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Left behind regions? IfL study examines local democracy in small and medium-sized towns

The willingness of local decision-makers to engage in participatory processes and the availability of resources are crucial for the participation of urban society in urban development. This is the conclusion of a study conducted by the Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography on behalf of the vhw - Bundesverband für Wohnen und Stadtentwicklung e. V. (Federal Association for Housing and Urban Development). The focus is on smaller and medium-sized towns away from the centres with their special opportunities and challenges for local democracy. Here, local and supra-local actors operate in five central areas of tension, to which the authors recommend ways of resolving.

Uneven spatial development and the supposed contrast between overheated conurbations and outlying regions have attracted a great deal of attention in politics and the media in recent years. Against this background, the Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography (IfL) has investigated processes of local democracy in small and medium-sized towns on behalf of vhw - Bundesverband für Wohnen und Stadtentwicklung e.V. (Federal Association for Housing and Urban Development). The case studies conducted in Thuringia and Hesse focused on the actors involved in decision-making processes and their understanding of participation. In addition, the IfL researchers analysed local negotiation and participation processes and asked how the downward spiral of migration, disconnection, dependency and stigmatisation affects local democracy.

Key findings of the study

According to the study, urban development and local governance depend equally on structural conditions and on local actors. Christian Höcke, researcher at vhw and project leader of the study: "The study paints a multi-layered picture of the municipal situations and reveals that many of the local actors are committed to strengthening and developing their cities." In doing so, the actors move in fields of tension that influence how local democracy is brought to life.

The research team was able to identify five central areas of tension: the relationship between city politics, city administration and city society; the area of tension between the need for engagement and the withdrawal of engagement; the area of tension between demands for participation and local democracy and the available capacities; the relationship between current competitive funding policies and the need for continuous funding; and the need for action for cooperation with simultaneously distributed responsibilities at different levels.

Original publication

Görmar, Franziska / Graffenberger, Martin / Haunstein, Stephan / Lang, Thilo (2020): Lokale Demokratie in Klein- und Mittelstädten unter den Bedingungen von Peripherisierung. Abschlussbericht im Auftrag des vhw – Bundesverband für Wohnen und Stadtentwicklung e. V. Berlin: vhw-Schriftenreihe Nr. 18. Download PDF

Further information:

Franziska Görmar