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Sought-after city centre locations

"unizeit" reported on the trend towards reurbanisation ten years ago in its article entitled “Stadt, Land, Flucht” (city, country, flight). This boom for the cities continues. unizeit followed up on the reasons for and consequences of this in conversation with Professor Rainer Wehrhahn.

Model city
© iStock/scanrail

The ideal city is only existing on the drawing board. The challenges in real life are growing population numbers, housing shortages and rising rents, sustainable transport concepts and intelligent land use for housing, economy and nature.

What was just the start of the development towards city living ten years ago is now very clear: “We see a trend towards population growth across all sizes of city,” says Professor Rainer Wehrhahn. Alongside this is an increasing emptying out of peripheral rural areas, which also benefits the surrounding area of large metropolises, the so-called commuter belt. “We find demographic growth in smaller cities, too.” 

Basically, cities are growing and villages are shrinking. The expert on urban and population geography at Kiel University uses the term reurbanisation to describe this effect. “After a phase in which most of the core cities shrank by varying degrees of intensity, we have seen at times very high increases in population in most German urban regions in the last 10 to 15 years.”

The reasons for this are clear. Cities offer good opportunities for work and education as well as a large number of childcare options. They score points for the variety of sports and leisure activities on offer and also provide care facilities for the older population. Schools, nurseries and medical practices, sports clubs, youth groups and cultural establishments – these are all lacking in rural areas. Wehrhahn says “these shortcomings play an essential role in reurbanisation. In areas with a shrinking population it is not only the transport infrastructure that disappears, but also the social and economic infrastructure. And once this process starts, it is unbelievably hard to stop.” 

Many jobs are concentrated in urban centres and peripheral areas. This is where companies find what they need: good transport links, proximity to customers and skilled workers. “For reasons of sustainability it makes sense if economy and population are kept together in larger towns and cities. Spreading them out would only lead to more traffic and more land use,” explains the geographer. “For political and social reasons, on the other hand, it is of course also important not to give up on more remote rural areas.”

The state must intervene with regulations in order to create social balance.

Rainer Wehrhahn

He provides another reason for the increasing appeal of cities: housing as investment property. “The housing sector is the last sector still worth investing in at the moment. This means national and global capital is flooding the housing markets, which is producing this investor-driven urban development. And this is a development that local stakeholders are hardly able to influence.” 

On the flip side of the city boom are housing shortages and rising rents. Available housing is scarce, especially for households on low incomes. The scientist regards this as the responsibility of the local authorities “because, on the one hand, they have not built any social housing in the last 15 years and on the other, they have sold the local authority housing and land areas. The state must intervene with regulations in order to create social balance.” Rent freezes or community preservation rules are examples of regulatory instruments; another one is the quota for social housing in new construction projects. “I think the only option for the future is to rapidly implement a plan of public housing construction. This means strengthening or establishing housing associations so that the public sector provides affordable housing instead of paying expensive rent subsidies.” 

Things are actually happening in some city centres. In Munich and Hamburg, for example, former railway or industrial land is being transformed into residential areas. Wehrhahn says “there are already ideas in urban policy on how to promote living in towns or cities. This is also necessary because there is no alternative but to develop existing land.” The typical city centre retail trade is increasingly in decline. “Meanwhile, all types of events and gastronomy are becoming more important for city centres. And the aim is to promote this in combination with city centre living.” The construction project in Kiel’s Bootshafen is an example of this, he says. Alongside high quotas for affordable rental housing, it is also important to boost the attractiveness of the living environment, says Wehrhahn, for example, in the form of new parks, such as the redevelopment of the Gleisdreieck in Berlin. 

Author: Kerstin Nees

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