How public is public space?

Sowohlalsauch Delikatessen in Sredzkistrasse in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin.

Sowohlalsauch delikatessen in Sredzki Strasse in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin.

by Ares Kalandides

A signature list is being passed around in my Berlin neighbourhood around Kollwitzplatz in Prenzlauer Berg. We’re asked to sign against the regulations by the local borough of Pankow on how to use public space. Cafés and restaurants obviously have permits to use the pavement for their tables and chairs, and so do other businesses that use it to present their ware. All businesses pay a fee to the local borough for the right to use that space and it all makes good sense – until now. But all of a sudden, it seems that the administration is going through a phase of overregulatory frenzy:

Borough staff is going around measuring exactly what stands where, with 1.5 metres from the building a maximum for retailers – a control that I still find sensible. But there is some other stuff that seems to be over the top: flowerpots need to be “smaller” and “shorter” than the existing ones, not surpassing a maximum hight of one metre, even if that means that they can be easily stolen; retailers are not allowed to place a table-and-chair outside their shop even it it is for their personal use and in the rented space, as only cafés and restaurants have such a permit.

There is obviously a very fine balance here: On the one hand I believe that there must be regulation on what is permitted and what not in public space, as we somehow all need to share it in a fair way. On the other hand, it is precisely such informal uses (the flower pots, the non-commercial tables where neighbours meet) that make up the neighbourhood and contribute to the creation of public space. Because public does not only mean public property, but also a space of the public sphere, where people meet and talk. And very often it is commercial semi-private spaces(or semi-privatized as I would call space rented by businesses) that play that role. If we really want to support neighbourhood and community life we need regulations that make sense – not ones that destroy the spirit that makes our urban neighbourhoods so special.


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