Candidate: Leipzig
Location: Germany
Category: European City of The Year (winner)
Year: 2019
Other Finalists in this category: Nantes, France and Zurich, Switzerland

Assessment Summary

Leipzig is the fifth largest city in Federal Germany with a population now of 590,000 compared with 750,000 in 1939, but which is climbing again. The city has had a turbulent history, culminating in the challenge of reinventing itself after German reunification almost 30 years ago, before which it was cut off as part of the Eastern bloc, and was dominated by heavy polluting industry. In the 1990s Leipzig was expected to be a boom town, attracting private investment from the West, whereas by 2000-2005 it had become known as a Shrinking City, and it has gone from being one of the richest to one of the poorest in Germany. Its renaissance after a period of stabilisation in 2005-10 is therefore a tribute to careful planning and its strategy of Integrated Urban Development, developed jointly with the University. The city’s agility in developing strategies that mobilised investment was particularly impressive, through focussing resources where they would have most impact in environmental and social terms and joining up transport and development with environmental improvements.

In 2012 Leipzig was awarded the German Award for sustainability under the headings of Quality of Life and the Structure of the City and beat Freiburg into second place. Leipzig Grows Sustainably is the heading for the city’s statement which is set out in four categories; quality of life; social stability; competitive edge, and global recognition, and the achievements are very visible.

Our first impression of Leipzig came from arriving at its impressively renovated railway station, the largest station in Europe, and then seeing the very substantial and beautiful late 19th century buildings that make up the city centre. A new three level shopping centre has been carved out below the main concourse of the magnificent main railway station. New stores have reinforced the fine old shops in the centre, which all look occupied and busy.

The pedestrianised centre forms a grid, 800 metres from North to South and 600 metres wide and has been restored to a very high standard and is flooded with life. 2,000 people live there. There are many passages with elaborate detailing which house specialist shops and cafes. These date from when Leipzig hosted trade fairs 3-4 times a year and form an intricate network that encourage you to stroll through them. Older blocks are occasionally interspersed with blocks dating from the GDR or Communist-run period, which have also been restored with the same attention to detail.

Leipzig’s heavy industry left a legacy of polluted waterways, a landscape devastated by open cast mining and large areas of contaminated land. Since reunification the city has undertaken an impressive programme of environmental improvement that brings significant benefits to the wellbeing of its citizens. Key initiatives include; the creation of new lakes on the site of former open cast mines; protection and enhancement of green corridors including wetland forest linking the city to the lakes; cleaning of rivers, canals and former industrial land and the creation of an associated walking and cycling network. These large-scale projects demonstrate a bold approach with benefits for both the physical and mental health of citizens.

The city is now very green with a large area of parkland along the river which runs through the middle, and which creates a ‘green belt’. The city’s revival has been helped by owning much of the land, and it has been relatively easy to finance development and install infrastructure there. Brownfield land is much more difficult, due to the costs of remediation, and hence is used for parks. Major employers such as Porsche and BMW were attracted to land owned by the City in the North, and the city helped by providing trained workers and transport rail and road transport links. Similarly, the giant DHL logistics group was drawn by investment in infrastructure including the upgraded airport which operates at night.

Leipzig still suffers economic problems with 31,000 fewer jobs than 2005 and a 7% unemployment rate. As a result, 30-40% of the city’s revenue goes to supporting the poor, many of whom live in the system-built apartment blocks known as Plattenbauwohnungen. However, housing and transport costs are relatively low, and the City is championing new growth sectors, such as lightweight electric cars and Biotech. Cycling is being made safe and easy, with a huge procession taking over the streets on a Friday evening.

At a neighbourhood level the city has responded to the challenges of economic decline and depopulation in a way that empowers citizens and makes the most of scant resources. Groups of citizens have been encouraged to take over vacant buildings, and act as ‘guardians’ with contracts for five or ten years. Walking around the neighbourhood of Plagwitz this approach looks so successful that few derelict buildings remain, rents are now rising, and land formerly used for gardens and social infrastructure was being reclaimed by owners for development. Housing density is high, and some citizens were vocal about the loss of small scale green spaces and social spaces they had helped to create. Graffiti on many of the buildings could be signs of social malaise, though some on the assessment team were not concerned by this and thought it added to the area’s bohemian feel. However, the city is working with landowners to retain some spaces and to provide new social infrastructure such as kindergardens and schools.

Today Leipzig is a compact and highly walkable city, located to the South West of Berlin and Dresden, and at a motorway crossroads in Europe. All roads lead to the city centre but cars are now largely kept outside. A grid of pedestrianised streets forms the heart of the old town, which is also linked by the passageways that formed part of the original trade fairs. An extensive network of trams makes movement around the town easy, boosted by five new high speed suburban rail services. Leipzig is on the move again.

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