Cottbus, Germany — At first glance, Cottbus looks like an orderly and prosperous old German city, with cobblestone streets and brightly painted 18th-century buildings along a winding stretch of the river Spree.
As you stroll through the city’s squares and laneways, though, something begins to feel amiss. There are surprisingly few cafés, and a lot of the buildings, while bright and neat, seem unoccupied. You begin to wonder where all the people are.
You’re not going to find them. Cottbus, two hours south of Berlin in what used to be East Germany, is a dramatic victim of a phenomenon the Germans call "shrinkage," a crisis of depopulation rooted in declining birth rates that is now afflicting all of Europe. The city’s population has dropped dramatically, to little more than 100,000 today from 130,000 a decade ago, and it is losing 7 per cent of its residents every year. The city is engaged in an expensive, long-term struggle to appear normal as its apartments and streets empty out.
"Even at the most busy times, there are not as many people here as you would expect to see in a city," said Andreas Berthold, who works at a clothing shop in Cottbus’s quaint but almost deserted historic centre. "The fake city," as he calls it, is maintained by the government at a cost of millions. Most of Cottbus’s residents live in a wasteland of half-empty concrete apartment blocks on the outskirts of town. The buildings are covered in graffiti and interspersed with stretches of empty fields and abandoned businesses.
To keep swaths from becoming ghost towns, the Cottbus city government has been forced to go against every politician’s and planner’s instinct and spend tax dollars to reduce infrastructure. More than 5,000 apartment units are being taken apart piece by piece — some of them to be replaced by single-family houses — and the city is struggling to find a way to reduce the size of its sanitation and water systems, whose underused pipes often carry unmoving, stagnant water.
"I want to get out of here as soon as I’m old enough," said Hans-Peter Klemke, 17, who was skateboarding in a crumbling concrete courtyard in front of an apartment building in Madlow, a sprawling and sparsely populated 1960s development on the outskirts of town.
The city is trying to persuade all the residents of Madlow to move to Sandow, a slightly less dismal complex closer to the centre of town so the remains of Madlow can be demolished. Mr. Klemke was wearing a black T-shirt showing a book crushing a swastika — a challenge, he said, to the neo-Nazi gangs that prowl Madlow’s barren streets.
The depopulation crisis is threatening to wreak havoc on the European Union as it expands to the Russian border over the next several months. The reduced population does not provide enough tax revenues to pay pensions for the aging, leading to crises such as the one-day general strike in France last week. The Eastern European states have suffered the most acute population drop, with Bulgaria’s population falling by two million over the past 10 years.
Across Europe, people fear their cities will become like Cottbus. So scholars from all the continent are coming here to study its depopulation. In three weeks, Cottbus will play host to a conference of architects and planners titled Public Space in the Time of Shrinkage. Two weeks ago, a similar conference of civic administrators was held in a nearby town, attracting people from a half-dozen countries.
"Unfortunately, we have become experts in this subject," said Riklef Rambow, the University of Cottbus professor who is organizing next month’s conference from his office in the university’s Faculty of Architecture building, a depressing grey concrete structure covered in graffiti.
"Nobody really knows what is the most sensible thing to do about it. Until three or four years ago, it was not even possible to admit that cities are shrinking. Now at least some people are starting to get creative."
Cottbus has led the way in coming up with strategies for handling shrinkage. After all, it got a head start: It was the victim of an earlier depopulation, when millions of former East Germans moved westward after the country was reunified in 1989.
But the current wave of shrinkage is rooted in a phenomenon that is depopulating cities and nations across Europe: People aren’t having babies.
Germany’s fertility rate is 1.34 children per woman, far below the two needed to maintain a stable population without immigration. It is the second-lowest reproduction rate of Western European nations, beaten only by the Italians, with 1.23 children per woman.
Across the European Union, the average is 1.47, and no major country has a rate higher than 1.9. Immigrants help, and Germany has pursued one of the continent’s more open immigration policies, but there just aren’t enough people to make up for the shrinkage. And the immigrants tend to move to major centres, such as Berlin, leaving places like Cottbus denuded.
According to a report released last month by the United Nations, the European population crisis is becoming acute: During the next 14 years, the population of the 14 current EU states is projected to decline to 600 million from 725 million. While that is unique to Europe today, many demographers predict that the whole world will face a crisis of depopulation within two or three generations.
The effects are devastating. Because fiscal growth relies on population growth, shrinkage leads to economic and emotional depression. In fact, many economists attribute Germany’s current economic malaise to its population shrinkage. In response, Germany is spending the equivalent of $5.25-billion on initiatives to boost the birth rate, in addition to the monthly payments of $225 per child that it offers mothers until their children are 18.
"A collective depression has set in," Karen Retzel, the mayor of Cottbus, said in a rare statement on the subject last year. Cottbus officials don’t like to talk about their depopulation, preferring to boast about initiatives such as a conference centre, an arts festival and a public-art display designed to attract visitors, and possibly even residents.
"Everyone who deals with shrinkage tries to find positive aspects in it," said Mr. Rambow, the architecture professor. "The problem is, to take creative advantage of the empty spaces, you need to have people who are young and energetic. And when shrinkage occurs, the people tend to be old and depressed."