Greater Ohio visits European "Cities in Transition": Leipzig, Germany and Manchester, England

By Lavea Brachman. Leipzig: Initial Observations and Key Takeaways

As a part of the Greater Ohio Policy Center's partnership with the German Marshall Fund, announced earlier this year, I had the pleasure of visiting two European cities this past week -- Leipzig, Germany and Manchester, England – with a group investigating these two cities’ revitalization strategies and practices to glean lessons for our cities.  These two European cities share many qualities with American cities, like Cleveland and Youngstown and so many other Ohio cities, including such distinguishing factors as an industrial past, a significant decline in population (“shrinkage”) as well as increased unemployment and poverty rates and other distress indicators.  This blog is the first in a series of occasional blogs entitled, “Lessons from European Cities,” that will appear over the next few months describing revitalization strategies and lessons to be learned for similarly situated American cities from these two European cities.

From both cities, we learned generally about the importance of:  leadership (trite though it sounds), a sustained (decades-long) renewal vision and integrating physical rehabilitation with economic redevelopment efforts.  Leipzig -- a charming city with a cultural and political history as the home of Goethe and Bach and of the peaceful, so-called “Monday Demonstrations” that were a main impetus for the fall of the Berlin Wall -- leveraged the downfall of Communism in 1990 as a dramatic turning point to focus on internal revitalization.  Benefiting from several strong and visionary mayors, as well as a federal government that was inclined to invest in the decimated East German economy, Leipzig chose to address its challenges of a shrinking population and deindustrialization head on by developing an aggressive vacant property strategy that included selective demolition as well as data-driven investment in targeted neighborhoods, strategic use of historic assets and a comprehensive, regional strategic vision that included annexing some surrounding areas.

We saw a city whose historic beauty -- with its medieval city center, paved streets and old churches that avoided major destruction during World War II -- shines through and enabled the restoration, renovation and revitalization that have occurred.  Not unlike many of our older industrial cities, Leipzig has physically attractive “good bones” -- a necessary but not sufficient asset, though. Not only has Leipzig has benefited from strategic and comprehensive plans and from preservation efforts, but also from business attraction and workforce training tied to demand.

Certainly, the Leipzig story is not one of unalloyed success; nor can every success be perfectly transferred to the American context, because of the role of the European Union and other differences in governance systems and historic context.  However, there are many fundamental approaches that provide lessons.  Stay tuned for further download about Leipzig and Manchester, as well as lessons learned for the role of state policy and for development of practices in similarly situated cities in Ohio and throughout the Midwest.