Shrink Smarter

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By: By Caitlan Carroll ///

Germany and the United States have to face the shrinking of cities. The urban sociologist Christine Hannemann talks about the challenges and chances of this phenomenon.

When a person loses a little weight, finding clothing that fits only requires a quick trip to the department store. But when a city’s size no longer fits its population, that’s a more difficult problem to solve. This is the case in many post-industrial cities – places where factory closures have forced populations to move in search of new jobs. Apartment buildings stand empty, businesses close, and the city’s infrastructure struggles to efficiently serve the residents left in the city. “Everyone expects cities to continue to grow,” says Professor Christine Hannemann, an urban sociologist at the University of Stuttgart who has conducted research on changing cities in Germany and the United States for more than 15 years. “But of course there are many cities that go against this idea.”

Hannemann points to areas like the Midwestern United States and Eastern Germany to illustrate this phenomenon. She says most regions in the world that have relied on one industry, like cars or shipping, are now in decline because the industry has moved elsewhere as it chases cheaper production and labor costs.

But some cities are trying to reinvent themselves. The East German city of Gera, for instance, is experimenting with its newly vacant lots by turning them into Christmas tree plantations. Another experiment uses abandoned concrete buildings as locations for mushroom farms and greenhouses. In Flint, Michigan, a former hot spot for the American auto industry, residents turn abandoned neighborhoods into community gardens. Other plans center on turning Flint into a hub for alternative energy production. The city of Hoyerswerda, Saxony, was once East Germany’s fastest growing city. Today, it’s the fastest shrinking – losing about five people a day. Residents hope that the quality of life will improve by removing unused buildings and making their city smaller and greener. Architect Dorit Baumeister has led a number of projects to help foster dialogue among the residents about what it means to grow smaller.

Christine Hannemann calls individuals like Baumeister “Raumpioniere”, or pioneers of the space. Dorit Baumeister invited 30 artists to create works surrounding the six-week destruction of a plattenbau, one of the many empty concrete highrises in the city. She also considers how to use abandoned buildings for new purposes – for example, a former supermarket now hosts dance performances and club nights. She says “there are some very interesting projects” inspired by these “Raumpioniere” in the areas of agriculture and the arts, although she’s still unsure whether the projects will truly improve the quality of life long-term.

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