Go Big or Go Home?

These days, one in three Germans lives in a mid-sized town, and this trend is on the up. Especially around buzzing urban centers, more and more people are feeling the pull of the surrounding area. For this year’s World Cities Day, we asked: What is it that makes towns with under 100,000 inhabitants so appealing? And what challenges are they facing? 

Sabine Fischer | October 2020
© REG/Petruschke/Juhr

Aerial view of Neuruppin: The city is the birthplace of the poet Theodor Fontane and is therefore also called Fontanestadt.

Housing shortages, huge crowds at open houses, and rising property prices: While urbanization may still be a global megatrend, for many people in Germany, life in a city often ends up being a financial balancing act. The solution seems obvious: Live further out and commute for work. Yet in German towns, this trend is triggering some unexpected changes.

Just an hour outside of Berlin is the 32,000-strong town of Neuruppin with its wide streets, lively cultural scene, and a nearby lake. For the region, the town serves as both recreational center and shopping point. But its proximity to the big city is posing new challenges for the Neuruppin municipal administration. “Building lot and housing applications are constantly increasing. We need to take this into account in our future planning,” says Daniela Kuzu, who is responsible for the town’s change management process.

Similar scenarios are playing out across medium-sized towns all over Germany. One in three German citizens now lives in a town with between 20,000 and 100,000 inhabitants, and this trend is on the up. Especially when close to urban centers, these mid-sized towns are taking on new significance. “They are the link between urban and rural areas and work as a kind of hinge,” explains Fee Thissen from RWTH Aachen University. She is the head coordinator of the "Medium-sized cities as Participate cities. Qualitative change through new ways of citymaking" doctoral program, which is funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung and develops future strategies for medium-sized towns in Germany.  

Daniela Kuzu_500x538

About the Person

Daniela Kuzu has been an alderman at Neuruppin since March 2019 and is responsible for the comprehensive change management process in the city administration. After completing her diploma in political science with a focus on international law (Freie Universität Berlin) and her master's degree in conflict management (Lancaster University, England), she worked for the Friedrich Ebert Foundation for 13 years, including as head of office in Ghana and deputy head of office in Istanbul.

Medium-sized cities are particularly attractive for young families

“Medium-sized towns may benefit in terms of growth when they are located near large cities with a saturated housing market. Their location makes them particularly attractive,” says Thissen. In these towns, people can live surrounded by nature, take advantage of more leisure and local recreational facilities, and yet are able to commute to the city and take advantage of the labor market there. “Young families in particular are attracted by the positives medium-sized towns have to offer as a place to live: Often there is still land available to build on and real estate is more affordable.”

However, the influx of new residents presents major challenges for the municipalities in question. “Medium-sized towns initially often struggle to cope with the extra pressure on housing,” says Fee Thissen. “Sometimes there are obstacles in creating building lots. Also, there may be some unease on the part of people already living in the town and its immediate surroundings.” Integration processes in urban and rural areas, as recently described in the study “Two Worlds? Integration Policy in Urban versus Rural Areas,” play a key role in healthy growth. “What’s more, their infrastructure may face its limits and towns have to step it up, for example by creating more daycare places,” says Thissen.

Fee Thissen_500x538

About the Person

Fee Thissen works as a coordinator of a doctoral college at the chair for planning theory and urban development at RWTH Aachen University. Her research topic is focused on urban transformation processes, which she also examined in her dissertation on change in Zurich West. In addition, she is involved in teaching and research at RWTH Aachen University as well as in various practical contexts with the main topics redevelopment, participation and communication.

Daniela Kuzu has seen similar developments in Brandenburg: “The inner belt of towns – that is to say, the surrounding towns that are still on the Berlin public transport network – is now suffering from major growing pains,” she says. She relates how the town of Falkensee, for example, has doubled its population since the fall of the Berlin Wall, but has barely kept up in terms of adapting its infrastructure. Furthermore, real estate prices have soared. Daniela Kuzu now wants to learn from such observations.

Because pressure from the big city is mounting on Neuruppin too. Between 2010 and 2017 alone, the number of commuters traveling daily to Berlin increased by 26 percent. “Traffic in and around Neuruppin has grown massively,” says Kuzu. In order to develop a viable future strategy, the town administration needs to grapple with various scenarios. “We have the luxury that the first group of towns around Berlin unfortunately did not have. We can think about how to grow healthily and what to prioritize,” explains Kuzu. One example is public transport connections, which, to her mind, need to be improved.

The surrounding area benefits from the living, economic and cultural area of the big city

Fee Thissen also has some suggestions for positive solutions for mid-sized towns suffering from growing pains: “Some larger cities are specifically networking with nearby municipalities in the surrounding area so that they can benefit from one another in areas such as housing, local shopping, the labor market, and mobility. The surrounding area benefits from the living, economic, and cultural space of the big city, while the latter can alleviate the pressures brought by growth.”

BBSR Bonn 2019

In addition to the large metropolitan regions Rhine-Ruhr, Munich, Berlin / Brandenburg, Rhine-Main and Stuttgart, more and more people in Germany are drawn to medium-sized cities. Click through the interactive map of the Federal Institute for Building, Urban and Spatial Research (BBSR).

But far from all mid-sized German towns have seen this kind of growth. This is not just down to whether they are part of a metropolitan region or not. According to Fee Thissen, among other things, a lively downtown area with shopping opportunities, or being seen as an education hotspot make a place attractive. The doctoral program at RWTH Aachen University, funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung, sheds light on the transformations these places are undergoing. “In many medium-sized towns, the focus is also on structural change, examining regenerative technologies, and developing their own image,” relates Fee Thissen. The program’s ten doctoral students work on site with the municipalities involved as well as with other stakeholders and develop participatory activities to stimulate change in cities.

The college promotes exchange between medium-sized cities

Being a “place for participation” has a double meaning: For one, the program pursues a transformative approach and combines research with specific local activities. Equally, the towns involved are actively encouraged to participate and inspire stakeholders to tackle their specific transformation processes alongside them. Following an application process, 40 medium-sized towns are now involved in the project. In the coming years, they should network not just with the researchers, but also with one another. The opportunity to share practice with other mid-sized towns is a central aspect for many of them. Neuruppin is also taking part in the project: “We are intested to see examples of best practice from the program,” says Daniela Kuzu.