"Testing the City" - medium-sized towns and their potential for creatives, self-employed people and families

Görlitz and similar small and medium-sized towns far from large metropolises have the potential to offer creative people, freelancers and young families a new home. The special characteristics of these municipalities play a central role in this. The Corona pandemic and the associated trend towards working from home also offer opportunities for small and medium-sized cities. However, some framework conditions also stand in the way of an influx from the big city. These are some of the scientific results of the accompanying research in the project "Testing the City - Living and Working in Görlitz", which researchers from the Interdisciplinary Centre for Ecological and Revitalising Urban Transformation (IZS) presented on Tuesday in a virtual press conference.

The project "Testing the City - Living and Working in Görlitz" attracted more than 60 people to the city on the Neisse for four weeks at a time from January 2019 to March 2020. For the first time, Görlitz was the focus of the research not only as a place to live, but also as a potential place to work and a location of industry and commerce. The project was primarily aimed at people who can work from any location, for example self-employed persons and freelancers. For their stay, they could use flats and work spaces free of charge.

Before and during their stay in Görlitz, some of the participants (47 people) were scientifically interviewed by the team of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Ecological and Revitalising Urban Transformation (IZS) - about their expectations of the trial stay as well as their experiences on site. The survey results are to help identify those factors that make smaller towns and cities in peripheral locations attractive to working people and that positively influence the attractiveness of these places.

What are the advantages of living in a small or medium-sized town?

The survey of the participants in the project "Testing the City" makes it clear: small and medium-sized towns have advantages that many large cities cannot offer or can no longer offer. Among other things, Görlitz scored points in the eyes of the interviewees with a large offer of living and working space as well as comparatively low rents. The attractive cityscape, the short distances in a city of this size, the provision of everyday necessities and the range of parks and green spaces were also rated very positively by the respondents. Judgments about the family-friendliness of the city and aspects such as playgrounds and family-friendly leisure facilities were also very positive.

Likewise, the city was able to convince with its numerous cultural, leisure and sports facilities. Many of the interviewees also quickly felt at home in the city society and attributed this to the commitment of many Görlitz residents to their city, in associations and initiatives. Last but not least, Görlitz benefits from its scenic surroundings with easily accessible recreational areas, that contributes to the city's good rating as a potential place to live.

Görlitz also left a positive impression on the respondents as a place to work. Most of the participants in the project work in the cultural and creative industries. They therefore appreciated the fact that Görlitz offers a lot of free space to develop creatively and that there are already some initiatives and networks on site. The wide range of commercial, work and creative spaces was also rated as good to very good, as was the manageable size and tranquillity of the city. Some of the interviewees found the deceleration of life in a medium-sized city like Görlitz very appealing, as it makes it possible to concentrate on their own creative projects and offers space for inspiration.

Where could small and medium-sized cities improve?

More than half of the respondents (53%) said that they could imagine moving to Görlitz. On the one hand, personal reasons such as the respondents' own career prospects spoke against this move. However, it also became clear in the interviews that the city could make much better use of its potential in its plan to make Görlitz attractive to a young, creative and well-educated target group. For example, there is significantly more and cheaper housing than in many big cities. But in terms of renovation and furnishings, the offers on the housing market did not always meet the demands and wishes of the interviewees. In a city with historic buildings, some of the participants missed higher-quality refurbished and individually designed housing. For some of the interviewees, unrenovated flats that can be individually designed after purchase would also be a good alternative to the existing offers on the real estate market.

In the case of commercial, work and creative spaces, the existing potential is also not optimally utilised in the view of some interviewees. Although the supply is obviously large and varied, access to the spaces was difficult. The interviewees missed necessary information, such as an overview of available properties as well as information on prices, equipment, rental conditions and contact persons. In general, they recommended not only making the possibilities and spaces that Görlitz could offer creative people accessible and usable, but also communicating them much more offensively and thus promoting the city as a potential location for the cultural and creative industries.

With regard to daily life in Görlitz, there was criticism in the interviews that in a city of short distances, a lot of space in the historic city centre is given to car traffic. The interviewees also missed the possibility of shopping for daily needs in the historic city centre. Overall, trade and gastronomy in the inner city areas focused too much on tourist offers.

Where is support from the federal and state level necessary?

If Görlitz is to establish itself as a location for the cultural and creative industries, a mediation office between funding agencies and creative workers would be just as desirable as better opportunities to network with each other. There is also room for improvement in the appreciation of creative activities within the city society. One shortcoming, which was pointed out above all by people who depend on the local marketing of their art or products, is the relatively low purchasing power locally. Therefore, even after moving to a medium-sized city like Görlitz, contact to networks and sales markets beyond the city limits remains an important aspect for many creatives and artists. There is a need for good infrastructure both in digital terms (fast internet) and with regard to connections to major cities. Many of the respondents would like to see fast, regular and comfortable train connections so that they can use their travel time for work.

"It is precisely the development of infrastructure beyond the city limits that the municipalities can of course only influence to a limited extent themselves. Here they need the support of the federal and state levels," explains project leader Prof. Dr. Robert Knippschild from the IZS. "Our research in the 'Testing the City' project have also made clear: If medium-sized cities are to offer an alternative to life in a big city and develop into stable and equal places to live through in-migration, then they also need diversity that goes beyond a good range of housing."

Corona pandemic as an opportunity for small and medium-sized towns

During the project period, the Corona pandemic has added further aspects for the development of small and medium-sized towns. For example, the pandemic has strengthened trends in the labour market that hold opportunities for many smaller municipalities located in the periphery. In many sectors, working from home is suddenly a conceivable alternative to going to the office every day. Medium-sized towns like Görlitz could also benefit from this. They can score with qualities that many people miss in densely populated cities. Affordable housing is just as much a part of this as space for creativity and self-development, a good supply of everyday necessities or a diverse cultural offering and short distances to the countryside. They certainly offer a good alternative to life in bigger cities. For mobile work far from the company office and only an occasional trip to the work place or client in the big city, however, suitable infrastructural conditions are needed with fast internet and good train connections, which small and medium-sized towns cannot develop and offer on their own.

What added value did the project bring to the city of Görlitz?

An influx of creative or artistically active people can bring a variety of impulses to small and medium-sized towns. The 15-month active project phase in Görlitz has shown this. The participants in "Testing the City" became involved in the life of the city with various exhibitions and accompanying events. Workshops in various artistic fields were open to interested parties. Since autumn 2019, Görlitz has had an offshoot of the "Marktschwärmer", an initiative that supports the marketing of regionally produced goods. The foundation stone for this was laid by a participant of "Testing the City". At least five households decided to move to Görlitz after their trial stay. Last but not least, the project brought the city a lot of media coverage.

Even after the end of the project, the IZS team will remain in close exchange with the Görlitz project partners on urban development issues. Based on the scientific findings, they will jointly draw conclusions for the city.

Who participated in the project and was scientifically interviewed?

A total of 62 people (41 households) lived in Görlitz on a trial basis. Five families with a total of seven children also took part in the project. The IZS team was able to scientifically interview 47 adults. With about 40 percent, the 30 to 39-year-olds made up the largest part of the respondents, followed by the 50 to 59 age group (19 %). Thus, on the one hand, young people in the phase of starting a family or shortly before were testing whether a change of location could be an option for them. Older people, on the other hand, were reorienting themselves in their later professional lives and after the children had moved out, and were also thinking about a different place of residence. The majority of the respondents (70 %) actually live in a large city with more than 100,000 inhabitants, 45 percent of the respondents came from Berlin. But also people from small and medium-sized towns (45 %) and rural areas (11 %) took part. More than 90 per cent of the interviewees were freelancers, for example in the arts and culture sector, in consulting or teaching, journalism or crafts. More than three quarters said they were also able to work permanently without being tied to a specific location.

Contact at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Ecological and Revitalising Urban Transformation (IZS)

Prof. Dr. Robert Knippschild (project management), e-mail: R.Knippschildioer@ioer.de
Constanze Zöllter (project processing), e-mail: C.Zoellterioer@ioer.de


The Leibniz Institute of Ecological Urban and Regional Development is jointly funded by the federal government and the federal states.

FS Sachsen

This measure is co-financed by tax funds on the basis of the budget approved by the Saxon State Parliament.