Rightsizing is about the spatial distribution of buildings, infrastructure and land. This requires substantial technical and financial support which is frequently out of reach for small towns.

Successive years of fiscal austerity has led to a consolidation of service functions in larger towns, thus depriving smaller towns of their relevance for people and business, and further diminishing their importance in decisions on funding allocations. While European urban policy for the period 2021 – 2027 puts an emphasis on small and mediums sized towns (see the New Leipzig Charter below), so far towns with fewer than 50,000 inhabitants had very limited access to access European funding programmes that would support a rightsizing of the urban fabric.

As far as governmental programmes are concerned only Germany and Japan developed initiatives specifically targeted at urban shrinkage. In Germany the Stadtumbau Ost programme was triggered by large scale migration from east to west Germany following unification in 1990. Japan responds to dramatic population losses due to demographic changes with a national programme to adjust local services and the urban footprint, while other countries which have a distinctive shrinkage problem do not explicitly acknowledge it (for more detail see ‘Governmental Approaches to Address Shrinkage’ below). It remains to be see what future European programmes will do to help small and medium sized towns deal with shrinkage and long term decline.

Settlements with declining population and large numbers of public housing units frequently make the reduction of housing stock a priority. Germany is leading on this and in addition to supporting large cities also created the IBA programme which funded right sizing interventions in medium sized towns. Dessau is a prime example of how a once booming towns collapsed in the space of 20 years and was left with oversized housing, infrastructure and services. Its strategic response to use natural open spaces to shape the future urban footprint of the town is exemplary (see ‘Green Open Spaces in Shrinking Cities’ below)

Surplus land resulting from demolition in Dessau, Germany (Heike Bruckner)
Landscape management on a housing estate in Dessau, Germany (Heike Bruckner)

Establishing some control over a growing quantity of surplus land and buildings can pose serious problems where the market for these commodities has collapsed and government support is lacking. The ABC model below can assist municipalities in evaluating which of their sites are priories for governmental subsidies and which might have sufficient economic value to encourage developers pay for their re-development:

  • A sites are economically viable and development projects can be driven by commercial interests. Redevelopment causes a clear increase in site value hence there is no requirement for additional public funding. Planning authorities could provide a supportive policy framework to foster redevelopment.
  • B sites have development potential but also significant risks due to the fine balance of investment and reclamation costs. These are typical brownfield sites situated in the border zone between profit and loss. Public-private partnership are most effective in terms of sharing risk, co-ordination and financing.
  • C sites are not in a condition where regeneration can be profitable. Their regeneration relies mainly on public sector or municipality driven projects. Public funding or specific legislative instruments (e.g. tax incentives) are required to stimulate regeneration of these sites.
Ferber and Preuss, 2006

Municipalities can use this model to inform their land use strategy. This in turn might support regional or national funding agencies in their investment decisions. By identifying the type of site and considering the factors that determine whether they are in the A, B or C category options for different interventions can be deliberated. The examination of factors that bring about the re-categorisation of a site, for example from A to B, can result in the development of site-specific strategies to accelerate redevelopment.


Municipalities with vacant historic residential housing stock might find helpful models in the work done by the URBACT funded AltBau network: www.alt-bau.eu. For insights on how to deal with oversized service infrastructures such as water systems see the report by Jörg Walther below.

Join the network for the small towns of Europe. Check out this page for more details.