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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: 
18 544 inhabitants


Dr Andreas Hollsteiner
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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, Altena shifted its strategic objectives to focus on controlling decline rather than growth. 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.

The solutions offered by the good practice

The good practices Altena would like to share 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. This requires strong visionary leadership combined with the ability to integrate conflicting interests and overcome resistance to change. Altena provides a rich case study of practical examples of how this is done and how these interventions can arrest and ultimately reverse decline.

Building on the sustainable and integrated approach

Altena has been identified by national and international experts as a good practices 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 (before and after photos in resource pack)
• 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:

Why should other European cities use it?

Learning from the actions taken in Altena is likely to be of interest to many cities facing long-term decline and stagnation. We will share the approach taken to leading the strategy process by focusing on a small number of specific issues which are embedded in the strategy framework for Altena (reference to resource-pack documents shown in brackets):
• Restructuring public agencies and services: Altena is an example where the municipality reduced services and introduced new governance arrangements while downsizing municipality personnel by 20% and resource sharing arrangements with a neighbouring town.
• Economic revitalization: Altena has several examples where new sustainable enterprises and nonprofit uses were created through innovative collaboration with local actors, including tourism, hospitality and retail enterprises (co-producing cities of tomorrow)
• Developing civil society: Investing in the voluntary sector continues to have far-reaching impacts across the city. Today over 500 regular volunteers of all backgrounds and ages contribute to wide a range of services (eescivilsocietyprize2016)
• Integration of refugees: Altena has prepared the arrival of refugees with civil society organisations and is now a recognised good practice example for combining its municipal with civil society resources. (eescivilsocietyprize2016 and integrationrefugees2017)