Urban Development and the Creative Economy in Berlin (Part 1)

Bundeskanzleramt Berlin ©Martin Künzel, Berlin

by Ares Kalandides

This (highly subjective) article is about the complex ways in which urban development and the creative economy interact in Berlin. The first part is an introduction to the evolution of the planning discourse since German reunification (1990); part two (Wednesday 7th March ) introduces the issue of Creative Industries (in the Berlin context) in quantitative and qualitative terms; part 3 is about the spatial dimensions of the creative economy; and finally part 4 is a short presentation of a project (NEMONA) which tries to answer to the new challenges that the creative economy imposes on our understanding of urban space.

Berlin since 1990: From the growth dogma to the reassertion of the local

In the years that followed the collapse of the Berlin Wall, amidst uncertainty for the future, people in Berlin experienced a period of fervent enthusiasm where everything seemed possible. That was a phase where many shared the belief that the city was now free to unfold its growth potential and that this potential was infinite. Growth became the motto of the day and much of the development in Berlin in the 1990s can be interpreted against that background. It was growth in every possible sense: in terms of population, economic growth and of course growth in political power. The capital of the reunited Germany was looking for a role in a new global political constellation. It is to no surprise that many of the projects of the 1990s reflect that growth ideology and have thus a strongly symbolic character.

Hauptbahnhof (Central Station) © Angr

Almost all major construction projects in Berlin, including the government buildings, must be seen in this context.  A good example is Alexanderplatz, a central hub in former East Berlin, where 13 high-rises were projected in the early 1990s. This plan was supposed to create a visible, bulky city centre that would radiate Berlin’s importance as a word business city, but would also respond to the (assumed) growing need for space by new businesses. In a very similar way the new central station, one of the superstructures projected at the time, was meant to symbolize the intersection of two important European rail corridors: “from Paris to Moscow and from Scandinavia to Italy” as the official rhetoric repeated constantly.

Maybe the most prominent example, though, is Potsdamer Platz, an area that became famous as one of the largest building sites in Europe in the 1990s. Towards the end of 2011, a large portion of the project was resold, reaching a price slightly lower than the original investment. One way of interpreting this is simply as economic failure, but a different option would be to see it in another context, namely as a mostly symbolic investment: one that would symbolize corporate power in the midst of a reunited country. The 1990s in Berlin was a decade obsessed with growth and size.

Sony Centre at Potsdamer Platz © Jaime Ardiles-Arce

A series of shocks around 2000 shattered this certainty. By then it had already become obvious that neither was the city growing (in terms of population) nor was there an influx of foreign businesses flooding the Berlin market, while unemployment was getting close to 20%. The first of these shocks was the burst of the internet bubble in the late 1990s, which, though it effected Berlin less than other places, it gave a clear sign that growth is not automatic and that there were bound to be constant drawbacks. The second shock, much stronger than the first one, was the banking scandal that exploded in 2001 bringing down the conservative-led coalition government (in the state of Berlin) and the then Governing Mayor. The repercussions of this scandal could be felt for several years and the result was a relatively new reshuffling of the political cards, leading to a centre-left coalition, which was to rule Berlin for about 10 years, from 2001 to 2011.

It was inevitable that this political change would also prove to be a turning point for urban development policy. New major projects were re-examined and almost completely abandoned. The new political rhetoric was now about the local. This shift in viewpoint made another development visible: the 1990s had seen a spatio-social polarization previously unknown to Berlin.  The Social Atlas, Berlin, a mapping tool developed as a monitoring system on social development by the planning department, highlighted polarization trends across the city. Poorer districts like (parts of) Kreuzberg and Neukölln or Moabit and Wedding became poorer, while others were progressively ”improving.”

Social Atlas © Senatsverwaltung für Stadtentwicklung

Given the social polarization on the one hand and the construction projects of Potsdamer Platz on the other, one has to question some of the prioritization of resources used in urban redevelopment. In order to counteract polarizing tendencies, the Integrated Social City programme had already been adopted at a federal (national) level by the end of the 1990s. This is a programme interesting for both city planners as well as sociologists. It is based on the premise that physical planning alone cannot solve social problems, but that forces must be bundled together to meet the community level needs at the place where these arise: in the neighbourhood. Consequently, a very important tool in the Integrated Social City programme was created: the so-called Neighbourhood Management (NM).

In principle, the Neighbourhood Management is an evolution of the idea of the Urban Renewal Area, the planning tool that had led urban regeneration in Germany for decades. Only that now, it was less the physical restructuring that was at stake, but rather the social fabric of the city. In areas that are defined as “being at risk”, a neighbourhood manager is appointed – often a planning office – who serves as the mediator between the state and the population. These managers have the interesting task of consolidating and representing the concerns of residents. Other activities may also include improving public space, offering educational courses or other projects in social and physical infrastructure. A new understanding of urban planning emerged. It included not only physical but also social planning, bottom-up as well as top-down decisions, while the scale shifted from the big city to the neighbourhood level[1]. The “invention” of the creative economy is embedded in this development.

(part 2 will follow on Wednesday 7th March)


[1] A possible criticism to this development is that problems occurring on a different geographical scale (e.g. unemployment) are difficult to solve at the neighbourhood level. That is, a small geographic unit is tasked to solve a problem that arises at the level of the whole city / country.

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