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Growth and Shrinkage in Germany - Trends, Perspectives and Challenges for Spatial Planning and Development.

Bernhard Müller/Stefan Siedentop

Growth and Shrinkage in Germany - Trends, Perspectives and Challenges for Spatial Planning and Development

1. Growth and Shrinkage: The Importance of a Comparative View
2. Regional Forms of Growth and Shrinkage
3. Differentiation of the Growth and Shrinkage Landscape
4. Continued Suburbanisation under Conditions of Demographic Decline?
5. Interim Conclusion
6. Challenges for Spatial Planning
7. Conclusions


Demographic change has become a major topic for German municipalities as more and more communities in East and West Germany embark on a "stagnation or decline path" in the coming 20 years. Not only will large-scale shifts take place but growing and shrinking communities will exist side by side within heavily built-up regions. The trend towards suburbanisation and dispersion in the 1990s will weaken without sustained reurbanisation. This requires rethinking on the part of municipalities and regional planners. Growth-oriented approaches must be paralleled by a "decline paradigm." The region will become a more important spatial platform for the efficiency-oriented adjustment of settlement structures and the development of integrated regional adjustment strategies.


1. Growth and Shrinkage: The Importance of a Comparative View

Demographic change and its effects are currently being discussed on two main levels: firstly on the level of society as a whole in relation to family policy, social security systems, labour market policy, migration, and government finances; secondly on the individual municipality level, with regard to increasingly urgent redevelopment needs and the constraints imposed by tight finances.

Central local authority organisations have long since recognised the importance of the issue, but there is little consensus on policy, and local authorities have reacted in different ways. One reason is that there have always been many towns and cities that are economically attractive and enjoy high inmigration (internal migration and immigration from abroad) where demographic decline is not an issue and growth and growth-oriented policy are still on the agenda. But there are many communities where shrinkage and the concomitant problems have - from the local policy point of view - been a "bitter" and growing reality for some years now, and where completely novel action is required, a situation the authorities hesitate to acknowledge.

An overall, spatially differentiated and comparative view of the position risks being ignored. What communities are shrinking? Can the causes be pinpointed? What action is needed? This article addresses these questions in detail. We focus on where demographic growth and demographic decline occur in Germany, what trends are apparent, and which regions and communities are facing such challenges. We investigate the extent to which local government policy in "shrinking regions" requires new controls and how local government planning can react to these challenges.


2. Regional Forms of Growth and Shrinkage

In the 1990s, the development of settlement structure in Germany can be briefly characterised as follows (cf. Siedentop et al. 2003; Siedentop/Kausch 2003):

  • strong polarisation of demographic development between West and East Germany; area-wide population growth in the West as opposed to decline in the East.
  • interregional and intraregional deconcentration of population and employment in West Germany to the benefit of rural areas comparatively distant from core cities and relatively mature suburban areas.
  • interregional concentration of population and employment in East Germany to the detriment of peripheral rural areas accompanied by small scale suburbanisation in city-suburb regions.

If this development were to continue in coming decades central cities in West and East Germany and peripheral rural areas in East Germany would be most strongly affected by demographic change. Less affected would be suburban and rural areas in West Germany and the inner suburbs of major East German cities.

The comparison of demographic development between 1993 and 1996 and current development patterns (1999 to 2001) shown in figure 1 appears at first glance to confirm this forecast. Regions with a strongly declining population (more than 1% per year) are still to be found only in East Germany. Large parts of the old West German territory, in contrast, are still growing demographically. However, closer scrutiny reveals first trend reversals.

More and more regions in West Germany are being hit by demographic decline. Advancing apparently from the East, a "shrinkage wedge" is moving across major areas of eastern North Rhine-Westphalia into southern Lower Saxony, northern Hesse, and northern Bavaria. And the decline in population in East Germany has amplified. On the other hand, demographic deconcentration has weakened, especially in the East. Suburban rings around East German central cities that were still growing only a few years ago are now also losing residents.

Empirical studies suggest that relations between central cities, suburbs, and peripheral rural areas need to be reassessed under conditions of demographic stagnation or decline. We examine demographic developments in depth from a spatially differentiated perspective to discover how demographic change has been affecting settlement structure.


3. Differentiation of the Growth and Shrinkage Landscape

In the mid-1990s there were few regions that did not fit the overall picture of a West-East gap in demographic development. They included the suburban growth belt around Berlin, the shrinking old industrial regions of West Germany, and core cities that had failed to compensate local migration losses through foreign immigration. However, even in the 1990s, demographic development differed from region to region within West and East Germany, too. For instance, there was a net natural population decrease in almost half of West German counties during the 1990s, and in county boroughs the figure was no less than 85 %. In West Germany there are also "older" and "younger" regions (Bucher 1997). In 1999 the average age of people in county boroughs and counties already differed by more than four years (Maretzke 2002). Because of strong increases in international and internal migration, such differential developments were, however, "externally" concealed by a rise in the population of the overall area. Only with the decline in immigration from abroad that set in in the mid-1990s did demographic decline become openly apparent in parts of West Germany. Not only old industrialised regions, which have long since been suffering a decline in population, but also rural areas in West Germany are increasingly affected by demographic shrinkage - a phenomenon last observed in comparable dimensions in the 1970s and early 1980s. Typical of the regions affected are southern Lower Saxony, northern Hesse, or the Palatine Forest. At the beginning of the new decade, only in Lower Saxony and Bavaria had any extensive areas enjoying demographic growth worth mentioning.

Figure 1: Areas experiencing demographic growth and decline in the periods 1993-1996 and 1999-2002

Source: own presentation; data from state statistical offices

After levelling off in the mid-1990s, the decline in the East German population has taken a new plunge, now affecting almost the entire territory. Only a few years ago, suburban growth belts were developing in many East German urban regions, but since the beginning of the millennium no more than a few "islands of growth" have remained. Berlin is one such island, Dresden another (and to a limited extent Leipzig), as well as the Thuringian cities (cf. Herfert 2002). Otherwise areas with strong demographic decline have become more and more extensive.

Although the West-East gap in demographic development typical of the 1990s will persist in the medium term, there is no denying that the polarised path of development (growth in West Germany, decline in East Germany) will be succeeded by far more differentiated and concentrated processes (Bucher/Schlömer 2003). Population growth and decline are becoming spatially more and more contiguous, between regions, within regions, and within cities.


4. Continued Suburbanisation under Conditions of Demographic Decline?

Comparing current trends (1999 to 2002) with developments between 1993 and 1996 (figure 1) reveals another breach in demographic development: a marked fall in interregional and intraregional deconcentration. In East Germany suburbanisation came to a complete halt at the beginning of the new decade (Berlin being the only exception). In some urban regions, migration even reversed towards cities (Herfert 2002, 338), and there are signs that this development is more than a short-term, cyclical interruption of an enduring deconcentration process. The Saxony government's regionalised population projection anticipates stability for the core cities Dresden and Leipzig but population losses of between 15 % and 20 % for the surrounding counties (Statistisches Landesamt des Freistaates Sachsen 2003).

For a more detailed examination of this trend breach, which is limited to East Germany, demographic developments in the country as a whole have been analysed with the aid of a simple zone model. Core cities (with a population of over 100,000) together with all municipalities depending on location in relation to the nearest core city were included in concentric zones. A distinction was made between an inner suburban area within 20 kilometres of the nearest core city, an outer suburban area between 20 and 40 kilometres distant, and rural peripheral areas over 40 kilometres from a major city.

Examination of relative annual population change in the designated zones reveals ongoing deconcentration in West Germany (cf. figure 2). But its spatial configuration has changed. Whereas the outer suburban ring recorded greatest growth until 1996, the inner suburbs are now growing most strongly. The desuburbanisation process that was still apparent in the 1990s, with a shift in population to rural areas outside the agglomeration seems to have halted. At the same time, however, suburbanisation intensity has decreased in many West German urban regions, owing in strong measure to the decline in city-periphery migration. Since 2000, West German cities have recorded a net gain in population.

Figure 2: Annual population change since 1990, differentiated by core cities, inner suburbs, outer suburbs, and rural peripheral area

Source: Calculations by Siedentop on the bais of data from state statistical offices.

In recent years core cities in East Germany can even be considered to have gained an advantage in the regional and municipal competition for residents and economically active population. As long ago as the mid-1990s, dynamic migration from cities to surrounding areas meant that population decline in core cities was more intensive than in peripheral rural areas. But since 1997 annual population decline in core cities has steadily eased, while not only rural areas but also suburban communities are shrinking.

Figure 3: Annual population change since 1990, differentiated by central place categories

Source: Calculations by Siedentop on the basis of data from state statistical offices and the Federal Office for Building and Regional Planning.

Population dispersion has also eased in recent years. Throughout the 1990s in West Germany, the population of small communities without adequate infrastructure grew strongly. In 2002 such communities were still growing faster than middle-order and higher-order centres (cf. figure3). But higher-order centres were able to close the gap considerably. East German medium-sized cities have experienced persistently weak development. While higher-order centres are on a clear consolidation course, middle-order centres appear to be shrinking inexorably. In recent years, however, smaller, local and non-central communities that had grown in population by up to one per cent per year have also been hit by demographic decline.

This raises two questions: Will suburbanisation and dispersion intensity continue to diminish under the specific conditions of demographic decline? Could the settlement system shrink on an even greater scale? Both demand-side and supply-side factors suggest this could be the case.

The demand group that expresses a life-cycle need for more living space and which is an essential carrier of home ownership investment will be shrinking in the years to come (Aring 2003; Münz 2003; Bucher/Schlömer 2003; Bergheim 2003). Although migration studies show families with children are not the only actors in suburbanisation (cf. Blotevogel/Jeschke 2003), pensioner households, single parents, and gainfully employed single-person or couple households nevertheless tend to prefer the core city.

In the coming decades, immigration will be the main driver of demographic developments in Germany. Core cities and the built-up environs will be receiving an increased intake of immigrants from abroad (Bucher/Schlömer 2003, 123). Moreover, experience has shown that home ownership is below average among immigrants, so that new arrivals are likely to concentrate in large core-city rental accommodation markets.

Demographic decline is already endangering the infrastructural viability of thinly populated rural areas, resulting in high mobility costs for the local population. Suburban areas could also be affected in future. With the practically unstoppable fall in population density, critical thresholds for the viability of technical and social infrastructures and in public facilities are reached much earlier in much less densely settled suburban areas than in larger cities. The result could be longer journeys to visit central facilities and higher charges for technical infrastructure. Older households, in particular, could react by returning to the city because day-to-day life is simpler to organise there when mobility is restricted.

At the same time, there are massive cuts in government mobility subsidies like the flat-rate commuter allowance, which could encourage people to move to more central locations. Even if household incomes are rising, the share of income available for mobility is falling owing to the increasing cost of health care and provision for old age, as well as higher energy costs (Topp 2003). In this context it seems plausible that more densely built-up urban residential areas with lower dependence on private motorised transport will prove more attractive in future (ibid., 52).

Demographic decline is also likely in the medium term to ease the situation on core-city housing markets. One of the key determinants of suburbanisation would hence become less important. For population suburbanisation can essentially be understood as an economically determined, spatial avoidance process running from core cities to surrounding areas (Hallenberg 2002; Gatzweiler/Schliebe 1982). The fall in population could make it easier for cities to provide an attractive stock of larger dwellings in a pleasant residential environment.

In recent years, stepped-up efforts in many major cities to mobilise the considerable land resources within existing settlement structures for substitute building uses have allowed core cities to at least partly offset a traditional locational disadvantage - the relative scarcity of land - and to become more competitive vis-à-vis suburbia.

It is certainly too early to talk of an incipient "urban renaissance." But empirical findings suggest that demographic shrinkage will diminish suburbanisation. The degree to which it actually declines depends not only on future demographic and economic developments. A major factor will be whether core cities can mount a successful reurbanisation policy that combines urban reachability advantages with suburban residential quality characteristics. There is much to suggest that suburbanisation will no long operate as a global trend in urban regional development as in the past, especially in the 1970s, 1980s, and to some extent also in the 1990s. Suburbanisation will continue to characterise the development of settlement structures in regions facing persistent growth pressure. In stagnating or shrinking regions city-periphery migration will, in contrast, decrease. This considerably improves the prospect of an "urban renaissance."


5. Interim Conclusion

Development in West and East Germany is likely to continue to be strongly polarised. At the same time, there will be stronger spatial differentiation within the two parts of the country. For East Germany, Herfert paints a picture of "smaller and larger islands with stable to slightly increasing population in an otherwise demographically shrinking region" (Herfert 2002). West Germany, too, will experience greater regional disparities. More and more regions in West Germany will be taking the "path to stagnation or shrinkage" in the coming 20 years.

Over and beyond these large-scale shifts in population distribution, growth and shrinkage will also be experienced side-by-side within agglomerations. Developments in such areas will be less clearly characterised by polarisation between core city and surrounding areas than in the 1990s. What is more likely is that greater differentiation in growth and shrinkage will occur within suburban areas.

The chief drivers of small-scale growth and shrinkage will be further easing of the housing and real estate markets and the concomitant dynamization of residential mobility. Only few regions under continuing growth pressure will be affected by other factors. Where the population is stagnating or declining, regional and municipal housing and real estate markets will in the medium term develop into demand markets (Aring 2003). Potential tenants and buyers can choose from a wide range of offers and benefit from relatively low rentals and property prices. This favours fluctuation from less attractive housing stock. Residential mobility in large East German cities is already much higher than in West German metropolises (Herfert 2003; Glatter 2003). Greater polarisation is therefore likely between stable "growth islands" and shrinking communities or neighbourhoods having to deal with excess supply and vacancy problems on the housing and property markets.

In brief, it seems that neither simply extrapolating the development trends of the 1990s nor a reurbanisation scenario in favour of larger cities is realistic. There is much to suggest that the prevailing suburbanisation and dispersion trend of the 1990s will slow under conditions of demographic decline without reversing to become self-sustaining reurbanisation. But one thing is clear: the settlement structure of the future will be entail greater resources and be more expensive. The demolition and downsizing of redundant buildings and infrastructure cannot be achieved at a level proportionate to the fall in population (cf. the article by Koziol in this issue). Per capita settlement area including infrastructure will continue to increase. Maintaining and operating the building and infrastructure stock will have to be paid for by fewer and fewer residents. The "shrinking city" will doubtless be an expensive one.


6. Challenges for Spatial Planning

The trends in settlement development described have far-reaching consequences for spatial planning. Two aspects are to be stressed: the greater account to be taken of small-scale differentiated developments in planning control and the growing importance of the region as a universe of action. In the first case, demographic decline is having a greater impact than before in planning control approaches as a whole. The second aspect is (urban) regional cooperation between municipalities.

In practice, neither municipal development planning nor regional and state planning has hitherto been prepared to deal with demographic decline. Municipal master planning has "discovered" the issue only relatively recently, not least of all through the urban redevelopment programmes for East and West Germany, but has often focussed primarily on housing market development. Moreover, demographic decline has been only sporadically discussed in the local political arena, and when the issue is broached, it is only to debate about reversing the process, i.e., achieving growth.

Regional plans often date from a period when population decline or downsizing had scarcely been aired publicly at the regional let alone the local level. Regional development concepts also fail to address the subject systematically. The same holds at the state level, although some state governments in Germany have meanwhile tackled the issue more actively than in the 1990s, though generally outside the context of state development planning.

In view of the contiguity of demographic growth, stagnation, and decline in municipalities and regions, fundamental rethinking is required. In spatial planning it has hitherto been usual, and in many cases still enough, to think predominantly in terms of growth, i.e., to designate new land for development and transport purposes, to plan new housing projects, to develop new industrial estates, and to protect open spaces against contra-productive urban sprawl - e.g., by means of order-oriented instruments (enforcement orders, prohibitions). In future this will not be enough.

Growth-oriented approaches must be paralleled by a "decline paradigm" (cf. overview). The focus is on redeveloping cities and regions, cost-efficient stock development, revitalisation, and qualitative development. It is less a question of what infrastructure should be provided than how and under what conditions infrastructure systems can be maintained or have to be redesigned.

Overview: Characteristics of growth and decline-oriented planning

Growth-oriented planning Decline-oriented planning
The focus is on growth, spatial planning as "distribution" of quantitative increases (settlement and traffic land, population, jobs, etc.) The focus is on redevelopment, cost-efficient stock development, stabilisation, revitalisation, qualitative development (residential environment, infrastructure, traffic, etc.)
Building-law and regional-planning tools directed mainly towards new development of land and new construction; infrastructure development as concession and incentive for investment. Importance of derelict land, recycling of land and buildings, differentiated reconversion, adaptation of infrastructure to changed needs.
Growth-oriented control (land use and constructional development) Initiation and organisation of reconversion, rehabilitation, and development with scarce financial resources.
Planning as the basis for distributing growth, separation of spatial functions (home, place of work, etc.) Planning as management of shrinkage processes, small-scale functional mix.
Order-oriented control of land use and constructional development, designation of settlement land, protection of open areas. Strategic planning and integrated concepts, consequence assessment, taking account of life cycle of facilities and demographic changes, model projects, use options, activation, contractual arrangements, efficiency.
Intermunicipal competition (residents, industry, etc.), sectoral incentives, intersectoral framework control. Intermunicipal cooperation, equalization arrangements, multi-level cooperation, intersectoral coordination.

Source: Müller (2003) (slightly modified).

Planning becomes the management of demographic decline. Strategic considerations become more important precisely with regard to facility life-cycle aspects and changing user structures. Integrated concepts are required, since downsizing and redevelopment have to rely on coordinated planning in much greater measure than growth and expansion (cf. Müller 2003).

Against this background, the traditional models of urban development are no less important. However, the so-called Marienthal Declaration has recently demanded that existing planning approaches be subjected to thorough scrutiny and be reappraised in the light of demographic decline (IÖR/IES 2004). In shrinking urban regions, this means, for example, that greater attention must be given to coping with "perforation" in urban regional structures, in other words deconcentration at reasonable cost and decentralized concentration in "viable" locations.

Nor is the situation becoming any easier with regard to sustainable urban development. Even where the population is declining, land consumption for settlement and transport continues to increase in many places. In the face of dispersion, the short-distance city or urban region is more difficult to achieve, at least through "growth." If we take the sustained development postulate seriously, not only the harmonization of economic, social, and ecological development must be more strongly focalized than under conditions of growth but also the "intergenerational effects" of today's decisions: whether and under what conditions future generations can be expected to bear higher per-capita spending, e.g., for infrastructure provided now but which, with a declining population, will be scarcely affordable or maintainable only at considerable additional cost (cf. article by Koziol in this issue). This suggests that, in making decisions on urban expansion, redevelopment, or downsizing, much more attention must be paid in the light of demographic developments to the economic life of facilities and their conditions of use.

Demographic change requires the "uniformity of living standards" model to be rethought and reinterpreted in a broader context. It will not be possible to retain service functions everywhere at the existing level under current conditions. For example, the future of small communities with an overage population also has to be considered. Not that this is new. As long ago as December 2001, the Advisory Council for Regional Planning - upon publication of the Regional Planning Report 2000 and the Regional Planning Forecast 2015 - called for changes in planning and stressed that spatial development tendencies needed to be reassessed. They pointed out that clarification was needed on "what orientation is to underlie the 'principle of the uniformity of living standards' and how this principle is to be upheld in the longer term" (cf. Beirat für Raumordnung 2001, 6 f.). Traffic planners and the municipal utility sector, in particular, are meanwhile voicing similar demands (Wissenschaftlicher Beirat beim Bundesminister für Verkehr, Bau- und Wohnungswesen, s.a.).

This brings us to a second aspect, the growing importance of the region as a level for action. If demographic growth and decline or differential decline are to be found on a small scale in close proximity, it is not only wise but more important than ever to treat functionally closely interrelated areas as units for planning purposes. If redevelopment and downsizing are on the municipal agenda, adjustment concepts need to be discussed and implemented in regional cooperation. In contrast to traditional policy approaches, the region is becoming more important, less as a level for the order-oriented control of development than as a spatial platform for the efficiency-oriented adjustment of settlement structures. If a number of municipalities face the same problems of having to close schools or scale-down technical infrastructure, these problems should not be tackled at the level of the single municipality: regional solutions should be sought to "save" facilities and maintain public services in the long term and in keeping with community needs. The same holds for housing construction and many other sectors. Naturally, such adjustment strategies require regional equalization mechanisms and need to be pursued in an integrated mode, i.e., across sectors and in close cooperation with private and civil society groups.

In many places, integrated regional adjustment strategies can draw on existing regional planning tools, e.g., small-scale and problem-oriented regional development concepts in cooperation areas. Like such development concepts, these strategies should include four elements, always with demographic decline in mind: first, a careful analysis of the given situation; second, a scenario-like portrayal of development options and required action with a time horizon of at least twenty to thirty years on the basis of realistic assumptions about demographic developments; third, a vision or model for future "desirable" and realistically attainable structures; and fourth, a catalogue or programme of measures for individual areas of action with priorities and stated responsibilities.

Adjustment strategies should be developed on the initiative of municipalities and not from the perspective of superordinate planning (e.g., regional and state planning). Nonetheless, the superordinate planning level could provide assistance through expert mediation in inter-municipal cooperation and taking the initiative in overcoming intermunicipal barriers when municipal actors prove reluctant to rethink in shrinkage categories. Under conditions of demographic decline, regional and state planning are by no means superfluous: they play a decisive role in coping with the consequences of a shrinking population.


7. Conclusions

A look at the differentiated structure of demographic growth and decline in Germany shows that municipalities and regions can no longer rely exclusively on "traditional" growth approaches. They must think in new categories of planning control based on a "decline paradigm." A comprehensive societal dialogue is needed on the spatial effects of population decline and their consequences for national and local government. If the full range of consequences is to be identified and solutions found, it is not enough to consider the individual municipality in isolation.

Fatalism is not the answer to radical and long-term demographic developments. It should not be forgotten that population decline can be an opportunity. It can open the way to renewal and modernisation (e.g., in competition, in urban development revitalisation), it can offer opportunities for quality improvement (e.g., in the residential environment, for open space quality and local recreation, as well as for near-natural landscapes) and provide an incentive to mobilise the endogenous resources of regions (e.g., new economic sectors and initiatives). But these opportunities can be exploited only if municipalities collaborate with their regions, if they openly thematize the demographic problems in spatial planning and development policy, identify and take account of localized impacts, and find regionally differentiated solutions by exploiting specific resources or through purposive downsizing. For municipalities and regions with their specific development requirements and perspectives, population decline can provide opportunity for a dialogue on coping with demographic change and, ideally, a basis for developing a new fundamental societal consensus.



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