefinition of the system of centrality, in order to resist both spatial and social polarisation (Bernt, 2009; Bernt et al., 2014; Bontje, 2004; Florentin, 2010; Rink et al., 2012). Apart from some significant achievements, the final strategic framework ‘Leipzig 2020’ also demonstrated some deficiencies. A subtle influence of the growth paradigm, manifested in the reliance on large flagship investors in industrial and service sectors, achieved an overall aim to bring the city back to the growth trajectory. However, it overlooked the chance for a more elaborate development of some alternative solutions, just as happened in the case of Detroit after proclaiming bankruptcy in 2013 (Schindler 2016), or in development of creative industries in post-industrial Glasgow (Aber 2009). Besides, the local government seemed to lack capacities to strategically forecast future development trends and take in consideration the full spectrum of the consequences of rapid regrowth after a period of significant decline. This caused the emergence of a complete new set of challenges that required prompt solutions.

31Resulting from a variety of locally specific conditions, as well as the fact that economic performance of a large number of cities in East Germany has followed similar trajectories, the high degree of polarisation in reunified Germany has unfortunately remained a bitter reality. The dependence on former development paths in some cases got under influence of powerful and conservative local actors, who often restricted mobilisation and performance of innovative collaborative efforts. In comparison to many other East German cities that defined contradictory development goals and concepts, failing to focus on a clearly defined and easily legible new development profiles, Leipzig has showed a rather solid performance. Nevertheless, its local government still has plenty of issues to deal with. All the emerging challenges coming along with regrowth demonstrated the importance of comprehensive approaches to the formulation of strategic urban development frameworks and a multi-dimensional strategic outlook. In addition, they also called for new opportunities in creative redefinition of crises as opportunities for propelling innovative and potentially more comprehensive urban governance models. These outcomes could at the same time be acknowledged as valuable lessons for other cities and regions facing similar challenges, particularly related to constraints that the general objectives embedded in the standards of strategic planning may impose. Instead of relying on pragmatic and largely accepted solutions, the task of effective and reflective urban governance should also be to anticipate some future trends, acknowledge the complexity of their possible outcomes, and welcome creative interpretations. Such a far-reaching and mindful approach should be enabled and mobilized even if the response to anticipated trends involves presently less desired or seemingly contradictory interventions to recent trends in urban development.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1. The consequences of urban shrinkage are still visible in Leipzig’s perforated physical urban structure demonstrating vast green and open spaces and a hierarchy of urban centres
Credits Source: https :// © 2018 Microsoft
File image/png, 818k
Title Figure 2. The biggest square in Leipzig, Augustusplatz, as the new image for prosperous city
Credits The Opera House, fully renovated in 2007. Author’s photo, 2014.
File image/jpeg, 132k
Credits City-Hochhaus skyscraper, renovated in 2002, and the new main building of the University of Leipzig, Paulinum, opened in 2017, recalling the style of the demolished church during the communist times. Author’s photo, 2014.
File image/jpeg, 106k
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Electronic reference

Nebojša Čamprag, The Trap Within Anticipated Regrowth : Two Sides of Strategic Response to Urban Decline in LeipzigArticulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], Varia, Online since 01 August 2018, connection on 27 November 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Nebojša Čamprag

Nebojša Čamprag is an urban planner and post-doctoral researcher based at the Faculty of Architecture (TU Darmstadt, Germany). His doctoral dissertation “Urban Identity and Change—a Comparison Between Frankfurt and Rotterdam”, published in 2014, deals with the issues of identity and sense of place in contemporary cities, as a challenge that results from a range of global, economy-driven changes that cities are facing today. Since 2018 Nebojša is leading the research group Urban Morphosis Lab, placing its focus on investigations of the complexity and diversity of contemporary urban changes. His current research interest is in the framework of interaction between globalization and built environment on the level of international comparison, with the research foci on urban identity, effects of urban mega-projects, and issues of urbanity in the post-socialist cities. E-mail:

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