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Urban Development in Germany

During the last decades urban development and policy have changed along with economic and social conditions. In the future, the urban development in Germany will be characterized to a considerable extent by large-scale and small-scale processes of growth and shrinkage that exist simultaneously and side by side. The good news is that after decades of suburbanization, there is now the opportunity in Germany for a change of direction towards urban spaces and lifestyles. Functional and social diversity, dense and compact groups of historic buildings and plenty of green spatial structures are the indicators of sustainable development in towns and cities.



Historical Background
In recent decades, Germany’s challenges to urban development and planning have clearly changed along with its economic and social conditions. These dynamics concern all the city’s habitats and functions. The German unification at the start of the 1990s represented a challenge to politics and society which was unique in history.

Despite the differences in the development of the old and the new Federal States ("Laender"), the following phases characterise the urban development and urban policy in Germany:

  • Reconstruction in the 1950s: reconstruction of cities and large stimulationof housing;
  • Urban expansion in the 1960s: urban expansion against the background of economic growth and population dynamics, suburbanisation in the previous Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), industrial housing in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR);
  • Urban renewal in the 1970s: re-orientation of urban policy against the background of the economic crisis, a more intensive orientation towards the existing housing, revitalisation of inner-city neighbourhoods in the FRG, permanent construction of new housing and neglect of neighbourhoods with old buildings in the GDR;
  • Urban reconstruction in the 1980s: stagnation of demographic development, shift of the focus in the West German housing policy towards home ownership assistance, orientation towards inner-city development in the urban policy;
  • Integrated urban development since the 1990s: new challenges to urban development through increasing globalisation and German unification, integrated urban development and urban reconstruction as a response to social, economic and demographic challenges;
  • Current developments: continuation of demographic, economic and climate change, priority on sustainable urban development, upcoming re-orientation towards urban spaces and lifestyles.


Urban System
Germany’s settlement structure is highly polycentric and the urban system is very heterogenous. There are some 13,000 local authorities of varying sizes in Germany. More than 80 cities have 100,000 or more inhabitants. Berlin (3.4m inhabitants), Hamburg (1.7m inhabitants), Munich (1.3m inhabitants), Cologne (1.0m inhabitants) and Frankfurt a.M. (0.6m inhabitants) are the five largest cities.

In recent decades, the cities have grown beyond their administrative borders and form territorial-functional units with their surrounding local authorities which could be considered as urbanised areas or city regions. With over 12 million inhabitants the Rhine-Ruhr region is the largest city region in Germany.


Local Self-Government
The responsibilities for towns and cities within the FRG system of Federal States are divided up between the local, the Laender and the Federal level. In Article 28 section 2 the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany entitles local authorities to settle all matters of the local community based on the existing laws within their own responsibility. Within this local self-government, local authorities have their own authority in terms of personnel, organisation, finances, planning and jurisdiction.

The German Association of Cities and Towns (Deutscher Städtetag), the German Association of Towns and Municipalities (Deutscher Städte- und Gemeindebund), as well as the German County Association (Deutscher Landkreistag) are lobbies for the cities and municipalities at national and European level.


Current Issues
It is important to consider the changes resulting from the demographic and economic change an opportunity and to face the resulting tasks. In terms of a sustainable urban development, the following main topics are particular focuses of attention: 

  • Settlements development under changed conditions - orientation towards cities
  • City cooperation at the regional level 
  • Using the declining land use as an opportunity - making neighbourhoods more attractive for families with children 
  • Creating socially stable urban neighbourhoods - regarding migration as an opportunity
  • Adapting the infrastructure to the needs of the elderly
  • Making mobility compatible with cities and the environment
  • Strengthening cities as business and innovation locations
  • Maintaining the diversity of retail trade - strengthening central supply areas 
  • Improving cooperation of municipal planning and private investors
  • Putting a different complexion on cities - culture forms cities
  • Maintaining old historic cities and using them as an economic factor 
  • Intensifying modernisation of the existing building stock - reducing CO2 emissions


This leads to new opportunities for enhancing the sustainability of citiesand regions. The readiness to modernise, the democratic culture and the willingness to maintain and improve the economic and ecological principles are important components here.


Urban Development Promotion Programmes
The Federation supports the creation of sustainable urban development structures with urban development assistance programmes so that the cities are better able to cope with new tasks and challenges. The Federal Government grants subsidies to this end to the Federal States according to Article 104 section 4 of the Basic Law.

The objectives of promoting urban development are:

  • Strengthening inner cities and town centres in their urban function, also in considering the protection of historic buildings;
  • Creating sustainable urban structures in areas affected by a loss of significant urban functions; the principle indication of such functional losses is a permanent oversupply of structures such as vacant dwellings or derelict sites in inner cities, particularly industrial sites, former military sites, converted for appropriate re-use, and railway sites 
  • Urban development measures to eradicate social deprivation


The following programmes were developed by the Federal Government to achieve these objectives:

  • Urban redevelopment and development measures
    Urban redevelopment and development measures are the classical programme of urban development assistance. Such measures improve or restructure an area to overcome urban development problems.
  • Protection of the urban architectural heritage
    In many towns and cities, it is not just individual buildings that are worthy of being preserved, but entire streets, squares or historical town and city centres. The protection of the urban architectural heritage is designed to preserve these groups of historical buildings with their distinctive characterand entirely. 
  • "Social City" programme
    In order to prevent and counteract the social and spatial polarization incities, the Federal Government and the Federal States in 1999 jointly launched a national programme called "Districts with Special Development Needs – The Socially Integrative City" (in short: Social City). This urban renewal programme has an integrative and thus a cooperative approach: in order to enhance the effectiveness of the financial assistance provided, the urban development assistance is to be combined with other departmental programmes and resources.
  • Urban restructuring in the new Federal States
    The programme implements the interlinking of the urban und housing policy. It is not only designed to tackle the high number of vacant dwellings but also to stabilize and vitalize town and city centres and neighbourhoods worthy of being preserved.
  • Urban restructuring in the old Federal States
    A change of the demographic and economic structure increasingly occurs in the cities of the old Federal States. This programme is supposed to support towns and cities in the old Federal States in adjusting them to these processes as early as possible. It aims at developing sustainable urban development structures based on urban development concepts.
  • Active city, district and neighbourhood centres
    In many municipalities, it is apparent that the central supply areas lose some of their functions and face vacant commercial properties. The term “central supply areas” is used to describe, in particular, town and city centres, secondary centres in districts and local centres providing basic services in districts and neighbourhoods as well as in small municipalities. The “ActiveCity, District and Neighbourhood Centres” programme is designed to help prepare and implement packages of measures to preserve and develop these areas as sites for business and culture and as places where people live and work.


The assistance of the Federal Government is supplemented by Federal State and local authority funds. This Federal financial aid is made available to the Federal States on the basis of an administrative agreement on the promotion of urban development ("Verwaltungsvereinbarung Städtebauförderung").


National Urban Development Policy
During the German EU presidency in the first half of 2007, the responsible EU ministers adopted the Leipzig Charter on Sustainable European Cities and invited to establish an urban development policy on the national level. In July 2007, Federal Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee started the initiative for a National Urban Development Policy in the FRG. This initiative has meanwhile taken root via various activities, projects and programmes.

The National Urban Development Policy provides an opportunity for all stakeholders from the Federal Government, from public authorities, planning professions, the industry and the scientific community to have their say in topics such as cities, living together in cities, urban qualities and good governance. On the one hand, it wants to bring together ‘organized voices’. On the other hand, it also wants to listen to everyone who is committed to the city and local community. This policy therefore also addresses civil society groups, trade unions, churches, social associations and the media. Everyone who is interested in the future of the cities and the regions is invited.

A return to an active life, i.e. working and living in an attractive city, is the key objective of the National Urban Development Policy. In the years ahead, therefore, the National Urban Development Policy will first and foremost focus on maintaining social peace in cities, promoting innovation and economic development, combatting climate change, designing the physical environment (“Baukultur” and heritage conservation), incorporating urban development in a city-regional context and, on top of all this, harnessing civic engagement.

In general, two strands of action are pursued by the Federal Ministry of Transport, Building and Urban Affairs (BMVBS), which are the following:

  • Developing and spreading good practice in the context of urban development support 
  • Launching a series of projects to promote new ideas and civil commitment to city and urbanity


In the context of urban development support, the programmes for urban rehabilitation and development, for urban districts with special development needs, for the protection of historical monuments in the context of urban development and for urban reconstruction are being enhanced. At the beginning of 2008, the programme for active urban or municipal district centres was started.

In order to generate good ideas for future-oriented cities and to promote the commitment of urban development stakeholders, the BMVBS executed two calls for project proposals. Both calls have produced a large pool with altogether more than 500 proposals which include very innovative approaches. Around 40 projects have arisen from the first call in 2007 and 30 projects from the second call in 2008, which will be funded as projects under the National Urban Development Policy. The first National Urban Development Policy projects were implemented in 2007 and 2008, others will follow. This means that in the next years innovations and findings from altogether more than 70 examples can be expected.

Publication date


By: Mr. Bernd Breuer,

01 Jan 2009

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