On May 7th, 2015, I had the opportunity to open the Berlin-Sydney online dialogue with a short presentation, followed by a Q&A session about urban development in Berlin. The event was coordinated between the Committee for Sydney on the one hand, Berlin’s Senate Chancellery (The Mayor’s Office) and Berlin Partners on the other. Here is the abstract of my short presentation:
“Berlin today is considered one of the most vibrant cities in Europe. With a lively cultural and creative scene, a vibrant business start-up activity, and high quality of life – Berlin attracts people from the whole world, who want to participate in this energy.
The speed of start-up activity today is breathtaking. Rarely has a place experienced such a richness of new ideas turned into business ventures. Last year alone saw a sharp rise in the number of tech start-ups. Creative minds choose Berlin as their real-life laboratory. Here, they try out ideas knowing that they can allow themselves the risk to fail. The administration has a hands-on approach to its economy. Informed by a constant dialogue between administration and industry, it provides the political framework and the support instruments that are particularly needed in fostering creativity and growth. Berlin’s culture is legendary. The mix of high and off culture, of globally renown institutions and local legends is of course one of the characteristics of many large cities. What seems to be unique to Berlin is the density, the mix, the affordability and the quality of the cultural production. At the same time, there is something we can call the local spirit: an unconventional twist, a certain openness towards change and the unknown. Also, Berlin’s educational institutions belong to the best ones in the country. Once again, the city has fostered culture in all its different facets through the years recognizing it as a value on its own, but also as supportive of societal and economic change.
Availability and affordability of space; an integrated traffic system; the connection of green spaces and dense city areas – these are only some of the elements that have contributed to the high quality of life in Berlin and are still central to urban planning. There are still larger – albeit fewer and fewer – empty areas in the city that offer space for further development or simply serve as available public space. The future use of such spaces is one the central issues of contention in city politics, but they remain important instruments in the future urban development. The Berlin Land Use Plan, in conjunction with a series of other tools remains the central strategic planning instrument for the city.
However not all is rosy in this new Berlin as much as we’d like it to be:
First, we are currently confronted with a growing dissatisfaction of large portions of the population with the housing situation – with people experiencing it as scarce and expensive. Secondly, although Berlin still is a socially mixed city, we see tendencies of segregation, i.e. of spatial polarisation between the wealthier and less affluent population. Thirdly, as already mentioned, there are conflicts around the use of empty urban spaces: are they to remain as public space or should they be built up to provide for the much needed housing? Fourth, Berlin’s unemployment at 11% is still higher than the national average and there is a question on how sustainable the start-up hype is in the long term. Finally, the exponential growth in tourism strains Berlin’s infrastructure and public space – occasionally causing conflicts between visitors and locals.
Experiencing all of this today, it is easy to forget that 25 years ago, Berlin was just about to restart on this journey that has taken it to where it is now; that around the year 2000 unemployment had reached almost 20%; that the blend of lorries, cranes, building sites, dust and broken-down train lines was part of people’s everyday life all throughout the 1990s. Alongside the considerable material changes, what has transformed is the narrative that accompanies the city: the “new Berlin” of the 1990s became the “creative Berlin” of the first decade of the new century; the latter was replaced by the “smart city Berlin”.
All three narratives were coordinated by orchestrated place branding strategies that came to effect as early as the mid 1990s. By Place Branding I do not mean campaigns, logos and taglines – but rather the strategic approach to creating distinct positive associations with a place’s name (i.e. brand) and sustaining those over time. Berlin Partners – as the city’s economic development corporation – has been instrumental in creating, implementing and evaluating these strategies. Visit Berlin on the other hand has been very successful in marketing Berlin to tourists and now finds itself confronted with tourism management.
Urban Planning in Berlin pursues two different goals (among many others): a) It provides infrastructure and amenities to residents (and visitors), as part of a social welfare system and b) it supports economic growth, as part of a more entrepreneurial understanding of the role of the state. We very often forget that the economy’s ultimate objective is to make people’s lives better – it is not a goal on its own. In that sense, broad participation both in the basic urban amenities and in wealth creation is a central challenge for our planning. What kind of governance structures do we put together that are capable of reflecting the heterogeneous and sometimes conflicting interests of the urban society? Where do we place our priorities in urban planning and how? How do we sustain current economic growth, avoid bubbles and busts, while at the same time including a larger portion of the population in it? Finally, how do we diversify our economy? How do we link our economic clusters and foster cross-innovation? How do we connect start-ups with the established industries in order to create a more resilient economy?
I hope that a dialogue with Sydney will help us refine these broad questions on the challenges for the future, will promote idea creation and foster an intensive and long-term exchange between the two cities.”
Check my slides here: