Shrinkage is a fate that an increasing number of cities and regions across the globe are already facing or will face in the near future. It is a process in which population decline and economic stagnation are intertwined. Shrinkage can threaten the vitality and attractiveness of a city or region, but this is not necessarily always the case. It surely helps if governments and other local and regional stakeholders accept shrinkage as a structural process and try to ‘shrink smart’. Desperately trying to return to growth may only make things worse, just like the other extreme: giving up on your city or region. Preparing for a future with less people and less jobs does not have to be a bad or scary thing.
In the Netherlands, so far shrinkage is mainly happening at the peripheral edges of the country, if one can really speak of ‘periphery’ in such a small country. Recently Jolien Groot already described how Den Helder in the northwest of the Netherlands is trying to cope with shrinkage. This time we travel to the farthest southeastern corner of the Netherlands: the southeast of the province of Limburg. How is Parkstad Limburg trying to cope with shrinkage?
This region used to be known as the Eastern Mining Area (in Dutch: ‘Oostelijke Mijnstreek’). Around 1900, the formerly agricultural area rapidly developed as the epicentre of Dutch coal mining. At the height of its development the regional mining industry counted 3 state mines and 5 private mines. In the 1950s, 4 of the region’s municipalities belonged to the 25 wealthiest municipalities of the Netherlands. Within a few decades the regional landscape transformed from countryside to something in-between urban and suburban. Typical of the region is its fragmented urban landscape: without a really clear urban centre, it is rather a collection of neighbourhoods, where you often not really know in which city or village you are.
The mining industry disappeared as quickly as it emerged. In 1965, the Dutch national government decided to close the state mines. Within 10 years, not only the state mines but also all private mines were closed. This was followed by a first socio-economic redevelopment programme, including two measures that then seemed to make sense but now are looked back on with mixed emotions. The Dutch government deconcentrated parts of its services to the former mining area, like Statistics Netherlands (CBS), the National Tax Service and the pension fund of civil servants (ABP). Also, most former mining complexes were demolished and replaced by nature areas, parks or housing areas. The first measure indeed brought many new jobs to the region, but the former miners hardly profited from those new jobs and it produced a new dependence of the region on decision makers in far-away The Hague. The second measure may have resulted in a less polluted and more attractive living environment, but also means that Parkstad Limburg has only very few industrial monuments reminding of the mining days. So contrary to for example the nearby Ruhr area there are hardly any buildings left to give new cultural or touristic functions. Impressive redevelopment icons like Zeche Zollverein in Essen (Germany) or C-Mine in Genk (Belgium) could have been realised in Parkstad Limburg too, if only more mining complexes would have been saved.
What does the ‘coping with shrinkage’ strategy of Parkstad Limburg look like? After the ‘mourning process’ that is somehow unavoidable in shrinking areas (to process towards first acceptance of shrinkage and then developing ‘shrink smart’ strategies) two first important steps were establishing regional collaboration and choosing a new regional ‘branding’ name. Eight municipalities founded a new regional governance entity and they re-baptised their region as ‘Parkstad Limburg’. Combining ‘park’ and ‘city’ in the name seems to fit this region, a mix of green and urban areas, quite well, and the region hopes this name also contributes to a more positive image both for the outside world and for its own inhabitants. The regional policy-makers then developed a housing strategy in which the worst parts of the housing stock were demolished and new construction was only allowed if it did not increase the total number of dwellings. An economic strategy mainly aiming at economic transformation instead of growth, and a spatial development strategy which was also more about reconfiguration than growth were also developed. Economically, Parkstad is trying to build on existing strengths like tourism, leisure and energy technology and trying to add new strengths in health (especially elderly care) and business services. The spatial strategy is mostly about redeveloping the least attractive urban areas and trying to make the region into a more coherent and less fragmented whole.
The housing strategy is well on its way to reach its targets and the spatial strategy can generally also be called successful. The economic strategy so far is the most problematic one. Parkstad can definitely claim some economic successes, especially in the tourism and leisure sector. The region for example features the largest indoor ski slope of the Netherlands (Snow World), a well-visited and award-winning zoo (Gaia) and is still home to one of the largest rock festivals in the country (Pinkpop). Developing other new industries or innovating old ones so far was much less successful. A sad example of a failed project is the border-crossing business site Avantis. This was meant to become a prominent hub of sustainable energy technology, especially solar energy. Unfortunately global competition from much cheaper mass producers (especially from China) led to bankruptcy of a promising solar panel producer at this site. Nowadays, Avantis is largely empty and faces an uncertain future. Some years ago, when optimism still ruled here, a World Trade Centre was opened to attract companies to Avantis. While this WTC building is largely filled with companies, the rest of the site is alomst deserted; this must without doubt be one of the weirdest places to find a WTC worldwide! The region now hopes for a positive spin-off effect of the rapidly growing RWTH technical university of Aachen, just across the border in Germany.
In the Netherlands, Parkstad Limburg was one of the first to develop ‘shrink smart’ strategies. So they had to get their inspiration from other countries. Their main inspiration source was Germany, especially former mining and industrial areas like the Ruhr Area and several parts of East Germany. It is not surprising, therefore, that also the next step in redeveloping Parkstad Limburg is also following German examples. Parkstad Limburg is organising an IBA (Internationale Bauausstellung) from 2014 until 2020. The Parkstad municipalities have decided to invest 45 million Euro in this long-term event and further support is expected from the province of Limburg. While the institutional framework for this event is provided by the municipal and regional governments, the projects and initiatives have to come from regional business and civic society. The first initiatives have already been submitted. Some are really original: an investor from the region wants to transform a former stone quarry into a Dutch ‘Grand Canyon’ theme park.
Some seem much less original: the city of Kerkrade wants to build a ‘creative city’… How many creative cities do we already have in the world? How about a ‘non-creative city’ for a change? As local and regional policy-makers realise, the IBA is not a ‘silver bullet’ solving all the region’s problems; it will rather be a first step in a longer-term process of socio-economic transformation. Anyway, the initiative to start up an IBA in Parkstad Limburg may be just the right choice to continue the stony path towards a region with less inhabitants, but with a vital future despite shrinkage.