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York University MES students explore shrinking cities in Germany

York University MES students explore shrinking cities in Germany

What do urban planners do when cities are shrinking, not growing? This is hard to imagine in a city like Toronto, where real estate is at a premium and construction cranes are a constant feature of the skyline. However, many German cities have been steadily shrinking in population size over the last three decades, resulting in thousands of empty buildings and an increase in demolitions rather than construction projects.

Right: A cooperatively owned high-rise building in Halle has a market at its base with three identical abandoned buildings behind it. Photo by Josh Neubauer

This summer, 13 master’s students from York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies travelled to Berlin and Leipzig to participate in a graduate urban planning course, co-taught by a team of York University faculty members under the directorship of environmental studies Professor Ute Lehrer and urban studies coordinator Douglas Young, as well as CITY postdoctoral fellow Will Poppe. The students learned first-hand how German planners are responding to large-scale population decline in urbanized areas.

“This workshop gave me the opportunity to go to Europe for the first time, and Berlin simply blew me away,” says Nishanthan Balasubramaniam, a student in the Masters of Environmental Studies (MES) Planning Program. “I learned a lot about German planning and culture. This course abroad was an unforgettable experience.”

From June 24 to July 9, the students spoke with urban researchers, local planners, activists and residents. Through these conversations, along with many hours of exploring Leipzig, Berlin and Halle-Neustadt on foot and by bike, and taking hundreds of photographs, the students pieced together a picture of how East German cities are working to adapt to their shrinking populations and socio-economic challenges, and what these changes have meant for the everyday lives of residents.

Left: York planning students consult a map of Halle-Neustadt with local planners. Photo by Josh Neubauer

The students learned that many of the biggest changes are taking place in neighbourhoods that are visibly similar to parts of Toronto – demolitions are taking place in the clusters of pre-fabricated apartment towers on the edges of the city. These communities, like Toronto’s high-rise neighbourhoods, are often stigmatized even though many of their residents are relatively content. MES planning student Gwen Potter says residents are concerned about the way their community has been targeted for demolition. “From our conversations with local residents, we heard about their deep pride in their community,” says Potter. 

Despite the challenges that population decline has created for residents and planners, it has also produced unexpected benefits in communities like Grünau. With fewer apartment blocks, there are now more open spaces, and the community is surrounded by lush meadows and forests. Throughout Leipzig, residents are making the best of the shrinking population by turning demolition sites into new green spaces. As they walked and biked through these neighbourhoods, the York planning students were struck by how differently plants and trees were integrated in the community than in Toronto’s manicured neighbourhoods. “I was introduced to a new way of discussing the urban landscape and the importance of urban ecology,” says MES planning student Christine Furtado, who sees the benefits of this practice.

For the students, the course provided an important international perspective where they learned about the contradictions of new developments at the periphery at the same time that population decline is occurring in the core city. With continued sprawl and decreasing populations, planners in many German cities now work with community members, property owners and developers to shape their urban spaces with a focus on quality rather than quantity. The students indicated they were inspired by the innovative approaches to community building that have emerged as a result of these collaborations and hope to carry these lessons into their future planning work in Canada.

Right: Population loss leaves room for an abundance of green space in Grünau, Leipzig. Photo by Josh Neubauer

During the course, the students also had the opportunity to learn about the challenges of suburban neighbourhoods and outlying tower districts all over the world. They observed a two-day conference on suburban governance organized as part of York’s Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada-funded major collaborative research initiative (MCRI) – Global Suburbanisms: Governance, Land & Infrastructure in the 21st Century, which brought together international researchers studying suburbanization processes around the world. The direct link between the themes of the workshop and the conference were an essential component of the learning experience in Leipzig.

As Lehrer says, “This course had a different approach than your normal planning workshop because it was trying to make a regular course part of an international research project. This innovative teaching approach allows both students and researchers to learn from each other in ways that are not possible in a regular classroom. It was a huge success and we hope to replicate it by taking students to Montpellier, France, next year and to Shanghai in 2014.”

Left: Large apartment buildings being demolished in the Grünau neighbourhood in outer Leipzig. Photo by Josh Neubauer

The York students also shared findings and research interests with a group of Polish architecture and sociology students conducting their own analysis of the Leipzig-Grünau housing estate, which added another important international dimension.

The MES students are now producing a final report, aimed at planners and policy-makers in Toronto and the GTA, that will draw on their research in Germany to make recommendations for how Toronto’s tower neighbourhoods might be transformed.

This graduate course was a component of the Global Suburbanisms project based at York University’s CITY Institute under the direction of Professor Roger Keil. The course was made possible with generous financial support of York International and the German Academic Exchange Service and benefited from institutional, academic and personal support of Professor Sigrun Kabisch and Professor Dieter Rink, as well as other colleagues from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig, a partner in York’s Global Suburbanisms project.

By York MES students Gwen Potter and Josh Neubauer, who travelled to Germany this summer

Republished courtesy of YFile – York University’s daily e-bulletin.