Leipzig is something akin to the European Detroit. Formerly the second biggest city in East Germany and once boasting a population of over 700,000, Leipzig has shrunk significantly since the reunification of Germany in 1990 and now has only about 550,000 residents. According to Daniel Florentin, a Parisian urban planner who has worked in Leipzig, reunification caused the city to be degraded to a lower ranking in the region’s “urban hierarchy.” Heavy losses in jobs and the emergence of urban brownfields (land previously used for industrial purposes, which is or feared to be contaminated with hazardous pollutants), haven’t helped. Depopulation reached a critical level between 1989 and 1999.

But it isn’t as bleak as all that.

Leipzig has lost over 100,000 inhabitants within 10 years (more than 15% of its former population), around 100,000 industrial jobs, and in 2008, every fifth apartment was vacant. But let’s talk about who has stayed. Florentin applauds local authorities for recognizing that a city can’t be described with just numbers and trying to recruit a new generation of good neighbors.

Inverse spoke with Florentin to get a better sense of what’s in store for Leipzig’s future.

What has been the city’s more recent history with city shrinkage? How has it changed our work to improve its situation?

Since 2007, the city is regaining some population at a very slow level. This is mainly due to three factors:

  • The city’s boundaries have been extended, and Leipzig has grown thanks to several annexations. The city is now four times bigger than Paris in terms of surface area, but four times smaller in terms of population.
  • Berlin’s rent gap: Berlin’s motto has long been “arm, aber sexy” (poor, yet sexy). Even though rents are still lower than what you can find in other European capital cities, they have increased tremendously over the last past decade. Leipzig has the advantage of being close to Berlin (70 minutes away by train) and offers the same opportunities to artists and young students as Berlin did in the late 1990s: space at a very reasonable price and a lively cultural alternative scene. Symptomatically enough, the new campaign of the municipality says, quite aggressively: “Leipzig, a better Berlin.”
  • The results of a restructuring of the material part of the city, with the active commitment of several personalities, such as Engelbert Lütke Daldrup, formerly responsible for the city planning department, and the actions led within the frame of a national urban policy Stadtumbau Ost (urban restructuring for the Eastern part of Germany: mainly the demolition of big housing estates and refurbishing of central historic areas).

Still, the socio-economic situation of the city has not improved accordingly. Compared to other similar cities in Germany, unemployment and other indicators of precarity are still much higher than the German average. Twenty five years after the reunification, Leipzig is still a very typical Eastern German city, even though its situation has improved compared to what it was no sooner than 10 years ago.

There is no convergence with very affluent Western German cities such as Frankfurt or Stuttgart. This is partly the result of the planning strategy developed at a national level (and which echoes many European policies since the late 1990s): cities have to compete against each other rather than build common development projects through solidarity. One has seen the transition of territorial solidarity to urban competition, in a classical neoliberal way. Leipzig used to be the biggest German (if not European) book fair — Frankfurt has now developed its own fair which is now more popular than Leipzig’s due to the airport hub.

What will be the biggest issues or problems that threaten Leipzig’€™s future in the next few decades? Will population shrinkage still be an issue in the future? Will other concerns be more prominent?

Population decline will certainly go on in the next few decades: Like in most European cities, the population is aging and the demographic indicators all point to a diminution of the number of children per woman. Still, compared to small cities experiencing similar processes such as Dessau, Cottbus or Schwerin, Leipzig benefits from a size effect: depopulation will be stronger in those other small cities and will be accelerated by the closing of public services in smaller places such as schools, post office, and hospitals. There has already been a trend of migration from these cities with a deteriorated public service infrastructures to bigger cities where all this is still available.

There is also a more and more prevalent issue that will rise in the next decades: the state of urban infrastructures. As city councils have suffered from high debt, budgetary policies involving consolidation have been implemented in all the Eastern German cities (except Dresden). This is at the expenses of the maintenance of many forms of infrastructure, be they water networks, public transportation, road, district heating systems, or hospitals. In other comparable cities like Magdeburg, the city does not operate kindergarden anymore and has privatized this essential service. Similarly, in Leipzig, there has frequently been debates on possible privatization of water or public transportation systems. The economic equilibrium of the city is still characterized by its frailty.

Besides, Leipzig’s economy is highly linked with fairs (like the aforementioned book fair) and is really dependent upon international clients and exogenous growth factors. Times of crisis such as the one Europe has been experiencing for about 8 years are always hitting the city harder than other German cities with a more endogenous economic development. Its economic structure is still weak and really dependant upon other cities.

Lastly, the big remaining issue is the one of vacant houses: even though the situation has improved, large parts of the city still remain quite empty. This is problematic for all the urban networks, where you have to bring the water, heating, and power up to isolated areas, and this creates more problems and generates more costs of maintenance. There is a need to develop a more compact urbanism, which the city does not represent that much.

So what’s next? What kinds of urban development ideas and concepts can best help Leipzig solve these problems?

Leipzig’s authorities developed a strategy, mainly discursive and image-based, resting on the fact that they had very little money and needed to have the largest possible impact.

This led to the development of small-scale projects, often co-financed by other parts of Europe to change some districts’ image. What was praised was often the potential for young urban professionals or artists. But this quest for gentrifiers and creative classes only work for a couple of places and cannot be the unique strategy.

Some artistic projects were quite interesting, but this was not included in a more comprehensive strategy. For instance, they helped the creation of a lot of culural places in Leipziger Westen, but the public transportation stopped at 8:00pm — you could get to a place but not come back easily. Accessibility has been quite forgotten in their strategy.

But some others have developed interesting, more innovative initiatives. Two are worth mentioning, and they both try to addess vacant houses:

  • One is called Wächterhäuser, “the guarded houses,” and was launched by a group of architects and independant urban planners. People could rent flats in buildings of cultural and architectural value but in a half-dilapidated state for one month, on the condition that they will do the work to refurbish the building and make it livable again. This worked quite well, with artistic projects. Yet, this only concerns 13-14 houses, while over 20,000 are vacant. This is only a drop in the ocean.
  • The other one relates to the activity of a housing cooperative, Kontakt. It proactively deals with the twofold issue of aging and depopulation. They developed lots of free-of-charge services for their customers/inhabitants, such as doing errands, providing a common room to invigorate local sociability, celebrating your birthday, etc. They considered big housing estate to have a certain form of modernity, and they refused to participate to the program of demolition. Instead, they remodeled the houses with nice rooftops, lifts, balconies and all these small details that constitute comfort, joy of being there, territorial affection.

Are there any current big projects that you think are exemplary of what the future of urban development in Leipzig should be?

There are some big projects in Leipzig, but they cannot be considered as really going in the right direction. The new site for the fair as well as the Bayerischer Bahnhof (a second train station to go southwards more rapidly) are two typical examples of urban misconceptions. Their costs were three to four times what it should have been and what had been calculated, and the effects in terms of job creation or better mobility are minimal, if not worse.

The city should really invest in the urban infrastructure that is its invisible engine, instead of focusing on starchitecture and prominent but quite useless and space consuming projects.

Are there lessons from other cities around the world that developers in Leipzig could apply?

Leipzig has been more at the forefront than the other way around. Usually, it is taken as an example for the creative way with which the city decided to cope with urban shrinkage. Actors from the civil society as well as housing companies or the authorities have been quite active in this process, even though they did not always collaborate. But developers in Leipzig often look at what is happening with their neighbors in Berlin, the ever-changing city.