Cities in transition
Prof. Dipl.-Ing. Klaus Overmeyer / Architecture
Photo: Steffen Roth

Do we still need to build at all?

Landscape architect Klaus Overmeyer on cities in transition and how participation processes can reduce resistance to change.

Participation: negotiating change

"We don't know exactly what our future will look like, but we suspect that a lot will change in our cities," says Wuppertal landscape architect Prof. Klaus Overmeyer. Global changes due to wars, migration movements, a change in mobility, not to mention climate change or the recent pandemic, are changing our society and have a direct impact on the (spatial) development of our cities and neighborhoods. Cities have a long tradition that can often be read in the cityscape over centuries, Overmeyer explains, yet we are currently facing a major transformation that will have a strong impact on our living environment and that needs to be negotiated. "We architects are actually trained to design ready-made images of public spaces and buildings." The bottom line, he said, is that a city or space often evolves quite differently than originally planned. In the meantime, it has become clear that experts have to take into account and reconcile the different interests and positions of citizens and institutions, politics and administration, as well as commercially run companies. This requires negotiation processes. Many municipalities are therefore trying to integrate the planning of public spaces, buildings and neighborhoods into participatory planning processes in order to link the best design solution for a place with the balancing of interests on the ground. "Spatial development is extremely complex," Overmeyer explains the situation, "a purely spatial design that does not take into account different interests, urban economic conditions, climate change or ecological contexts falls short." That's why smart process design that integrates influencing factors is just as important as the design itself in many future construction tasks.

Participation processes

Planning and participation are often still clearly separated from each other, with the risk that planning without acceptance will emerge in the end. "In concrete terms, this is evident in newly built but often lifeless urban neighborhoods. Cities are designed in many places for purely aesthetic reasons, but that doesn't necessarily fit with the needs of local people or businesses." Processes that dovetail planning and participation try to use the treasures and talents of a space and its users as a resource right at the beginning of a planning process, in which, for example, planners, politicians, businesses or civil society organizations first look at areas together. "What is in an area? What talents does an area have? Are there special companies or craft businesses that are on site there? Does traffic play a big role there, or does the area perhaps have green places and retreats for animals or plants?" Even in the second step, he said, people don't try to design concretely yet, but rather consider on a value level how they would like to live in that neighborhood or district in the future. Only then is it a matter of giving the ideas a form and spatial shape.

Municipal administration is on the move

The themes of the 'Great Transformation' are having a direct impact on the ground. They call into question the tried and tested in urban development and require a determined change of direction. Says Overmeyer: "Administrations are directly confronted with these problems because the challenges of our time have an extreme appeal to the public interest. Administration and politics in particular are challenged more than ever, and I am pleased to say that a major rethink is also taking place in many offices." There are also many young people there who want to change the world and shape it positively in a public interest, also in a public welfare-oriented sense, he said. An important realization that is being pushed hard, especially in administration, is that you have to think across departments and that the key to solving this challenge always lies in bringing together the various departments, such as the traffic department, the housing department, the culture department or the public order department, so that these individual departments can also work on jointly supported visions.


Participation processes always include actors without a professional planning background in spatial planning processes who want to be taken seriously. This is sometimes a difficult dilemma, says Overmeyer. It is true that there is an enormous amount of knowledge among the population; in science, one even speaks of citizen science, and this can also be seen in urban development processes. From a professional point of view, however, the following must be considered: "Architecture and urban planning, as in other disciplines, require a high level of professional competence and experience, which is why it is important in participation processes to recognize exactly where knowledge from civil society or other institutions is needed and where it is a matter of simply doing one's job in planning". In other words, there need to be clear agreements and phases in which participation and dialog processes are designed and exchange takes place. Then, however, what is discussed must also be professionally qualified in planning terms. "An important key is that these planning processes run iteratively and that you have feedback loops," Overmeyer adds.

Cemetery planning example

"Larger cities are under tremendous pressure," Overmeyer says, explaining the urban planning situation in many densely populated areas, "because space in the city is limited as demands increase. But at the same time, there's a strong need to stop sealing new land and to use land resources efficiently." For landscape architecture, to take one example, cemetery planning and redesign is a current area of concern. Due to the increase in urn burials, many cities no longer need the full extent of their designated cemetery space. This could create additional open space for recreational uses. But the transformation from cemetery to park has its pitfalls. Some people want to ride their bikes quickly through the park, while others loll in the sun on the lawn, while mourners stand at a grave in neighboring cemetery plots. "There has been a strong change in thinking today, and with that, the cemetery areas that are no longer needed come into sharp focus. They're actually green spaces, but they haven't been used as parks in the past. With this limitation of free areas, however, the demands on this greenery are now increasing, both from an ecological point of view, as valuable biotopes or resources for biodiversity in a city, but especially from a recreational point of view." "This mixture of bringing a cemetery use and the new demands from a modern urban society on top of each other creates an enormous amount of conflicting goals and areas," the expert explains. "Usually, you try not to occupy certain cemetery areas for a long period of time to gain new leeway in use. But even after a long period of time, it is very difficult to allow other uses for pietistic reasons. Church congregations are a very important interface, and there, too, participation processes are needed. Especially with the neighborhood, it's important to sound out what use should be possible there in the future." The spectrum ranges from simple walking paths and picnic facilities to sports facilities or urban gardening areas, Overmeyer emphasizes, "That's always a very sensitive issue, especially with the cemetery."

First Muslim cemetery in Germany being built in Wuppertal

In addition to a Protestant and a Jewish cemetery, the first independent Muslim cemetery in Germany is being built on Krummacher Strasse, and Overmeyer's chair was also involved in its planning. "The Muslim community was very committed to this first Muslim cemetery and approached us," the landscape architect says. "They had the area at Krummacher Cemetery in mind, and working with us was an entry point for them into this planning." Working with a university or college, he says, is always noncommittal in nature. From an academic position, he said, it is often easier to launch a public discussion and start talking about different models and variations. About 20 students joined together in small groups and produced a series of drafts that first gave the community an overview of the possibilities. These included questions about the entrance, the meeting space, the parking situation and the layout of the graves. Also the question: "How do we relate to the Jewish neighbors? Do we have to plant a hedge there or is just the wide view conducive?" were up for debate. "I found it very productive that both sides, both young people who hadn't dealt with death at all before and the community itself, learned an incredible amount through it."

Vision for the future: instead of new construction, building with existing stock

Due to limited land resources, new usage concepts in all areas of a city also always mean 'building with existing stock`. "In Germany, a large part of the city is already built, and we have to look much more closely at how we can continue to use this existing, gray energy, which is also in the buildings, just in view of climate change and resource consumption." Demolition and new construction, or even building on greenfield sites, used to be the focus of much planning, but people are moving away from that more and more. "Today, especially among the younger generation of our architects, there are already voices now and then that are increasingly asking, 'Do we even need to build anymore?' ` Students say the space is there, we just have to use it differently, rebuild it, keep building, but we no longer have to put all our energy into designing new buildings," Overmeyer says. 'Architects for future`, a movement that has also emerged here in Wuppertal, as well as some faculty colleagues, never tire of warning that all our materials, such as sand and gravel, are scarce resources that will eventually no longer be sufficiently available. "People are trying to get away from concrete and build more in wood, to think of the houses also as CO2 storage. That definitely requires a lot of creativity, and the creativity that we've been living out on greenfield sites so far, we now have to put into the existing structures."

Does Wuppertal need psychological help?

Overmeyer compares the future development of cities and regions to going to a psychologist. More than ever, it is important for cities and regions to be clear about how they want to shape their future and what their priorities are.

Wuppertal has already developed various city-wide concepts for transportation, digitization and urban development. The challenge is to combine these different strategic concepts into a compass for urban development. Once a city has worked out for itself what priorities it wants to set in housing construction, in the transport revolution, in climate-friendly urban development or in commercial development, it can apply the levers of change much more effectively. Overmeyer knows from many projects: "There is a great deal of tension between the resistance to change on the ground and the visionary compass. Overarching goals such as climate neutrality by 2030, reducing inner-city traffic by 50%, or building a new neighborhood using wood construction clash with the power of the tried and true when it comes to implementation." Reaching a common understanding of the future through discourse is a first step. But change needs above all experimental fields and positive experiences. Wuppertal's Nordbahntrasse is the best example of this.

Uwe Blass 

Prof. Dipl.-Ing. Klaus Overmeyer heads the Landscape Architecture teaching and research area in the Faculty of Architecture and Civil Engineering at Bergische Universität.

More infos about #uniwuppertal: