'The Art of Shrinking'

Mayor Jürgen Polzehl calls it "the art of shrinking." On the outskirts of the eastern German city of Schwedt, bulldozers have razed a series of 11-story prefab housing units, once known to residents as "The Wall" because the gray blocks obstructed the view of downtown. Built in the 1960s to house workers for the local oil refinery and paper mills, they were once celebrated as pinnacles of socialist achievement. Now 5,000 of the apartments have gone the way of socialism, and another 1,000 will follow. And that's just in Schwedt. All over Europe, there is a gathering backlash against the urban-planning ideals of the 1960s and '70s.

Target A is the vast public housing known as les cités in France, Plattenbau in Germany and "council flats" in Britain. With its national populations growing only slowly or shrinking, Europe can afford to demolish housing. And these projects, hatched with so much social idealism, have become synonymous with poverty, unemployment and the kind of unrest that saw riots in 300 French projects late last year. Four decades ago "we wanted the 'new city for the new man'," says Philippe van de Maele, head of France's Urban Renovation Agency. "It was all quite ideological, but we were wrong." The scale was too vast. One 20-story building in a project outside the French industrial town of Nancy stretched for almost a kilometer long.

The demolition campaign will be equally grand, in its way. Van de Maele's agency runs a ¤30 billion, 10-year scheme to relocate 5 million banlieue residents by tearing down 250,000 apartments, building 250,000 new ones and renovating an additional 400,000. Some experts call this another crazy plan--this time "putting the same people behind different bricks," an approach that has already failed in other places. In eastern Germany, where more than 1 million apartments stand empty, planners had hoped that bulldozing the burbs would drive people back into town centers. Their ambition was to revitalize meticulously restored--but depopulated--medieval towns like Görlitz, Wurzen or Weissenfels. Instead, people chose to build single-family homes, or even stay in the remaining, now renovated Plattenbau settlements. "Using demolition to revitalize the city core was a great plan, but it didn't work, either," says Philipp Oswalt, an architect specializing in shrinking cities.

There are other ways. Britain and the Netherlands are trying schemes that are far more decentralized, letting local communities decide themselves whether and how to replace their public housing. But for now, those schemes aren't proved, either. It's just not easy to clear walls this big. Stefan Theil and Tracy Mcnicoll