You can't just tear a Hole in the City

Interview with Sonja Beeck and Heike Brückner

The urban planners and colleagues in the IBA Planning Office played a decisive role in designing the urban development concept for Dessau- Roßlau over the last few years.

The concept for Dessau defines that in the long-term, the city will be disbanded into “islands” with landscape between them. How did this idea come about?


Heike Brückner: This was initially triggered by very dramatic figures. Prognoses indicated that Dessau’s population could shrink to around half and that 6,000 apartments would then be vacant. That would be an entire district such as am Leipziger Tor. The second question was where we should demolish. You can’t just tear a big hole at some point in the city. We needed an intelligent concept as a response to these actually unimaginable figures.


Sonja Beeck: Every city is different and has to take its own path. Dessau grew very rapidly from individual districts as part of the industrialisation. The aim was therefore to reverse this process. The city does not have just one centre, but several stable cores. It therefore appeared sensible to create smaller, manageable units. This is the counter-model to a central city core, shrunk from the outside in, and also sensible with a view to the future. The population is growing older, and older people move in smaller radii. You need short routes and a good infrastructure with shops, services and social and cultural facilities. The island concept with smaller districts can be a sustainable urban model.

What were the first actual steps?

Heike Brückner: First of all we looked where the cracks in the city are and mapped the vacant buildings. This developed into the idea for the landscape expanse. This was an important step, as until then municipal politics had seen demolitions as more of a threat; this was the first time they were seen in a positive light. Originally, the municipal housing firms were to reach consensus on where demolitions should take place. But this plan was soon binned, as the competing companies attempted to save their own assets. Some promised to demolish, but instead renovated their buildings in order to poach tenants. Realising this allowed the insight to emerge that in addition to the owners, there are many other social protagonists in this kind of process.

Sonja Beeck: From the planners’ point of view it was initially a bitter experience that the owners’ economic interests had a greater penetration than any of the city’s urban development considerations. But the path we took then was simply wiser – even if it takes longer.

Heike Brückner: If there had been consensus among the housing companies at the time, we would perhaps never have seen so much innovation. It just does not work with the market-driven protagonists alone. They have to question their own entrepreneurial activities – and they won’t do that voluntarily. We then proposed to the city a Planning Workshop with all kinds of protagonists.

Sonja Beeck: The city administration was very cooperative in this, thinking about new methods and brining in a lot of people. The results of this Planning Workshop were important – away from the old demolition master plan and toward a more intricate strategy, based on agreements.

Do processes such as this with uncertain endings not create additional insecurity?

Heike Brückner: The ideas put forward by the Planning Workshop were publicised according to the snowball principle. The clubs, initiatives and citizens’ movements involved carried the debate on into their networks. We absorbed the insecurity, the fear, the worry. It was important to be open and to say: “We also do not know exactly where it is going – that is why we have to talk to each other.”

And the criticism voiced by the citizens helped us a lot. What was the most important topic of this criticism?

Heike Brückner: It was mainly the fear that a district would be abandoned and would end up on the scrap heap. But the city administration managed to convince the citizens here with a lot of communication. A further topic of discussion was the question of what the new landscape expanses would look like: maintained park landscape is, after all, something different to a meadow that grows naturally. Older generations in particular criticised this method.

Sonja Beeck: It is also a paradigm switch. These kinds of long-term, flexible changes have to be suffered first of all. This is quite different to the methods seen over the past century when the state built, always had a plan and was responsible – scheduled growth. Now planners and citizens alike must learn once again that a city is not produced according to an image, but instead is created for posterity. But you still cannot just leave it at the mercy of rank growth. You need an idea and also have to generate acceptance in the population for the intermediate stages.

But the green expanse is just one part of the concept. What will happen with the city?

Sonja Beeck: There are a lot of economic and social problems. But there are also signs that you can achieve more by breathing life into the public spaces, e.g. the Municipal Park where not everything is targeted at consumerism, than with urban redevelopment projects. Perhaps we can start slowly: through the use of a road, with temporary, intermediate uses …

So more soft methods than hard, concrete facts.

Heike Brückner: We can see in networks such as the “Stadtteil AG” am Leipziger Tor that it is sensible to employ joint activities to promote district identity. But that is not urban development after all, and it is currently not given enough support as an important stabilisation factor.

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