Coronavirus: Can Germany revive its hollowed-out city centres?

The charming German city of Lübeck was lovingly done up for the holidays with fairy lights and garlands but the usual festive bustle was eerily absent this pandemic-scarred winter.

Coronavirus: Can Germany revive its hollowed-out city centres?
Lübeck's normally bustling Hüxstraße, pictured here on December 10th, was largely empty over the holidays. Photo: Morris Mac Matzen/AFP

Across the country, all non-essential businesses have been forced to shut
until at least mid-January to help stem a second coronavirus wave engulfing
Europe's top economy.

But many of the “closed” signs in shop windows in the town centre, with its
signature brick facades and sumptuous art nouveau villas that made it a UNESCO World Heritage Site, have given way to “out of business” notices.

The Hanseatic city, population 220,000, has not escaped the urban blight which has plagued many German city centres for years but whose spread has been spurred on by the pandemic. 

In Lübeck, known around the globe for its traditional marzipan and visited by 18 million tourists in 2019, 20 percent of retail space remains empty — a figure that has been rising for several years.

READ ALSO: Travel: Why Lübeck is still 'the queen' of northern Germany

In the middle of the main high street, Olivia Kempke points to a clothing store that went bust: “Some shops were already not doing well before the corona crisis and the current drop in sales is the final blow.”

Head of Lübeck Management, an association that encourages local urban development, Kempke blames a boom in suburban shopping centres for siphoning off shoppers and ever higher commercial rents which “have grabbed merchants by the throat”.

Christmas lights being set up in Lübeck at the end of November. Photo: DPA

Cash for town planning

Another big driver out of urban commercial districts is online shopping, a
sector given a huge lift from the pandemic. Sales in Germany are expected to soar by a third for November-December compared to one year ago.

That growth will come at the expense of shops that do not offer internet purchases, the German Retail Federation (HDE) said, fearing the closure of
50,000 stores due to Covid-19.

The lockdown of high-street shops in the all-important Christmas season is
expected to cost them €16.9 billion for November-December alone, the IW economic institute said.

READ ALSO: How can Germany save its high streets amid corona crisis?

The tighter rules from mid-December until mid-January and probably beyond are certain to push merchants further into the red.

Economy Minister Peter Altmaier said in November that shopping at small businesses was akin to “a national task, even a patriotic act”, a message that quickly rang hollow as shops were forced to bring down their shutters.

The federal government has dramatically ramped up spending to try to ease
the pain and is thrashing out a new e-commerce tax whose revenues would flow to high-street traders.

It has earmarked an additional €25 million for 2021 to shore up city centres.

The HDE is calling for an annual “urban emergency fund” of around €1.5 billion that would rejuvenate cities in the longer term.

“If we're not careful, we won't recognise our cities after the pandemic,” HDE president Gerd Landsberg said. “We must take action.”

The emergency government assistance comes in addition to the construction ministry's programme, created in 2002, to inject some €790 million annually to boost urban redevelopment.

Since then, 1,081 German cities and towns have benefited.

A tourist in Lübeck's scenic city centre in spring 2019. Photo: DPA 

'Spaces for life'

Hanau in the western state of Hesse was one of the first to profit from the scheme.

The city, whose landscape bore the dreary mark of hasty post-war architecture, has had a major facelift with a re-greening drive and improved access for those with reduced mobility.

Hanau built a mall popular with shoppers but filled it with independent stores and restaurants instead of the usual chain franchises, and installed a new public square.

READ ALSO: Job fears grow in Germany as coronavirus closes shops again

It's a success story, said Frank Schwartze, an urban planning professor at
Lübeck's Technical University, calling for the state funds to allow “city centres to adapt for new uses” to create “spaces for life” and not just consumption.

“The old retail commerce is not coming back,” he said, calling for “places
to walk and socialise” while making other “forms of mobility possible”. In other words, fewer parking spots and more space for pedestrians, cyclists and scooters.

Lübeck has just in the past year started on a similar path with a few novelties including a community garden in the heart of town, widened sidewalks with places to sit, open-air cultural exhibitions and streets closed to vehicles.

“We noticed a return of people on foot and a 60 percent reduction in car traffic,” said mayor Jan Lindenau.

“And citizens have gained in quality of life.”

By David Courbet

Member comments

  1. I would say that a further problem aggravated by the Corona crisis is that many German cities are rooted in the twin bedevilment of an almost closed-shop high rent burocracy and classic town planning conservativism as regards any change in the status quo; coupled with an inflexibility of business model that means that many businesses can only function on one level and one level only. This is especially true where there is accumulated money in the South. It all works fine until it no longer works at all, is pretty much the National business model. There is no flexibility and no dynamism.

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Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

High profile German virologist Christian Drosten believes Germany will see a severe spike in Covid infections after summer, and that the pandemic will not become endemic this year.

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

Drosten previously said that Germany would probably be able to declare the end of the pandemic this year.

But in an interview with Spiegel, Drosten said he had reevaluated his opinion. 

“When the Alpha variant came, it was very surprising for me. When Delta appeared I was sceptical at first, then with Omicron we had to reorient ourselves again. And since January there have already been new Omicron subtypes.

“So I would actually like to correct myself: I no longer believe that by the end of the year we will have the impression that the pandemic is over.”

READ ALSO: End is in sight for pandemic in Germany, says virologist 

Drosten also said that Germany will not see a largely Covid-free summer, which has been the case in previous years, and a further increase in infections in autumn. 

“We are actually already seeing an exponential increase in case numbers again,” Drosten said.

“The BA.5 variant (of Omicron) is simply very transmissible, and people are losing their transmission protection from the last vaccination at the same time.”

In other countries, he said, when the number of cases become high, hospitalisation and death rates also rise again. “Unfortunately, that will also be the case here,” said Drosten, but added: “Overall, however, far fewer people will become seriously ill and die than in 2021.”

Drosten said he expected many more infections from September.

“I hope that the school holidays will dampen the increase in cases somewhat. But from September, I fear we will have very high case numbers,” the head of the virology department at Berlin’s Charité hospital told Spiegel.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister lays out autumn Covid plan

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021.

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

If the government does not take any action, he predicted there would be a lot of sick leave across all industries. “That will become a real problem,” he said.

Drosten said he did not expect overcrowded intensive care units in Germany.

But the new BA.5 sub-variant, which is becoming dominant in Germany, may affect people more strongly. 

“The wheel is turning more towards disease again,” said Drosten. It is not true that a virus automatically becomes more and more harmless in the course of evolution. “That makes me even more worried about the autumn,” he said.

Drosten recommends wearing masks indoors during the colder months, saying it is “the least painful” measure.

If, in addition, “up to 40 million people could be immunised or given a booster vaccination” before winter, for example by urgently calling for company vaccinations, that would “really make a difference”, Drosten said.

In the long term, he said it’s inevitable that people will become infected with coronavirus.

He said the population immunity due to vaccinations and infections will at some point be so strong that the virus will become less important. “Then we will be in an endemic state,” said Drosten. In the worst case, however, this could take “several more winters”.

However, Drosten warned against people trying to deliberately infect themselves with Covid, saying getting the infection in summer doesn’t mean people will be protected in winter. 

Drosten himself said he has not yet contracted Covid-19.

“So far, I guess I’ve just been lucky,” he said. “I rarely put myself in risky situations, but I’m not overly cautious either.”

‘Pandemic depends on behaviour’

According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI)’s latest weekly report, more outbreaks are occurring in care homes, and the number of patients in intensive care units is slightly rising as infections go up. 

The institute said there had been a 23 percent increase in the 7-day incidence compared to the previous week. On Friday the 7-day incidence stood at 618.2 infections per 100,000 people. There were 108,190 infections within the latest 24 hour period and 90 deaths. 

“The further course of the pandemic depends not only on the occurrence of new virus variants and the uptake of vaccinations on offer, it also depends to a large extent on the behaviour of the population,” said the RKI.

According to the DIVI intensive care register, the number of Covid-19 patients in ICUs had increased to 810 on Thursday this week, from about 600 at the beginning of the month.

However, that number is still low compared to previous Covid peaks when thousands of people were in intensive care in Germany.