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Do we ‘have an absolute disdain for density?’ Comparing St. Louis to industrial cities in Europe

Todd Swanstrom, Jorg Ploger and Sandra Moore.
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Todd Swanstrom, Jorg Ploger and Sandra Moore.

As St. Louis looks to the future, it is worth a peek into the not-too-distant past to understand how other cities have overcome declining population and aging infrastructure. Researchers recently studied efforts to revitalize older industrial cities in Europe — and local officials are looking at the lessons that they might learn to design urban strategies for St. Louis.

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, we heard from Jorg Ploger, Sandra Moore and Todd Swanstrom about the matter. Ploger is the senior researcher for the Institute for Urban and Regional Development in Dortmund, Germany. Swanstrom is the E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor of Community Collaboration and Public Police Administration at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Moore is the president of Urban Strategies.

Ploger studied Dortmund, Germany, which is part of the industrial core of western Germany. It was a hub of industrial activity after World War II but faced troubles in the 1970s when economic restructuring kicked in.

“It is now a very different city,” Ploger said. “There is still some industry but it is low compared to what it used to be.”

From the 1970s to today, Dortmund has invested significant efforts in building up the IT, biotechnology and university sectors of the economy, but it still faces issues of aging and loss of population. 

The local, regional and federal government leads the push in terms of new investment, hoping the private sector will follow.

Dortmund is not so unlike St. Louis, Ploger, Moore and Swanstrom agreed. But, there are areas where Dortmund is excelling over St. Louis. For example, St. Louis is the number one ‘shrinking city’ in the world and Dortmund is the 50th, Swanstrom said.

Likewise, St. Louis deals with more governmental fragmentation.

“One of the issues in St. Louis relative to Dortmund is that government is so fragmented here at the local level,” Swanstrom said. “You have over 300 general purpose governments trying to plan for land use, where Dortmund has one larger city and regional government to plan.”

Another big difference between the two cities is their view of density. In Dortmund, much of the inner city is composed of apartments, which people rent. Fifty percent of people in the city rent, in fact, and that’s across socioeconomic groups of people. Residents in the city are used to dense living because that is a norm.

"We have an absolute disdain for density in the St. Louis area."

- Sandra Moore

“We have an absolute disdain for density in the St. Louis area,” said Moore. “You get into corridors that are revitalizing, downtown, with younger people and more diverse groups and there is a higher tolerance for density. But, even in some of our most distressed neighborhoods, there is this love of being spread out and having so much land under your control. It contributes to the hollowing out of the city. We have to do a mindset here around the value of growth and vitality of density and increase the tolerance for it.”

Ploger said, through his research, that good urban planning in building quality neighborhoods and reusing older buildings has been key in Dortmund’s revitalization.

Related Event

What: Creating Whole Communities Presents "Revitalizing Older Industrialized Cities: What Can the U.S. Learn from Europe?"
When: Wednesday, September 21 at 4:30 p.m.
Reception follows at 6 p.m.
Where: The Center of Clayton, 50 Gay Ave., Clayton, MO 63105 
More information (reservations requested).

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.