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Cities in Transition on Both Sides of the Pond

Contributed by Tamar Shapiro, Director of Urban and Regional Policy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

 

Over the past few decades, a number of European cities have made a remarkable comeback after suffering the nearly complete collapse of their industrial sectors. From Bilbao and Barcelona in Spain to Torino in Italy and Lille in France, these cities have halted the spiral of decline, vacancy, and disinvestment. They may never regain their peak population or rebuild their old industries, but through a combination of innovative land use transformations and bold economic development strategies, they have achieved stability and built a new vision for their future.

Last fall, the Urban and Regional Policy Program of the German Marshall Fund (GMF) launched the 3-year Cities in Transition Initiative to explore the parallels between older industrial cities in the United States and those in Europe through intensive study tours and workshops. With funding from the Kresge Foundation and the Surdna Foundation, GMF is building a network of land use and economic development practitioners from Detroit, Flint, Cleveland, Youngstown, and Pittsburgh, as well as federal officials from HUD and other agencies, for sustained policy exchange with their counterparts in Europe.

In December 2010, GMF led the initiative’s first study tour to Leipzig in Germany and Manchester in the United Kingdom with a focus on land use and planning strategies. Leipzig – famous for its musical history, its trade fair, and its extensive and beautiful turn of the century housing stock – may not seem to have much in common with Rust Belt cities at first glance. Yet it suffered an almost complete industrial collapse and dramatic population loss after German reunification, resulting in vacancy levels that rivaled many of its U.S. counterparts. It was also one of the first cities in Germany to address its status as a shrinking city explicitly in the late 1990s through a program of carefully targeted demolition and revitalization efforts. Its population has been steadily growing over the past decade, and vacancy rates have fallen considerably. Leipzig is particularly known for its integrated cross-agency approach to planning and for its experimentation with temporary reuse of vacant land for cultural purposes or green space as a means of stabilizing neighborhoods and energizing local markets.

Manchester’s decline from its heyday as the cotton capital of England was more gradual but no less dramatic. The city also faced large-scale abandonment and disinvestment but has since reclaimed a spot as one of the United Kingdom’s most important economic engines. Key to the city’s revitalization strategy was a regional approach involving close collaboration with other local governments in the Greater Manchester region as well as with the private sector, most notably through the establishment of public-private partnerships to guide the large-scale redevelopment of key neighborhoods. In exploring the specifics of each city’s strategy, GMF study tour participants identified broad strategies as well as specific practices that could be adapted to a U.S. context.

GMF is now preparing for a second study tour to the Ruhr Valley and to Barcelona to examine regional and place-based approaches to economic development. As the participants in this study tour become a part of the growing GMF network, they will add to the lively exchange that is the hallmark of this initiative.

 
 
 


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