Today, many European cities are structured along “polycentric” lines. This means that a city’s center is complemented by districts that have their own developed centers. For citizens living there, these districts offer the basics in terms of retail goods and other businesses. But these same places are seeing more and more retailers shutter and move away. How can we counter this trend? And what can we do to revitalize business in these districts? Torsten von Appen, a student at Steinbeis University Berlin and city district manager in Stuttgart, is exploring these very questions in his bachelor’s degree project.
The structural upheaval felt in city districts was originally triggered by changing buyers’ habits. Two trends underpin these changes. The first: shopping areas are being shifted to greenfield sites or urban fringes. And the second? City centers are taking greater advantage of “the shopping experience.” New kinds of distribution and the market power of large businesses – such as discounters – that use aggressive pricing are putting the pressure on retailers and tradespeople. In district centers, only the largest companies are likely to turn a profit. If they haven’t left already, small and medium-sized companies are thin on the ground.
Stuttgart’s first “city manager” of one of its districts, Torsten von Appen has devoted himself to Stuttgart’s economic development. Since 2007, he’s been seeing to the needs of Stuttgart’s suburbs. His bachelor’s degree project outlines a model that aims to reinvigorate business in four pilot suburbs: Stammheim, Zuffenhausen, Weilimdorf and Plieningen/Birkach plus the boroughs of Obertürkheim, Untertürkheim, Hedelfingen and Wangen.
Von Appen has given his project four cornerstones: acting as a pilot; creating a basis for communication; managing vacant properties; and receiving EU backing. As the project steward, von Appen plans to put administrative professionals in touch with one another, leverage synergies and liaise between businesspeople and city officials. Equally important: managing vacant properties. At the moment, all vacant properties in the pilot areas are being surveyed, photographed, described in writing and entered into a database. This information will be used in a residents’ survey with the help of Stuttgart’s Statistical Office. The increases and decreases in buying power within each of the areas will be captured. Every one of these undertakings requires city planners to work in close collaboration with building code officials.
Ideally, the strategy will be applied to other parts of Stuttgart. As city districts within major metropolitan areas around Europe are faced with similar structural challenges, this economic development project was named a “lead partner” in October 2008 in association with other German and European cities and universities. Together, this consortium was granted funds to launch a project across Europe. The backer, an EU program called INTERREG IVB MANDIE / District Center Management in North West Europe, sees this project as a transnational approach to make cities, communities and rural areas better places to live, work and do business while helping regions remain economically competitive.