Matchmaking empty spaces with local businesses and the tiny house movement are innovative solutions that can help post-industrial cities across Europe and North America adapt to the future.
What will become of manufacturing towns in a post-industrial world? From the Ruhr region of Germany to the American “Rust Belt,” once-prosperous factory cities are today faced with dwindling industry, shrinking populations, and fundamental questions about their role in the modern global economy.
The population of Detroit, Michigan, for example, an auto manufacturing center that was once one of the United States’ largest cities, has declined from 1.85 million in 1950 to 675,000 in 2017.
Reinvigorating these legacy cities, as they are sometimes called, is not easy—but it is not impossible. Based on my research in Europe, and inspired by the work of the urban planning nonprofit Die Urbanisten, located in my hometown of Dortmund, Germany, I have identified several innovative redevelopment models that may offer lessons for post-industrial cities across the globe.
These three movements focus on ephemeral, flexible solutions that are broadly applicable to any city seeking to reinvent faded manufacturing zones: tactical urbanism, sustainable landscapes, and the tiny homes movement.
Temporary, tactical urbanism (Plantage 9, Bremen)
For decades, the post-industrial harbor city of Bremen, in Northern Germany, struggled to to adapt to the socioeconomic ideals of the 21st century.
Today, it is known for the success of its tactical, urbanism-inspired approaches. Officially coined by the Street Plans Collaborative, this approach broadly encompasses all short-term, low-cost, scalable measures that instigate longer-term, community-building change.
In Bremen, the the ZwischeZeitZentrale (ZZZ), a local organization set up to work as a project middleman, set out to match underutilized urban spaces in Bremen with projects in need of a home.
One result was Plantage 9, an old textile factory turned culture and innovation hub with over 30 independent, creative, and entrepreneurial temporary users, including a food-truck kitchen, bike repair workshop, and studios and galleries for young artists.
Some of these businesses stayed for less than two years. Others remained, and in 2012 these users negotiated a new lease and management contract between the city and the collective. Plantage 9 has gone from a pilot project to a community association with an ongoing role in the city’s cultural life.
This temporary urbanism experiment succeeded in large part because of citizen engagement. ZZZ played a moderator role between citizens and the municipality, working with a cook, a bicycle mechanic, students, teachers, photographers and filmmakers, among other Bremen residents, to conceptualize and coordinate these tactical initiatives.
As Plantage 9-style matchmaking revitalized lifeless spaces with exciting projects, Bremen’s national reputation has changed, too—from struggling post-industrial city to dynamic urban innovator.
Sustainable landscapes (Zomerhofkwartier, Rotterdam)
Local residents in Rotterdam, Netherlands, have also cultivated comprehensive urban revitalization processes in one neglected neighborhood. The result: Zomerhofkwartier, aka Zoho, the new face of a former industrial area near the city’s central train station.
Originally conceived in 2013 as a temporary project by a handful of community organizations, many of which later reconfigured as ZOHOCITIZENS, Zoho now includes permanent co-working spaces, along with studios that host events, classes and green spaces.* Already in this decade-long process that its developers have dubbed “slow urbanism,” the area has matured into one of Rotterdam’s core makers’ districts.
Zoho’s innovations include climate-proofing, and the site serves as an urban laboratory for ecological adaption and transition. Thus far, the project has implemented water collection, storage systems in public spaces, green roofs, urban gardens, and the reduction of hard surfaces.
The ultimate goal is to increase the whole district’s ecological resiliency and the socioeconomic vitality of the district through the micro-greening of the specific locations in the urban concrete fabric.
Tiny Houses (Berlin)
The Tiny House Movement, which relies on small modular units that recall images of cottages, has ballooned in the aftermath of the U.S. housing crises as an alternative for affordable housing. These wee residences, which are sometimes standalone and other times secondary units, have even inspired an American TV show, “Tiny House, Big Living.”
This movement is firmly established in North America, but is still developing on the European continent (as this tiny house map confirms).
While the typical context for tiny homes is residential, the Bauhaus Campus Berlin collaboration between the Tinyhouse University and Bauhaus Archive from the Museum of Design in Berlin is demonstrating how these units can temporarily reconceive unused spaces for social justice, learning, and research.
Inspired by the challenges with providing housing for new residents and refugees in Germany, for example, the project established an educational forum and workshop in early 2017 that allows people to learn how to build their on tiny homes.
Recently featured in German media alongside other similar projects, Bauhaus Campus Berlin includes 12 tiny homes on the front lawn of the museum and promotes tiny house building through design crash courses, panel discussions, and other cultural gatherings.
These European narratives reveal resilient trajectories of temporary urbanism, comprehensively coordinated at the neighborhood scale, using informality to engage citizens and ensure that municipal governments respond effectively and inclusively to contemporary urban quandaries.
Temporary use at the street and neighborhood level in a diverse range of formats is not limited to post-industrial cities, nor is it confined to Europe. Denver, Colorado, for example, took a tactical approach to launch one of America’s first large-scale modern bike-share systems in a highly automobile-dependent city.
And Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, included pop-up landscapes as part of the revitalization of its Delaware River waterfront, engaging entrepreneurial municipal officials, urban planning agencies, and landscape designers to strategically harness and catalyze investment.
Something is working. But from a scholarly perspective, we still know little about the mix of enablers and drivers that inspire such transformative moments. What, exactly, are the factors that make one temporary urbanism project succeed where another fails?
Much critical literature seems stuck on questioning whether the ephemeral has just as much impact as the planned, and whether citizens are as entitled to create effective urban revitalization as professional planners are. And most current research on temporary use is descriptive or expository—narrating and cataloguing the process and types of users, formats and instruments seen in tactical initiatives.
Critical skepticism is healthy to understanding the change. But I believe that this adaptive practice is the next frontier in city planning.
Ultimately, we have to work backwards to measure the specific dash, dosage, amount, and numbers of specifically defined stakeholders, processes, and mechanisms necessary to replicate those results and develop pre-configured “recipes” for more resilient temporary urbanism.
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated this project’s history.