Small towns, especially in peripheral locations, are a specific type of town in Germany with significant problems. Population and employment decline and economic underdevelopment often combined with rising unemployment and low incomes and purchasing power as well as a loss of centrality functions (frequently leading to financial difficulties and the downsizing of underused social, transport and technical infrastructure) severely reduce local authorities’ flexibility. As a result, town centres become less and less attractive as the quality of urban amenities such as the retail sector declines. Although widespread in eastern Germany, the problem of the shrinkage of small towns also exists in parts of western Germany. Tackling these sometimes very complicated issues presents an enormous challenge for small towns’ local authorities. One of the main aims is to avoid a downwards spiral that could prevent the consequences of shrinkage from being dealt with in an active, creative manner. 

How should a town afflicted with such problems respond? First of all, the situation needs to be accurately assessed by the council and the local authority. Furthermore, the involvement of key actors from the business community and the general public is crucial for the assumption of direct responsibility and civic participation as well as the adoption of a flexible, open-minded response to difficult local circumstances.

The project ‘Zukunftsstadt Mittweida’ (‘Mittweida – Future Town’) addresses this need for civic involvement. Mittweida is a unique small town in the administrative district of Central Saxony since about 5,000 of its 15,000 inhabitants are students. Accordingly, the population can be divided into long-established residents on the one hand and the constant influx and departure of students and other new citizens on the other. Encouraging the participation of this heterogeneous community requires new approaches because traditional methods such as public meetings have frequently been observed to reach just a fraction of the population. Therefore, different target groups will be addressed, informed, motivated and included in the project using a variety of media, such as local papers, local radio stations and social media as well as personal interviews. This cross-media strategy will enable the collection, collation and discussion of the most urgent needs, ideas and visions from as many people as possible. For the first time, the inhabitants of Mittweida will be given an opportunity to contribute to their town’s development and to shape its future.