City / urban district / countryside: paths for a sustainable transformation

Statistically speaking, around 56 percent of the world’s population currently lives in cities, and that number is on the rise. By 2050, this will have increased to 70 percent. By this time, Asia in particular will be home to 33 of the envisioned 49 megacities with more than 10 million inhabitants. The social, economic and ecological challenges that this development entails can already be felt today. Our demands on space and land use are constantly increasing and are leading to conflicts of objectives between uses, and also between different sectors such as infrastructure, agriculture, mobility and energy. It is therefore important to plan ahead today for tomorrow. For cities, rural areas and the space in between.

BAU 2025 offers numerous content-related contributions to deal with the transformation of urban districts, the city and the countryside. Because we are building today the cities of tomorrow.

Is there only city and countryside, or is there also an in-between?

Urban and rural areas were traditionally defined by clear geographical and functional boundaries: cities are centers of population, industry and services; the countryside is a predominantly agricultural area with a lower population density and infrastructure. However, the possibility of working from home, the migration of young families from the city to rural areas, and technological progress are increasingly blurring these boundaries. Urban and rural areas also face similar challenges.

© Messe München GmbH

These include the reaction to the population structure due to demographic change, the necessary infrastructure and mobility; the promotion of sustainable development through adaptable spatial planning in response to changing living and working habits; and settlement and neighborhood development from the inside instead of the designation of new building areas on the outskirts. The goal of “establishing equivalent living conditions”, which is enshrined in Article 72 of German Basic Law, applies to all areas of spatial planning. The only difference is the scale.

The tasks of spatial planning and spatial development are varied and central to the sustainable design of our living spaces. These include: sustainable land use or a land policy geared towards the common good; the avoidance of land sealing through settlement development; the preservation of cultural heritage; the development of adaptation strategies to climate change; the promotion of social integration and quality of life; and participatory planning processes that anchor the acceptance of measures in the population.

The “New Leipzig Charter”

The “New Leipzig Charter” (2020) is a guiding document of the National Urban Development Policy. It serves as a guide and source of inspiration for cities in Europe to promote innovative and sustainable solutions in urban planning and neighborhood development in the three dimensions of a city that is just, green, and productive. It reflects the increasing recognition of the complex challenges facing cities and emphasizes the need for a comprehensive and inclusive approach.

The “productive city”

The “productive city” approach is also being adopted by the IBA’27 in the Stuttgart region. The digital transformation and new mobility concepts are changing products and production methods in the Stuttgart region. This enables new, vibrant urban districts with a mix of production, work, living, and even small-scale urban agriculture that supplies the city with food, influences the climate, and increases biodiversity.

The “StadtLand” perspective

The “StadtLand” perspective, as practiced by the IBA Thuringia from 2012 to 2023, undermines the hierarchical gradient from the center to the periphery and surrounding areas. Instead of being played off against each other, fair and balanced spatial development of urban and rural areas is subordinate to the global issue of mitigating climate change.

How do you plan cities for well-being? It is well known that people wish for less traffic, more greenery, varied architecture and affordable living space. But is that enough to plan the cities of the future? Andrea Gebhardt, President of the Federal Chamber of Architects, provides answers in an interview with Bayerischer Rundfunk.

Despite population decline and vacancies in the town centers, many rural communities are developing new residential areas on the outskirts. Yet it is precisely the structures in the town centers that represent an important documentation of the socio-spatial history of the respective municipality from an architectural-cultural perspective. In BDA-Denklabor Architekturpodcast #22: Perspectives on rural living spaces, the BDA Rhineland-Palatinate discusses how the current building fabric can withstand the processes of change and at the same time be used in a sustainable way.

Sustainable development requires new processes, methods, and tools

The challenge for urban, spatial, and regional planning is both to react quickly to current challenges and to proactively shape future developments through framework conditions. At the same time, the developments of the last 20 years have exponentially increased many developments – just think about the introduction of the smartphone and the rapid development of digitalization in all areas of life and work. How can we make long-term statements about changes in the environment, technology and society in a dynamic process that requires constant adjustments and reviews? And doesn’t this also require new processes, methods, and tools?

Scenario development

What will the world look like in 2050? As part of the Research on Building, Urban Affairs and Spatial Development’s “Building of tomorrow” research project, a comprehensive analysis of the construction industry – with the involvement of external experts – was used to identify key future topics that will be particularly relevant for the construction industry in 2050, and scenarios were developed on this basis.

Small town academy and participation formats

The Ministry of Construction is taking a new approach with the establishment of the small town academy in Wittenberge, which deals with the issues facing the inhabitants of small towns, who make up almost a third of the German population. The acceptance of new approaches also includes new participation formats. The Urban League is an alliance of young city makers, part of the urban development policy of the Federal Ministry of Housing, Urban Development and Building (BMWSB), who are actively involved in shaping their cities. It acts as a project incubator, think tank and learning platform for unconventional participation formats, always with a do-it-yourself approach as a contribution to independent co-design.

Best Practice

Successfully implemented projects have to be presented on project pools such as Stadtimpulse in order to recommend comprehensible local successes for replication. However, prizes such as the Urban Development Prize and the BBSR’s research funding for state and regional planning also contribute to the visibility of lighthouse projects and regions.

Could transforming the portfolio be a viable strategy?

The future task of the construction industry lies in adapting and upgrading existing buildings. Intelligent concepts for existing buildings and flexible conversion and further use must be implemented by all those involved in construction in order to preserve cultural identity and reduce the consumption of further emissions.

From production to neighborhood renewal

The Werksviertel district in Munich.

Here, numerous existing buildings of the Pfanni factory were renovated and new uses for them were established as part of a long-term conversion. The urban district combines residential, retail and commercial areas with leisure, event and cultural spaces – these public spaces also tell the story of the Werksviertel.

From discarded warehouse to functional building

The U-Halle Mannheim.

The simple building with a length of approximately 700 meters was converted into a striking functional building for event, exhibition, and catering areas for the BUGA Mannheim. In this way, it was possible on the one hand to avoid new buildings for the temporary BUGA exhibition, and on the other hand to provide momentum for a contemporary after-use concept with cultural and leisure uses that can be separated and reassembled according to the type.

From the bus stop to cooperative healthcare in the countryside

Health kiosks in the Seltenrain region.

As part of the IBA Thuringia, four health kiosks have been built in rural areas in a contemporary wooden design at central locations, each at bus stops. The aim of the concept is not only to offer health services, but also to prevent social isolation and combine care, assistance for the elderly and welfare services in rural areas.

Learning from the open-air museum

The education building in Nabburg-Neusath

The seminar building for environmental education is an “anti-project” to much of what is currently common in the construction industry: the desire for prestige buildings under time pressure, which has a negative impact on quality and costs. The students of the RPTU Kaiserslautern-Landau are building the learning building in the open-air museum with simple materials together with the craftsmen on site, learning by doing from theory to practice.

Affordable housing – is it only possible in the countryside?

Affordable housing is an essential prerequisite for ensuring that people have access to safe and appropriate housing regardless of their income. This not only promotes social inclusion and diversity, but also helps to stabilize local communities and the economy as a whole. Affordable housing is not only possible in the countryside, but also in cities. The challenge in urban areas often lies in the higher demand and the related higher costs of land and construction. Nevertheless, there are various strategies for creating affordable housing in cities, provided there is the political will and innovative approaches are promoted.

New forms of living in a former hospital

More than just living in Basel.

Instead of demolishing the room wing of the former hospital, a total of 134 apartments were created through clever interventions in new residential forms such as cluster apartments, nest apartments, age-appropriate apartments and shared apartments, as well as maisonette apartments and temporary guest rooms. The first floor houses two childcare facilities, proximity stores, meeting points, commercial space and a bistro.

Living without walls

Baugruppe Kurfürstenstraße (building group), Berlin

The Baugruppe Kurfürstenstraße project is the result of a search for new ways of living together. To this end, a house was created that not only remains open – to the world as well as to its inhabitants – but also has the potential to start new dialogs with the habits of its residents through its design.

From sheep pen to sleeping quarters

sleep vs. sheep pen in Bedheim.

The core themes of the Sch(l)afstall Bedheim project are the preservation of historical monuments, solidarity-based and social farming, rental housing in the countryside, and academic feedback. People put their heads and strength together at the site in southern Thuringia.

A room for everyone

Prädikow barn in Prötzel

The cooperative residential and commercial project Hof Prädikow was developed on the former estate in Prädikow. The small barn of the complex building has been used as the public center of the farm with a hall and “village living room” for the residents since 2021. The barn serves as basic infrastructure to support the repopulation of the farm and as a meeting place for the villagers.

What does the current funding for urban transformation and rural areas look like?

Sustainable development requires a range of tools and programs that promote the transformation of the built environment, social inclusion, and economic vitality in both urban and rural areas. They offer support in the form of research, development, and direct funding to tackle the challenges in the areas of housing, urban development and spatial planning. They differ depending on the region, political will and time period, as well as in the various specifics of Germany’s federal states, cities, and municipalities. Examples for Germany at national level are:

  • With the research program “Experimental Housing and Urban Development” (ExWoSt), the federal government is promoting innovative planning and measures on important urban development and housing policy issues in the form of research fields, studies, initiatives, and model projects. 
  • The Federal Ministry of Housing, Urban Development and Building (BMWSB) is supporting the practical testing and implementation of innovative spatial planning approaches and instruments in cooperation between science and practice, i.e. with local stakeholders in the regions, with the “Model Projects in Spatial Planning” (MORO) action program.
  • For over 50 years, the federal and state governments have been using urban development funding to support local authorities in designing attractive and sustainable residential and living spaces.
  • Strengthening rural areas and contributing to equal living conditions in urban and rural areas is one of the core tasks of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) with the Federal Rural Development and Regional Value Creation Program. The aim is to ensure the future viability of rural regions, where more than half of our population lives.

What is urban-rural development?

Urban-rural development deals with the dynamic interaction between urban and rural areas, and aims to develop urban and rural areas in an integrative and sustainable way. This development strategy takes into account the different needs and potentials of both areas in order to promote balanced regional development. The aim is to improve the quality of life for all residents and reduce regional disparities.

How can cities grow sustainably without negatively impacting rural areas?

Cities can develop sustainably by opting for high-density construction that minimizes land consumption and integrates green spaces within the city limits. The use of brownfield sites and the revitalization of existing urban areas can reduce the pressure on rural areas. Regional planning that takes into account the ecological and social effects of urban expansion and includes rural areas in the overall development is also important.

How does climate change affect the planning of urban and rural areas?

Climate change requires the planning of urban and rural areas to be adapted in order to create a resilient infrastructure that can withstand extreme weather events. Urban planners and decision-makers need to implement strategies to reduce CO2 emissions while integrating green spaces and water management systems that contribute to cooling and regulating the water balance. Adapting agriculture to changing climatic conditions, and securing water resources is particularly important in rural areas.