#COVID19-How local and regional authorities respond to the crisis: the case of Stuttgart Region

In the Stuttgart Region, Germany, the immediate and long-term outcomes of the pandemic have to be tackled by many small municipalities. A metropolitan institution coordinates the response to keep track on sustainability, competitiveness and high quality of living.

Stuttgart Region, located in the southwestern part of Germany and home to approx. 2.8m inhabitants, is often dubbed the cradle of the automobile. In fact, the contribution of car manufacturing to the region’s jobs, GDP, and prosperity is truly outstanding. The apparent transformation from combustion engines to electric powertrains has been expected to cause far-reaching changes in terms of production and logistics, but also in the local economy and labour market. However, the Corona outbreak sped things up and called for an urgent rather than strategical response.

On top of that, it has been challenging to achieve the UN SDGs even before the Coronavirus hit the globe: an ageing population, adaptation to climate change, GHG-emission free energy supply, provision of affordable housing, sustainable mobility and the protection of ecological functions, as well as the need for competitiveness on a global scale, already set a very high benchmark. 

Small cities – huge challenges

Certainly, this creates a huge task for local entities: 179 municipalities oversee local land use planning and zoning, with a constitutionally guaranteed home rule and a strong political position. Most of them are small villages with a population well below 10.000, yet still having to cater to the wellbeing of their residents and the needs of companies active on the global market. 

The economic downturn caused by the Coronavirus brought a significant loss in company tax revenues – a main financial source for many municipalities. That is why narrow public budgets limit the options of local authorities to deal with the results of the crisis. At the same time, an increased awareness for healthy and safe living conditions – triggered by the experience of week-long lockdowns – has a certain impact on the disposal, development and design of public spaces. In addition to that, uncertainties will grow in many respects – economic, social and political – and lead to difficulties in gaining acceptance and political majorities in important fields of local decision-making.

The Verband Region Stuttgart: Legal base for metropolitan cooperation 

The Verband Region Stuttgart has been established as a public institution to coordinate local activities in regional development with a strong spatial focus. The most important tasks are:

  • Provision of regional transport and communication infrastructure (i.e. metro railway and P&R facilities);
  • Mandatory planning guidelines for local land use plans;
  • Economic development;
  • Active development of open spaces;
  • Supporting municipalities in all fields related to spatial development.

Political steering lies with the directly elected regional assembly, mirroring the entire political spectrum. The assembly’s planning commission focuses on possible countermeasures in the field of spatial development and acknowledges the following actions.

Five fields of regional action

  1.  Areas for innovation, industrial development and logistics
    Sites for large-scale commercial and industrial development are scarce in Stuttgart Region. As the German government launched a support program for industrial development, infrastructure and innovation, the provision of adequate sites has become crucial. Moreover, global supply chains have shown severe problems during the pandemic. Thus, growing demand is expected for storage and logistic facilities – and capable sites are in need. Activities on the regional level are focused on planning but also consultancy and financial support for municipalities, that have to provide the legal framework for zoning according to structural changes and necessary innovation.
  2.  Areas for (affordable) housing
    The mandatory regional plan and local land use plans show almost 2.000 hectares of sites for prospected residential purposes. Nevertheless, demand on the housing market exceeds supply by far – in particular in the lower to middle price range. For this reason, the development of residential areas is strongly promoted, despite an uncertain migration situation and decreasing local tax revenues.
    With economic key figures indicating a declining number of jobs and lower incomes, the development of affordable residential units has become even more important. The Verband Region Stuttgart has launched a program to support the development of residential areas.
  3. Attractive city centers
    Retailing is undoubtedly one of the essential services of urban areas. In fact, shopping opportunities contribute to the overall attractiveness of city centers. During lockdown procedures, the retail sector lost a significant part of its turnover due to restrictions but also to online suppliers.
    Regional spatial strategies are concentrated on the support of retail development in urban core areas, to foster the positive effects of attractive and lively cities, the reduction of individual traffic and greenhouse-gas emissions. Respective activities have become even more important against the backdrop of the Corona pandemic.

  4.  Quality of open spaces
    During the lock-down, the importance of high-quality open spaces and easily accessible recreation areas became obvious. Stuttgart Region regularly updates the “Regional Landscape Park” – a scheme to improve the ecological and recreational value of open spaces – with planning and funding. Providing infrastructure (e.g. bike lanes, hiking trails) for outdoor activities is seen as a key element of public preventative health care. Formal, mandatory instruments to protect open areas and farmland are already in use to safeguard areas with a high quality of soil and excellent conditions for agriculture. Regionally grown crops are considered essential for the regional identity and an important contribution to the nourishment of the population. 
  1. General support for municipalities
    The dynamics of demographic and economic development as well as the adaptation to climate change have to be managed by small and medium cities. The outcomes of the Corona pandemic – limited fiscal revenue, growing uncertainties – make these challenging tasks even more complex. Therefore, the Verband Region Stuttgart increases its support far beyond the legally required standards, provides additional input from its networks with international partners (also within the ESPON-context) and focuses on fundraising.

Bottom line: “Stronger together”

It is absolutely uncertain for how long the Coronavirus will cause restrictions on everyday life, economic upturn and sustainable development. Due to the collection of company taxes, local budgets will be reduced for years – even with a fast economic recovery. 

But even the (more realistic) scenario of a longer decline stage should not mean a complete standstill of developmental activities: Structural changes and necessary innovation have to be organized even in times of a pandemic. Moreover, strategic tasks – e.g. climate protection and adaptation – will still be pending after the lockdown. Beyond economic aspects, a livable, resilient and sustainable region will be a long-term challenge. Stuttgart Region’s approach shows how cooperation and coordination make small units successfully stand big tasks.

More information

ESPON is collecting evidence on how national and local actors are reacting to the COVID-19 crisis. ESPON is open to host any other authors covering the ESPON countries

  • Author: Thomas Kiwitt, director planning, Verband Region Stuttgart, [email protected]
  • Image: Filsalb in Ditzenbach, copyright: VRS/Stoppel