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What Ohio can Learn from Europe

Post by: Lavea Brachman I just finished a week’s Study Tour of Berlin, Leipzig and Hamburg sponsored by the German Marshall Fund. Leipzig, a medieval city located in the former GDR (East Germany), hemorrhaged people and jobs from 1970 until 2005. Sound familiar? However, Leipzig is now growing its population and moving forward in recovery. One major historical difference that Ohio has not had to deal with is the dramatic drop-off in population and erosion of the business sector that occurred following the 1989 reunification of East and West, when the Berlin Wall fell and hundreds of thousands of people fled to the West seeking jobs and opportunity. But, like our Ohio cities, Leipzig had a strong industrial past and its industrial sector was steadily eroding under communist rule and continued to decline following reunification -- experiencing a loss of 80% of manufacturing jobs -- when industries moved to the West.

While the reasons for depopulation may differ between Ohio cities and Leipzig, the impact and implications for re-growth strategies are similar. During a phenomenally instructive visit with Leipzig’s director of planning, we heard that parts of Leipzig experienced up to 50% vacancy rates, but the city has been working to turn itself around with many of the practices that we have been touting for Ohio’s shrinking cities. And, more importantly, they have been successful! Working from a master plan developed in the early 1990’s for citywide redevelopment, Leipzig’s planner led a sustained and targeted physical rehabilitation strategy done on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis, while tying physical reconstruction to job creation. They used a combination of neighborhood strategies: on the one hand, encouraging “urban homesteading” by artists and others to stabilize historic buildings and, on the other hand, undertaking extensive demolition of unattractive communist “pre-fab” buildings. The plan also:

• Created “pocket parks,” transforming side, vacant lots to “green” areas; • Invested in infrastructure which led to attracting new industry; • Remediated brownfields in key places; and • Leveraged their historic buildings with a walkable city centre.

The city's population has stabilized and is now attracting or generating 21st century business clusters. For instance, it is one of the leading photovoltaic producer in the world -- a natural outgrowth of the glass industry of the region. (Toledo, take note!)

Leipzig still has challenges though, and cities throughout Germany, including Leipzig, put up with much higher unemployment rates than we do in the States. (For instance, Leipzig’s unemployment rate currently hovers around 20% which is slightly above average for Germany.) However, the city is definitely on the upswing, and can be a lesson to Ohio as we draw immediate parallels from our common starting points – places with inherent place-based assets, including historic buildings, waterfronts and universities.