Cities are unpredictable place. Not just the corners of the dusty streets, but the sweep of time. Take Leipzig for example. Once the fifth largest city in Germany, it fell into decline after German reunification in 1990. Residents left the city in droves, moving to new experiences outside the city limits. By the year 2000, one in five buildings in the city was vacant.
And then everything changed. In the new millennium Germany’s economy began to falter and jobs returned to the center of Leipzig. The once vacant lot was demolished to be rebuilt. As the new immigrants chose to make their homes closer to the city, the expansion of the city of Leipzig began to contract. Today it is one of the fastest growing cities in Germany, adding about 2 percent of its population every year.
Leipzig’s economic transformation has been remarkable, but it is only one sign of the urban renaissance taking place across the region. After decades of slow creep and the creation of new urban belts, European cities are growing again – and helping the environment and our lives in the process. American cities, take note.
Between the 1970s and the early 21st century, many cities went through what urban planners call de-densification. Think of it as the spread of the middle ages: As neighborhoods became more affluent and motorable, suburban housing developments provided larger homes for people who wanted more space but still lived far from jobs and shops. The growth of rural areas was what happened in many cities around the world in the second half of the 20th century, says Chiara Cortinovis, an urban planning researcher at the Humboldt University of Berlin.
When Cortinovis showed the density of 331 European cities between 2006 and 2018, that is what he saw in the first half of that period. Between 2006 and 2012, 60 percent of the cities studied shrank. But in the next six years this suddenly changed. Between 2012 and 2018, one-third of the cities in the sample remained static, and almost all of these cities were in eastern Europe or Iberia where cities are shrinking while rural areas are expanding. Instead, the picture across much of central, northern, and western Europe showed that cities were growing. The population is growing, but most of these people are not moving into townhouses with farms and double glazing. They were moving into the city.
Cortinovis was surprised by how the result was pronounced. European cities are growing slowly in terms of population size while growing slowly in terms of their urban mobility. And this was not the case in cities like Leipzig that have existed in recent decades. “It also happens in cities with a long-term growth habit,” says Cortinovis—places like London, Stockholm, and Naples. “This means that these cities have the capacity to absorb new arrivals.”
If cities are growing, then these new people must live on the land that has already been built within the city limits. This is likely due to a combination of vacant lots being filled, more people living in apartments and shared housing, and inner-city areas being converted into high-density housing. While these inner cities were expanding, the development of native or agricultural areas outside the cities was slowing down.