The disintegration of the economic and political systems of the former Soviet Bloc led some to believe that Western development models were the only alternative. The people of Leipzig, formerly in East Germany, think otherwise.
Michael LaFond, who has worked for the last couple of years on ecological restructuring projects in former East Germany, sent us this report.
Leipzig, a longtime center for trade between East and West, played a leading role during the political transition of East Germany. The Leipzig Monday Marches brought hundreds of thousands into the streets for non-violent demonstrations that helped bring down the wall dividing Germany.
Leipzig has since remained a center of citizen activism in a reunited Germany, but with a new focus: finding alternatives to Western models, especially those of urban development, which are increasingly seen as unsustainable and inappropriate to the needs of the former Eastern Bloc countries.
As in much of the former East Germany, many of the older sections of Leipzig were neglected, and in some cases abandoned over the years prior to reunification. The need to rebuild and repair presents an historic opportunity to develop and apply sustainable models that are appropriate to local conditions.
The responses to this opportunity have taken a number of forms. People and groups have occupied some of the abandoned buildings and are working on retrofitting them and on obtaining the legal rights to remain in the buildings.
Community groups have sprung up to provide mutual assistance in the restoration of decaying neighborhoods.
City-wide organizations, such as the Association for Ecological Building, have begun working with neighborhood groups and others on implementing an alternative model of urban renewal. This approach focuses on restoring existing buildings using ecological designs and materials, rather than building anew. Using an integrated neighborhood approach to energy, water, waste, landscaping, and transportation, these groups work with existing residents to ensure that those who live there now can remain.
The East Leipzig initiatives, as these efforts are now called, also are helping establish connections between urban and rural areas, and fostering the development of sustainable agriculture.
Projects include a bio-dynamic farm, which sells its produce in nearby neighborhoods; cooperative housing; self-help renovation and building; and training in the use of sustainable construction practices.
An ecological-cultural center has been opened in an abandoned building. The center has a natural food store and café, and offices for organizations working on urban ecology, eco-construction, and eco-nutrition. The center also hosts discussion programs, trainings, and cultural events.
Also on the drawing board is the transformation of a former railyard into the centerpiece of an urban-rural system of green corridors. A network of corridors is to provide pedestrian and bicycle connections both within the city and between urban and rural areas.
Economics play a key role in the planning for East Leipzig. Much of the city’s infrastructure is failing, while the unemployment rate has climbed to about 25 percent, and frustration, crime, and right-wing extremism are increasing.
The project supports businesses that will create jobs while implementing this sustainable model of urban renewal. Corresponding employment, education, and retraining programs are planned.
The East Leipzig initiatives have recently been awarded substantial funding from the Life-Program of the European Community, which is to be matched and supplemented by the German government, the city of Leipzig, and others.
There is now a cautious optimism that the East Leipzig project will emerge as a positive example for the European Community, if not for the world.