Re-Thinking was a long Process

Interview with Karl Gröger

Until 2008 Karl Gröger was Head of the Construction Department in Roßlau and Dessau and at times also Dessau’s Lord Mayor

The response to the structural transformation is a long-term urban redevelopment concept. What was the starting situation?


Karl Gröger: Until reunification, Dessau enjoyed full employment. There were several large industrial firms in the city; however, after 1990, they were privatised or culled by outsourcing within a very short period. Apart from a few small centres, this industrial landscape does not exist anymore. However, as we had been promised blossoming landscapes at the time, we still all thought in terms of large infrastructure projects to reinvigorate the job market – also with a view to the region’s industrial tradition. These hopes were not fulfilled as the market shares and the capacities in former West Germany were so strong that local products really had no chance at all. This was further heightened by failed privatisation policies that ultimately led to assets being squandered.

What were the consequences of the deindustrialisation?

Karl Gröger: Migration soon ensued; young, skilled workers in particular found work in former West Germany. The mortality rate in Dessau is now twice as high as the birth rate. The city has now lost more than a quarter of its inhabitants. This leads to vacancy, a dissipation of purchase power and therefore a weakening of trade and commerce. Social, cultural and children’s facilities become redundant. This leads to significant urban development and social problems.

How did the city respond to this?

Karl Gröger: It was a long process of rethinking. For many years, all of the plans were targeted at construction and growth. But the opposite then set in: industrial districts and entire residential estates were rendered obsolete. Even in the 2001 urban land-use plan, we still assumed there would be 100,000 inhabitants – but soon there were only 70,000. Initially, it is difficult to comprehend losses in this magnitude. We realised that we have to put our trust in quality instead of quantity. As part of the federal competition “Urban Redevelopment East”, we co- operated with Bauhaus to develop the idea of a landscape swathe from the railway station to the South City as this is where derelict industrial buildings, vacant buildings and technical infrastructure could be dismantled on a large scale. There is no point in demolishing things here and there if we still have to maintain expensive supply and development systems. Our plans for this area concentrate on a green expanse as the city does not need anything else in view of the high residential and commercial vacancy rates.

How was the property problem solved – many of the areas were in private ownership?

Karl Gröger: Many owners still believed they were sitting on valuable assets here. Some of these properties were owned by bankrupt companies, which we had to retrieve from the creditor banks. I visited bankers in Bavaria and the Ruhr District to explain to them that although their properties in Dessau had been mortgaged out for millions, they were actually worth nothing as they were not in use. They themselves were unable to find any buyers. But it was a laborious piece of convincing work to get them to see this and we were able to buy back the properties, sometimes for the symbolic price of one euro. Ultimately, we had to invest 4.5 million euro in the demolition. On the other hand, many owners were willing to exchange, e.g. demolition properties for properties in redevelopment areas. This meant the city could kill two birds with one stone.

In practical terms, how did the city develop the new concept?

Karl Gröger: Administration alone cannot manage it. We had to create entirely new structures. Finally, we founded several topical workgroups, e.g. for planning, land-use management and public relations, bringing together all of the city’s important protagonists: from the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation and housing companies, university, savings bank and Chamber of Industry and Commerce, through to private initiatives.

What is the basic idea behind the concept?

Karl Gröger: Scenic zones are created within the city, based on the Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Empire. Mown plants that become seeds transform vacant areas into wild meadows that offer an attractive backdrop and whose upkeep is financially manageable. Financially speaking, the city would not be able to cultivate these green areas with elaborate rose and tulip beds. The green expanse alone covers approximately 70 hectares. In the meantime, plants have started growing on the meadows that are on the list of endangered species.

And what will happen to the “remaining city” and its inhabitants?

Karl Gröger: When faced with such severe changes, participation by the population is very important. This is why we organised the Days of “Urban Redevelopment” and the City Strolls. The inhabitants engage in intense discussion on what is happening with the restructuring. This touches sensitive points. People living in a condemned building have spent years and decades there, and the demolition hurts. We must not stop speaking with them. But the green expanse and the demolition are only parts of the overall concept. We also have the urban centres in which we are aiming for a “city of the short routes”. Drawing on the EU fund “Urban II”, we were able to create important facilities for young people, in particular education centres. The Old Theatre has been rebuilt, now offering puppet shows, among other things. The former AOK Building has been repurposed as a house of courses and culture and the municipal swimming pool is now a leisure centre. With the aid of the EXWOST Research Programme and the Bauhaus, the Dessau City Park will be redesigned as an intercultural generation park that is open to everyone: old and young, locals and migrants. The gains in quality contribute to the inhabitants feeling a stronger bond with their city.

What is the special feature of the concept?

Karl Gröger: It is radical as it reveals everything and tackles the problems openly. It is a process. We have tried out many things and were then forced to take new paths. There was not a lot of reference experience available. 19 IBA Cities have 19 different approaches. Decisive factors were including the population and the process of rethinking, which is by no means over. Perception for reality must be sharpened. The city cannot shoulder the redevelopment on its own and without subsidisation programmes. Therefore, we must respond quickly and have the courage to implement this kind of project.

Info: Dessau-Roßlau

(Municipal Area of 2010)
1989: 119.377
2009: 88.153
2025: 78.681 (Future Prospect)

Municipal Area: 244,64 qkm

IBA-Website of Dessau-Roßlau