Doctoral thesis | Constanze Zöllter

Attractive residential and living locations - which strengths and potentials have shrinking medium-sized cities in peripheral locations? An analysis of location decisions based on the case study of the city of Görlitz / Germany

Many large cities and metropolitan areas in Germany are destinations for national and international migration. The increasing population numbers in these cities often lead to signs of congestion, such as rising prices on the housing markets, segregation tendencies within the urban areas or worsening environmental quality due to land sealing, traffic and noise pollution. On the other hand, smaller cities in peripheral locations, i. e. far away from the agglomerations, generally face the challenge of declining population. Long-lasting population losses over the past decades have led to high building vacancy rates in these cities, a deterioration of building fabric, an underutilized and thus endangered infrastructure, municipal financial problems due to the cities’ lower economic strength, and even a feeling of neglect and stigmatisation. In the future, these smaller peripheral cities will be faced with different, but comparatively large, challenges.

The PhD project focuses on medium-sized cities (20,000 - 100,000 people) affected by shrinkage in peripheral locations. Shrinkage is understood as a loss of population due to demographic and economic change in these cities. The aim of the dissertation is to identify factors that support a location choice in precisely this type of city, as well as to present strengths and potentials need to be fostered in these cities that contribute to them becoming alternative locations to agglomerated areas. This approach to the current challenges of medium-sized cities affected by shrinkage counteract a downward spiral often associated with these cities and shows new development perspectives without aiming a re-growth of these cities as a priority. An intended balancing of population distribution within Germany can reduce the pressure on large cities and metropolitan areas without completely eliminating it. Furthermore, a balancing effect, especially if it is accompanied by the use of existing resources such as vacant buildings and existing infrastructures, would have positive effects for sustainable urban development.

The focus on medium-sized cities is due to the existence of a certain range of services in these cities, but without the often negatively associated signs of congestion in many large cities and metropolitan areas. Studies show that living in an urban environment is still preferred by many people. In urban research little attention has been paid to medium-sized cities and they are often considered in combination with small cities. The focus on medium-sized cities in this study is thus a clear distinction from previous studies and highlights characteristic features of these cities.

In addition, previous studies on residential location choices often focus on migration to the suburban surroundings of agglomerations and less on migration to peripheral cities. Most studies also focus on people who have made the decision to migrate and analyse their reasons and motivations. Factors that have prevented people from deciding to move are not surveyed. The PhD project takes a new approach to acquiring knowledge. It deals specifically with the decision to move to a shrinking medium-sized city, far away from large agglomerations. The particularity of the survey is that the relevance of individual location factors is examined and, based on this, the persons taking part in the project “Testing the City” can temporarily try out a new location in a shrinking medium-sized city. At the end of their stay, they reflect on the previously assumed importance of individual factors based on their personal experience on site. In this way, a decision to move can be made on the basis of much more detailed information than is usually the case with interregional migration. This experimental project approach contributes to gaining new insights for urban development. Moreover, the empirical analysis of this PhD project includes both persons who have made a decision to move to a shrinking medium-sized city in peripheral locations and those who have decided against it.