Creating sustainable links between cities and urban hinterland

Economise on space, shape open spaces, promote public transport and cycling, encourage co-working

Eine Neubausiedlung von oben.Click to enlarge
Dormitory towns should become lively places.
Source: Jorg Greuel / Photodisc / GettyImages

Despite their separate administrative remits, cities and the urban hinterland are nevertheless closely linked and mutually dependent upon one another. Commuters travel into cities for work whilst the urban hinterland provides living space and recreation areas within easy reach and is the centre of many people's lives. In order to better link work and private life, recreation and mobility in cities and the surrounding areas, to increase the quality of life and to better protect the environment, the German Environment Agency (UBA) has presented a new strategy paper titled UMLANDSTADT umweltschonend. "Too much land has been used in city outskirts, open spaces are disappearing and commuter traffic still heavily dominated by cars. We need new approaches for compact and attractive living, safeguarding green and open spaces and strong public transport, especially in the urban hinterland," says UBA President Dirk Messner. The paper will be presented at the third UBA Forum mobil & nachhaltig on 23 November 2021.

The strategy presented today contains proposals on how work and private life, recreation and mobility in rural areas can be made more environmentally friendly and shows how these topics can be better interlinked in the future. "We need a change of perspective on the hinterland. It is the hinge between city and country and the centre of life for millions of people. And because this surrounding area is developing at such a dynamic rate, improving the environment and quality of life should not be neglected in the process," says Dirk Messner.

The UBA paper focuses on establishing ties between living, work, recreation and mobility at the planning, spatial and organizational level which are based on actual circumstances rather than on their administrative remit. UBA recommends enhancing regional planning for better control of settlement and recreational area structures at regional and national planning level to take greater account of environmental issues. Close links with sectoral planning – transport, noise reduction and landscape planning – can be conducive to achieving this goal. In addition to formal regional planning, informal regional management supports cooperation between local authorities and other actors in order to identify common goals and guiding principles.

The UBA also proposes coordinating the development of residential areas between core cities and their surrounding areas across local authority boundaries. Outdoor areas, i.e. open spaces outside existing settlements, should be kept strictly free of development. "In view of the political goal of building 400,000 dwellings per year, we urgently need new concepts for attractive and compact housing in the urban hinterland in order to achieve the federal government's goals concerning environmental protection through space saving," says Dirk Messner. "To this end, we need to change overall conditions in such a way that building in the hinterland is space, climate and resource saving. This is why Art. 13b of the Federal Building Code (BauGB) should be reabolished, because instead of providing any affordable housing in densely populated areas, it promotes further urban sprawl." According to the current regulation, local authorities are able to designate new building areas for residential purposes in outdoor areas of up to 10,000 square metres adjacent to built-up areas without an environmental review and without ensuring compensation under nature conservation law.

Consistent containment of land consumption and urban sprawl, says the UBA's new strategy proposal, can preserve large contiguous urban-regional open spaces with their diverse functions for recreation, climate adaptation and biodiversity. UBA suggests linking the open and green spaces in neighbourhoods to the surrounding countryside and connecting them with foot and cycle paths. This would link the surrounding countryside and central cities with green paths that serve both recreation and active mobility.

A transition in the transport sector plays a key role in the UBA strategy paper. A high-performing public transport system, combined with cycle paths, connects the hinterland with the city centre. To do so calls for more and better public transport that is financed on a permanent and sustainable basis. The remaining motorised private transport should shift to electric mobility, which requires the development of a charging infrastructure that also fully covers the hinterland.

UBA further recommends expanding the opportunities to work from home or co-working offers in outlying regions. "Not only in pandemic times should we take better advantage of digitalization to cut down on commuting and to reawaken dormitory towns to a new lively existence," said Dirk Messner.

One concrete proposal for revitalising town centres and improving the quality of life in the urban hinterland is the "MobilpunktPLUS" concept. This approach links environmental services with social infrastructure, local shopping facilities and co-working services, thus bringing together many everyday functions in one place. " People can easily switch between train, bus, bike or car sharing, do a little shopping, pick up a parcel or attend a sports class," says Dirk Messner.

Eine Infografik, wie Umland und Stadt besser verflochten werden können.
Umland und Stadt besser verflechten.
Source: Liv Merle Kantak
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