Shrinking Cities: Design Challenge on a Shoestring Budget
by Mary Dellenbaugh, International ASLA

What most struck me about the urban landscape in the states of the former GermanDemocratic Republic (GDR) (commonly called East Germany), is the number of empty lots and unused buildings. Significant demographic change has occurred due to aging populations and emigration of residents to former West Germany since the fall of the iron curtain. This has decimated the population of many small cities in the GDR by up to 40 percent in some areas.

A good example of this population shrinkage is Dessau, the home of the Bauhaus and the next largest town to Bernburg, where I completed my master’s degree at Anhalt University of Applied Science. The conspicuous presence of empty buildings and lots and absence of residents under 30 is stunning. Cities like Dessau are experiencing reduced birth rates and an overall increase in the median population age that is common throughout Europe. This change has also resulted in the loss of skilled workers—specifically those between the ages of 18 and 35—who are the main contributors to the local tax systems.

The startling difference between economic development in the east and west parts of Germany between 1949 and 1989 was the reason for building the Berlin Wall and the resultant large-scale post-1989 westward emigration. The triple blows of 40 years of reduced economic development, skilled worker emigration, and older residents left behind mean that nearly all of these cities, including Dessau, have a reduced tax base and major budgetary deficits. This explains the empty lots and abandoned buildings.

The empty structures fall into two categories: formerly state-owned facilities, and privately-owned buildings that stand empty due to unknown owners or reduced demand. The GDR owned or ran many facilities, including large scale agricultural production facilities (Landwirtschaftliche Produktionsgenossenschaften), factories, military facilities, and coal strip mines. These facilities pose a range of issues for planners, from being simple eyesores to posing serious safety and environmental hazards. The daunting number of such structures and the cities’ reduced budgets only compound the problem.

Broken windows in an abandoned factory in Magdeburg, Germany. Image courtesy Mary Dellenbaugh.

Empty lots and abandoned industrial-era buildings characterize the landscape of the former GDR. Image courtesy Mary Dellenbaugh.

Even important corner buildings stand empty, as in here in Leipzig. Image courtesy Mary Dellenbaugh.

To address these concerns, residents and town planners have embarked on a variety of projects with varying results. The most successful projects have integrated stakeholders and residents into the planning process—something that is not common in Germany’s top-down planning process. Various projects from the 10-year Urban Redevelopment East (StadtumbauOst) program have taken hold, including intercultural gardens and place branding to highlight features that are unique to the location.

The challenge here that keeps me coming back to this place, is how to find solutions that fit the spirit of the place—the genius loci—that involve the residents, are sustainable, and can be implemented with little or no funding. This may include removing broken windows, repurposing the deteriorated spaces, and redesigning weedy sidelots to help give residents pride and a sense of belonging. I believe that these basic steps could set the foundation for an investment that would pay off in the long run through resident satisfaction, population retention, and increasing real estate values.

Mary Dellenbaugh, International ASLA, is currently a doctoral candidate at the Humboldt University Geographical Institute in Berlin, Germany. She can be reached at:

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