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Finding opportunities in declining cities

Working with civil society to reverse decline in small and medium sized towns
Altena / Germany
Size of city: 
16 500 inhabitants


Sara Schmidt
Project Coordinator
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The overarching theme of this good practice is strategic management in the context of long-term decline and stagnation. After local industries closed, the population of Altena (DE) shrank by 43% between 1975 and 2014. Facing diminishing resources and increasingly complex problems, the municipality adjusted its priorities, working more closely with citizens. Actions include: organisational restructuring (such as downsizing and resource-sharing), developing civil society (including the involvement of hundreds of volunteers), economic revitalisation (through tourism, for example), and integration of refugees. In 2015 Altena's population increased for the first time since the 1970s. Municipal finances have improved, there are fewer empty shops, and unemployment has fallen for the first time in 40 years.
Having shifted its strategic objectives to work more closely with citizens and focus on controlling decline rather than focusing on growth, Altena has stabilised its population and improved municipal finances. Altena provides examples where the response to decline is rooted in local resources and expertise. The experience of Altena shows that activating often dormant resources and opportunities requires a frank debate about the future direction of the town. This requires strong visionary leadership combined with the ability to integrate conflicting interests and overcome resistance to change.

The solutions offered by the good practice

Altena provides a case study of two practical interventions which can arrest and ultimately reverse decline: the ‘Stellwerk’ volunteers’ platform, and a ‘Pop-up Shop’ campaign. Fostering the engagement of inhabitants who are not in paid employment but have access to skills and resources to help support those in need, builds the capacity of civil society to engage with often complex social problems in a structured way. Altena founded its NGO platform in 2008 and called it Stellwerk. The Stellwerk started without a budget. The municipality made available premises, paid the energy and cleaning bills, provided a minimum of administrative resources. Currently the Stellwerk has 8 volunteer workers who co-ordinate several hundred volunteers providing disability support, arts and music groups, home visiting and home care services, refugee integration and much more. The Stellwerk provides an essential channel of communication between civil society and municipality. Economic decline and outmigration of economically active populations result in an over-supply of retail premises, especially in town centres. Pop-up shops provide an effective way to populate the town centre with new enterprises. The goal is to support entrepreneurs in testing the viability of their business in that particular location and then facilitate the transition into permanent rental agreement with the property owners. The municipality carries some costs and also risks during this period and needs to be prepared to overcome resistance from existing shops and also the owners of empty premises. Altena established 14 pop-ups of which 5 are now trading as permanent, regular businesses on the high street. The good practices Altena are relevant to all smaller cities that have to rely on their own resources to create opportunities for improving socio-economic and environmental conditions. This includes creating opportunities for meaningful paid and unpaid work, tackling environmental degradation, reducing financial liabilities for public agencies, safeguarding essential services, enhancing economic activity and integrating vulnerable members of society. The practices developed by Altena are locally created sustainable innovations based on the resources that are typically available to smaller cities, including: natural resources, such as landscapes, forests, rivers, man-made physical resources, such as buildings, roads and infrastructure, economic resources, such as existing companies, education and training facilities, and, perhaps most important, social resources, meaning the skills, energy, resources and networks of the people who live and work in the city. To generate effective responses to shrinkage these resources need to be bundled in ways which resonate with local stakeholders because they are the engine that mobilises the skills and energies available locally.

Building on the sustainable and integrated approach

Altena has been identified by national and international experts as a good practice case in responding to urban decline in sustainable and cross-cutting ways. Downsizing and restructuring the municipality resulted in the integration of planning, economic development, transport functions, education and leisure services were combined, housing and adult social care were integrated. But equally important, the civil society forum (Stellwerk) was strengthened and given a voice as well as influence over the strategic decisions the city administration would have made in isolation in the past. These actions were embedded in a strategy framework developed in close collaboration with the local population, which resulted in the Altena 2015 strategy (see below). Hence the good practices promoted here are fully aligned with the URBACT principles of sustainable urban living as well as an integrated and participatory approach to socio-economic and environmental development.

Based on a participatory approach

Between 2003 and 2005 Altena received support from the Bertelsmann Foundation to develop participatory initiatives for building an inter-generational town that embraced the needs of an ageing population. Planning consultants, architects and academics facilitated a comprehensive range of workshop to explore the ideas as well as apprehensions local people had about the future of their city. This process was called ‘Altena 2015’ and resulted in a strategic development framework for the city which was governed not by the municipality alone but in conjunction with a newly created partnership of civil society organisations. The strategy went beyond generational matters and identified a large number of priorities for new social, economic and environmental developments – none of the ‘old’ initiatives when the town was still in denial about the reality of shrinkage were included. The strategy was based on the principle that citizens had to contribute in practical ways to the services and any improvements they wanted to see. Given that the municipality was technically bankrupt at the time, the active and extensive input of citizens who live and work in Altena is considered to be the distinctive and decisive element of a strategy that has brought about a reversal in the fortunes of the city.

What difference has it made?

Through the ‘Altena 2015’ strategy many problems were tackled in an integrated and collaborative way. By working with civil society it was possible to reduce the number of schools, nurseries, leisure centres and vacant housing stock in ways which minimised the impact on people’s lives. Problems were turned into opportunities by:
• Connecting the town with a major visitor attraction on the mountain above Altena through an elevator, the ‘Erlebnisaufzug’.
• Pop-up shops to bring entrepreneurs into the town centre
• Refurbishing the riverfront
• Developing inter-generational projects
• Strengthening voluntary agencies.
In 2011 there were 23 empty shops in the town centre, now there are 18 and essential services are provided to a high standard, often complemented with support from citizens. The local economy has turned a corner and for the first time in 40 years unemployment has fallen and stands at 6.5%. The financial resources of the municipality are now stable, showing a break-even budget 2017/18 instead of projecting a deficit as in previous decades. In 2015 Altena’s population increased for the first time since the 1970s, primarily by inviting more refugees than required by legislation, thus growing its capacity to respond to shrinkage. The exemplary work undertaken to integrate refugees is well known:

Transferring the practice

After being awarded the URBACT Good Practice title, Altena was able to create the Re-grow City Transfer Network to which seven European cities (Manresa Spain, Idrija Slovenia, Igoumenitsa Greece, Isernia Italy, Melgaço Portugal, Aluksne Latvia, Nyírbátor Hungary) were invited which were similarly facing the challenge of declining population. Equipped by URBACT with a toolkit, the cities could learn from each other.
Re-grow City deliberately focused on small and medium sized towns, because they face distinctive challenges in terms of constrained resources and limited technical capabilities when compared to larger cities. These constraints offer opportunities, however, for example robust social networks with high levels of ‘social capital’ and short decision making routes that speed up the adoption of untested or controversial methods. Taken together with the resources and skills local people have, shrinking cities are places of opportunity and can demonstrate considerable resilience even where they face severe constraints.
As a side-outcome of the Re-Grow City network, in May 2021 the new pan-European network ReGrow Towns has been established. This is aimed for towns below the size of 50 th residents and is an addendum to the already existing networks of Eurocities (cities above 250 th residents) and Eurotowns (cities between 50-250 th residents).