Germany: Chances of identification for communities

Vacancies – eyesores or/and (new) chances of identification for communities:  How to support initiatives of people and their voluntary work to successfully breath new life into unoccupied buildings

Mandy Schulze, Humboldt University of Berlin, Institute of Education, Germany

Abstract. Since 1990 the rural regions of East Germany experienced a great social and political transformation, followed by a process of deindustrialisation and a very high mobility of young people. This process left many empty public spaces and industrial buildings, vacencies, buildings which lost there social meanings and functions. A project in Saxony showed the potentials of people and initiatives engaged for this kind of apparently useless buildings and supported them with consulting and organized education settings. Attending to the project a qualitative research was done to learn about this voluntary work and to answer the question: What are the motives of the egaged people? Which kind of support they need? What are the factors of success? What kind of support for community learning can be given? Casestudies were analysed in order to know more about the motivation of voluntary works around vacencies. The article gives a glance into the variety of initiatives in order to answer the question: How to support the (re)creation of function and identifiaction of vacencies as a part of cummunity education?

Keywords: adult education, rural development, community learning, transformation

 1. Introduction

Community Education is described as an longterm and fundamental requirement to empower a sustainable soil for a Lifelong Learning culture (Chrisholm et al. 2009: 32ff). Emphaszied is especially the informal learning of the civil society at a regional level. The targets for a culture of Lifelong Learning culture should be reached by personal development, social, cultural and general education contents headlined with voluntary work in new learning environements with a high component of selflearning. Because of the longterm view of this strategy and the qualitative aspects the focus is on the practice and organisation of existing projects and initiatives (see Lassnigg 2013: 5ff). The following article is built up by such an evaluation.

In the last 25 years, the Upper Lusatia, a region on frontiers between Czec Republic and Poland, was facing a profound structural change. This process of economical and political transformation left many vacancies due to closed down plants and a declining population. The spectrum ranges from industrial buildings and historical half-timbered houses (Umgebindehäuser) to objects, which served the community as places of social life in a village or a town, such like guesthouses, pubs and theaters. Many of those were lingering over a sad fate for years or just became ruins. But spaces can always be read as texts. And so those empty buildings are connected with the collective experiences of the people. The perception of those spaces as eyesores changed slightly and some of those buildings received more attentation. It is to aknowledge that especially people from the community groups began to engage in activities around the vacancies. The extend of the dedicated people ranges from inhabitants to returnees and newcomers. The decisive factor is always if the local environment of the community administration and other players are supportive or repressive. In the last years in the region of Upper Lusatia many and very heterogeneous groups and initiatives around vacancies were formed. It is obvious that they are not very institutionalised concepts. The engines of the revival are idealism in a positive sense, local ties and commitment, civil voluntary work and personal learning.

The project “Zukunftsprojektor” had the issue to find, show and support voluntary initiatives by offering educational support. The focus was on groups and their voluntary work for the preservation of the vacancies and the collective use in the region of Upper Lusatia. The project was financed from the program “Neulandgewinner” by the “Robert-Bosch-Stiftung” and guided by the “Zukunftsbündnis Upper Lusatia.”. The academic evaluation was accompanying the whole project for two years and focussing on the following questions:

  • – What are the motives and challenges of this kind of initiatives around vacancies?
  • – And which role takes the buildings and their potential use for the voluntary work?
  • – What kind of function takes the initiatives in terms of community learning?
  • – What are best practices of supporting this kind of building-voluntary work in rural regions?

2. Methodological background

As a qualitative approach the study had not the issues to test theoretically hypotheses within an empirical context. Because of the exploring character of the program and the project itself an inductive methodology was preferred. Attending the approach of the American pragmatism (see Joas 1996) and especially in the context of very innovative and creative contexts of development. The practice as doing is the first step. The second step is than the theoretical reflection on the base of empirical experiences.

This pragmatic understanding of innovative development doesn´t claim that there are already theories of how to do the right things right and how to support engaged groups around vacancies in the perfect way so that community learning is happening and everybody can participate. In this theoretical approach the focus is not on a normative controlling if community learning is happening while some people want to change the ruin within the centre of their community. But the focus is open to question which kind of goals were reached in the empirical practice and to formulate them together. In this thinking the goal of the voluntary work developed in a retrospective perspective not in a prospective (see Weick 1985: 33f; 278f; 340f). Everybody involved in the project is looking from a special perspective to the common process and is so adding this perspective to a development which is generating a theory (Schäffter 2008), here a theory of how to support voluntary work for vacancies in order to support this as a sort of community learning. The two steps empirical method is reflecting this inductive approach.

The Research objects were: First to describe the history of the initiatives for the unoccupied buildings and their needs. Second to gather success factors for the support and to argue with the impact of this groups for the revitalization of community life. The results were organized into: Motives and history of commitment, challenges, support needs and success factors of commitment. The resaerch results are providing the opportunity to bring attention to issues of community learning to support local development in the regions of Eastern Germany. Learning is seen as a social proccess and associated with personal and social issues. In this perspective adult education as Lifelong Learning is to reflect historical and social transformation as a ‘searching process’ to find innovative and individual solutions in a transformation society. “People are learning because they want to contribute to the common goal, sharing the responsibility for achieving change or perhaps just keeping something going“ (Gilchrist 2013: 02-2).

This contribution provids the perspective of how vacancies in rural communities can give an opportunity of new identification with people and their practical engagement. And different examples for the way to breath new life into unoccupied buildings.

3. Casestudies – A glance into the practice of the voluntary work for vacancies

3.1 Der Kretscham – The public house

Kretscham is an old word for a public tavern in the middle of the village. Very often with a ballroom inside to dance and to celebrate. An association of 15 members keeps one of these old buildings in a village of 5.500 inhabitants up. Their issue since more than 12 years is, to open this building for the public as the cultural centre of the community. The starting point of the voluntary work of the young people was very practical. While looking for a space for shared house, which is not easy to find in a village, the youngsters found the former public house and started to rent the old hotel level up the former ballroom. From the beginning the young residents were confronted with the meaning of the building for the community of the village: “When we came the first time to the works on the house, we realized, that very day, it was unbelievable, plenty of people stoped in front of the house and asked us to be allowed to come in and to take a look inside. That was the moment when we realized what an importance this house has in the heads of the generation of my mother and grandmother.”

Many personal memories and a very high public interest is besoming the reason for the first public event. Planed as a small barbacue party with a DJ, this party becomes a hit with over 800 guests. The reason for this resonanz is the local identification with this house: “Very old couples, more than seventy years old, came up the stairs and where sitting on the gallery, holding hands and just looking into the ballroom. Onetousand people were telling onetausand stories, apparently in this house half of the village must have been married, fathered or something like this.”

Other events like public parties and exhibitions followed the first event as well as continuing constractions on the almost dilapidated building. The association was founded and the voluntary worked professionalized. In the first years the construction of toilets and fire protection the most important projects. Now the organization of the parties and events is professional and the house three times a year open for the public. The biggest cahllenges for the initiative are financial sorrows and the difficulty of the private ownership of the house. With a private owner communal financial support is not possible. Support is required both in providing legal advice as well as to network with other vacancies initiatives. After all, the key question in such a long-term voluntary work is, how can the people, who cover the costs of the association, open the facility three times a year and organize and carry out voluntary events in the future?

3.2 The water tower

The association LEBENs(T)RÄUME e.V. (registered association) was founded in 2012. It consists of approx. 35 active members with a mixed-age structure. Its goal is to make the shrinking region more livable with offers for nature experience and environmental education. At first the project Stadthonig (honey from town) started off. An old industrial wasteland was converted into a bee pasture and so honey is produced and sold locally for several years now. The association connects its approach of environmental education with the preservation and analysis of the historic industrial heritage of the region. The association has drawn wide acclaim among the locals in a short time through the work with the bees and the production of honey. Due to the high publicity of the assocation in the small town, the dedicated members were offered another vacant property for sponsoring and thus for “revival”. The historic water tower is part of the former company premises LAUTEX where more than 40,000 people were employed until the early / mid-90s. The tower borders the former fire station equipment store of the company’s fire department, which the association manages as a user. The water tower is “one of the few buildings that has been preserved from the whole complex” of the company LAUTEX. All other buildings were demolished as part of urban development. Since the acquisition of the building the issue of sustainable use is top priority. Due to the historical significance of the building, the memory work plays an important role:

There are many elderly people who love to see how it has developed, what has become of it, how it will continue to be used and are very grateful that it has been preserved as one of the few buildings and that their memories can live here. Every two weeks we have a narrative café for seniors, where many of these former employees can really reminisce, and so old stories come back to light and that is nice to see. And it’s also important for us that we get information that we can look back on and reappraise to keep the history alive. This approach goes hand in hand with the question of what the historic building is supposed to become. There is a need for sustainable search for ideas with the local community. In addition to the collective development of ideas the question arises how the implementation and the development of the association’s work is going to be managed and this is drafted as a demand for advice. Although the association’s work is on a voluntary basis, future profitability and the creation of a permanent position is aspired.

3.3 Wächterhaus and Fleischbänke

The Fleischbänke (stalls for meat sales) were first mentioned in 1361 as a location in Zittau for slaughter and sale of meat and were built in 1759 at its present location. It was used until the 19th century followed by vacancy. And the Wächterhaus Zittau is a historic inner-city building from the 16th century with an eventful history, among other things as Jewish prayer room and department store and has been empty since 1990. A ‚Wächterhaus’ is an utilization concept for vacant properties. Initiatives were founded for both buildings in 2011 with the help of the Stadtforum (a city board) to establish a revival by temporary use. Partly the same people work for both initiatives, the Wächterhaus and the Fleischbänke, and take that voluntary work forward. The use and but not the purchase of the buildings is in the foreground, in order to protect them from demolishing: “We are only interested in, that the building, so that we can use it temporarily, so to speak, in order to draw attention to the building and if someone comes who buys it, then we make way or use it as long as it’s possible and attention is useful.

Attention and public interest is achieved by using the facilities by artists, the granting of access for everyone and the implementation of various public events: “There is a license agreement, which lasts about, in our case, ten years, and the time, we can spend it in here without making major structural changes, we can use the building for our purpose” Especially the historical reference and the provision of access to the building is a crucial factor for the revival. The entire local community is invited to visit the building and to get acquainted with the temporary use and the space it provides for everyone. This openness is also one reason for his personal engagement in the voluntary work: “The events themselves were a good step forward, so also for the town, because they, could all come, there wasn’t anything unpleasant in here, but all came in, looked at it, oh, beautiful old building, and I have been here once as a child and I remember it as a big department store. So many older people who showed interest in it and don’t say uhä what you are doing now, but through the connection with art it has been open and has been accepted and is still accepted. And that’s something I found very inspiring, to participate in things, to integrate myself.

The starting point for the selection of the buildings for temporary use is their present inner-town location and the interest of direct interaction with the history: “The Fleischbänke is an independent initiative whose, primary purpose was to find a few people who said: ‘Man I walk here often, passing this meat market, I think it’s such a pity that this is lying bare’.” The stories and the identification of the people is made a subject of discussion in the events and made accessible through an open door: “The fact that this is now just within the town, which is, still something supporting, that they searched for something in the inner-town, even next to such a road, which is highly traditional.”The community from the very beginning supports both initiatives. The Urban Development Company is interested in the voluntary work and therefore establishes communication to owners. The organization level of the Meat Market might be relatively low, but for the implementation of large-scale events such as a Christmas markets all local citizens and stores etc. worked closely together. Existing networks with urban actors and direct approaches played a major role in order to get attention and support. The takeover by an investor is scheduled for the voluntary work and cooperation is aspired and has already been successfully implemented for the Fleischbänke initiative. The work is rewarded with public attention and personal feedback of the community at the events. The work is voluntary but the commitment is remunerated with a greater say in urban development.

Whereby the committed people are aware of the problem of property relations and available municipal capital, “because on the one hand you can of course tear down buildings and build something new, but on the other hand, there are a lot of buildings that are just empty because there is some sort of problem there. The initiatives address this gap of urban incapacity and advertise their town and a broad attention: “That is a possibility, with such a Wächterhaus, as well as with a project like Fleischbänke, to campaign for an object, where you think that is worth it to take it further into the interests of the urban public, and sometimes that is enough, that is of course marketing, i.e., to market buildings and real estate property, perhaps encourage people to purchase a property, you just have to put in a lot of energy, or perhaps distribute the energy to several people, simply to present various projects und yes, make people curious .

The challenge in addition to the architectural barriers is that the requirements for temporary use have to correspond with the existing building stock and the inner-town location. In addition to the structural requirements the greatest need for support may well lie in the ensurance of a continuous project work. A project which lasts longer than the first start-up and the first success and which presents the initiatives permanently, even if the buildings are different. The respondent clarified a direct need for consultation, to not overexert themselves especially in larger user groups and thus put the whole project at risk. It is important to address both individual motives of those involved, as well as to convey the social aspect of the common activity: The success is supported by a vision beyond individual and social objectives. The secret recipe is in addition to the search of like-minded people, the reinterpretation of vacant properties into opportunities for a new use. The regional networking plays a central role as a counterweight to structural weakness.

3.4 The Volkshaus (formerly used meeting house for trade unions)

The Volkshaus was built in 1928 as a union house with bonds at the Bauhaus style and Expressionism and funded by the unions. The house was used as a multifunctional cultural and educational center. The house, which is owned by the town Weißwasser, is vacant since 2005. For two years now an initiative establishes to take care of the preservation of the house. A two-member team of the project “Zukunftsprojektors” accompanied the foundation of the association and the project development closely. The active group consists of about 15 people who attend the regular meetings. The objective of the voluntary work is to conserve the inner-town historical monument: “It is important that the monument remains. And that’s why I have decided to take part.” The Volkshaus is a particularly striking example for a former cultural center in the town center. On the one hand, it is still very present in the minds of the people on the other hand this cultural center hasn’t been replaced yet by any other similar locality. In addition to the preservation of that listed and historical building, the Volkshaus needs to be revived as a center for cultural and eventful activities. In this town doesn’t exist any entertainment facility like this meeting house. However, before the use of the building can be contemplated specifically, essential steps should be taken care of. Based on the initiative of the City Council, who initiated a petition to save the Volkshaus and discussed the handling with vacant inner-town monuments in meetings, an initiative group emerged due to a call in the newspaper. Rejection of funding opportunities triggered the foundation of the association. There is a great need for support in terms of the cooperation with the local administration. It is primarily not about the issue of funding commitments, but about the support of the voluntary works by permits. This is where the volunteer structure of the initiative meets bureaucratic structures. The strength of the support team lay not at least in the trans-regional importance, and was of benefit to the initiative due to project attention in general. In particular, the persistence of the participants is one of the success factors for the new initiative. But the cooperation with the town as the owner remains a requirement for further voluntary work:

 4.  Motives, challenges and potential

Accompanying the four initiatives and groups who support the work on vacant properties in rural areas, the following overall results can be outlined: The trigger for this type of voluntary work is diverse. Nevertheless, we can resume four points:

1.     The vacant properties are mostly historical buildings, allowing the population to combine a part of their own history and the history of the community. In these buildings people lived, loved, worked, and danced. Often the buildings are still remains of already demolished complexes.

2.     The vacant objects are perceived by the people as “eyesores” and thus are contrary to the personal connection. This contradiction often leads to initiation of voluntary work.

3.     The vacant objects offer the voluntary work a directly experiencable space. This concrete and immediately available space is one of the main triggers for common action.

4.     It is seen as an opportunity to jointly make a difference, either as a group, an association, or cooperation with the local administration.

Just as diverse are the challenges and difficult to generalize because of the different ages and level of maturity of the six accompanying initiatives. Three different stages of maturity can be determined for all of the initiatives.

During the initial phase the first step is, in addition to group building, to gain support from the community. The reflection of the history of the building is an invaluable contribution. Another challenge is the support from public administration and authorities. Once again the support from the community and a possible impact of the project, for example as part of town marketing, makes a contribution. An important factor especially to gain new commited members is public relations work. The team of the “Zukunftprojektor” achieved great things and made the importance for the local community be seen especially trough the attention in trans-regional networks.

During the professionalisation phase the work load in terms of project development and administration rises. In this phase it’s important to strengthen the idea of voluntary work and the experience to jointly work for a goal and uphold it. At this point it is necessary to hold on and withstand setbacks. Not all plans work out immediately and the first optimistic mood vanishes. At this stage it becomes apparent how important the approval of the people is to achieve long-term success. Therefore, it was particularly important to be present with the building for example at local festivals, days of the open monument or with a cultural highlight at Christmas. The community could be convinced, ideas of usage could be gathered and a great support was given. The building moved back in the minds of the community.

During the implementation phase many objectives had been achieved or adjusted to what is possible. In this case it is important to set new goals or convert the voluntary work in economic endeavours. During this stage the municipal coorperation is essential. Wether it is a long-term conversion in a cultural center or a handover to an new user, at this stage it is important to transfer or to handover the voluntary work. This process is like a generation change. The need for support of the voluntary work can be clearly defined from the described challenges.

The three success factors of the accompanied voluntary work are:

Voluntary work as door opener:

  1. Object-related: The object must be open and free for use and open for the general public. Voluntary work and learning within is literally a first door opener for the public.

Open door policy:

  1. In terms of voluntary work and community learning: The actions must be transparent for the public and the involvement must be solicited continually. This open door policy is crucial to gain new members and support from the municipal administration. Public campaigns have a favourable impact on this matter.

An sympathetic ear for members:

  1. Organization-related: It is extremly vital to gain companions for voluntary work and get them enthusiastic about common ideas. Regardless of the organisation level, working and getting along well together is essential for the voluntary work. The metapher of a sympatethic ear would be the thing to do.

5. Levels of supporting community learning within vacencies

Some of the requirements can be satisfied by short distances and consultation. Also the involvement in community activities such as local festivals or an interview with the official journal provide public recognition and awareness and promote discussion about vacant properties in the community. The more vacant building with their history and possibilites are visitied and not torn away the more people will take part in the discussion about future use. This calls for possibilites of public discussion about what will become of an old industrial plant, a district culture house or chimney.

The project “ZukunfsProjektor” provided assistance in form of networking, exchange between different regional and trans-regional projects and decision-makers as well as group-related presentation und mediation. On the whole, the issue of vacancy and the existing voluntary work in the region Upper Lusatia has been appreciated already in a long overdue manner and made visible beyond the individual communities. The awareness and appreciation of such voluntary work is still lacking in many areas. In the same time the reflection of the volountary work the learning on a personal and social level and in the community also was part of the suport work. The volunteers got more aware of their engagement in the community and there big issues in partiziaption. These levels of learning are listed in the follwing colum left side down below. The very general description of a program format is precisely shown in the right column towards the qualitative concept of the specific design from the project community space of learning (Lernort Gemeinde, see Schäffter 2009).

The example of the monitored objects within the famework of the project “Zukunfts-Projektor” in Upper Lusatia confirms the thesis that the self-organized groups and initiatives around vacancies become model examples, how to handle vacancy in rural areas, which challenges it brings and what value a supporting network has.

Buildings are not only material and substance; they are more like medium and reason for self-organised and self-empowered action. The processes that take place in this context, are teaching spaces in previous empty spaces. What do they teach us? They teach us that we experience in changing times the change of community voluntary work as well: In future times people will get involved in a non-binding, action-oriented manner. We will experience a mixture which joints common public interest and creation of value, meaning structures will be rebuilt and developed further. And community learning happens within this new structures. Following this line of argument, a process is taking place which the regions in transition like Upper Lusatia. A long time it’s been known as transformation regions. Considering transformation, then there are two pathes ahead: the path of imitation or the path of evolution. In Saxony the first path was taken over long distances. The interesting thing is now: With the newly outlined forms of community learning– here observed as an example for vacant properties – the second path applies here: the evolutionary. Because commited people find, due to “contraints” but driven by common goals, their own ways and recreate and “invent” themselves and solutions. For societies this is precisely the germ cell of social innovation – an invaluable asset for rural areas. The “vacancy” is the potential of rural areas. It creates a freedom for possibilities. This means that the empty space as free space becomes teaching space becomes pioneer space.

6. References

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Gilchrist, Alison (2013): Community development as a learning process. Insights from the UK. In: Magazin, No. 19, Retrieved from

Joas, Hans (1996): Die Kreativität des Handelns. Frankfurt/Main.

Lassnigg, Loranz (2013): Community Education als Aktionslinie der nationalen Strategie zum lebensbegleitenden Lernen (LLL:2020). In: Magazin, No. 19, Retrieved from

Schäffter, Ortfried (2009): Lernort Gemeinde – Ein Format Were entwickelnder Erwachsenenbildung. In: Mörchen, Annette/Tolksdorf, Markus (edt.): Lernort Gemeinde. Ein neues Format der Erwachsenenbildung. Bielefeld, pp. 21-40.

Schulze, Mandy/Enders, Judith (2014): Innovative Forms of Adult Education – Bringing people together for rural development in East Germany. In: Guimaraes, P./Cavaco, C./Marrocos, L./Paulos, C./Bruno, A./Rodrigues, S./Marques, M. (edt.): Local Change, Social Actions and Adult Learning: Challenges and Responses, Proceedings. pp. 122-131.

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