DThe year 2020 was a turning point for the German capital. For the first time since the turn of the millennium, Berlin experienced a decline in migration. What sounds like good news for Berlin’s enemies is bad news for the ideology that has dominated urban planning for the past 30 years: urbanism, or as it is called in the American homeland: new urbanism.
In its German version – most effectively represented by the former director of the Berlin Senate building, Hans Stimmann, but also by many political parties, above all the Greens, urbanism wants the densification of the city, especially a large city: more people, more houses, more jobs, more traffic in the same space.
Urban planners hate the green suburbs and relaxed housing estates of modernism and post-war housing construction. German urban planners want to live heroically, they love crowds and stone facades, traffic noise and urban canyons.
And the Anglo-Saxon new urbanists actually wanted to revive the idyll of the American and English small town. In this country, it is true for urban planners: the city center is inside, the suburbs are outside the door.
In fact, living in a big city has many prejudices. It is stimulating: there are theaters and museums, cinemas and cafes, countless shops and a dense traffic network. It’s social: it’s easy to meet friends and acquaintances, ideally in the neighborhood. It makes environmental sense: if you don’t commute and don’t need a car to go shopping or take the kids to school, you produce less CO2 and may even be able to do without a car.
Also, denser cities mean less enclosed landscapes. All civilizing services in the city are associated with lower energy consumption, from garbage collection to emergency medical care, from electricity supply to sewage management.
The problem of the brave new urban world
The only problem in this brave new urban world is that most Germans don’t want to live like this. Berlin is not the only example. In Munich, for example, the population in the city’s neighborhoods is growing only because young people are moving there for universities and other educational institutions.
Within the region, people tend to move to more suburban areas. The communities around Lake Starnberg and other large lakes have a high population density.
There is a clear trend throughout Germany: the population is moving from rural areas to several large cities, known as “swarm cities”: Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Frankfurt am Main, Leipzig, Dusseldorf, Stuttgart, etc.; and a not insignificant part of the population retreats from the swarming cities to the surrounding areas: to the suburbs and the dormitories.
There are solid economic reasons for this. Job exchange “StepStone” recently analyzed salaries and living costs in German cities and compared them with surrounding districts. The result for Hamburg, for example: The average gross salary for the year is 59,111 euros, which is above the German average of 58,785.
However, the cost of living is also well above average: rent, of course, but also leisure activities and even groceries. The average earner has a total of 341 euros available each month: ten euros a day. What are the many restaurants, cafes, cinemas and theaters for? Berliners and Munich residents have only 250 euros left.
In the district of Stade, on the other hand – 57 kilometers down the Elbe from Landungsbrücken – people earn ten percent less, but still have 584 euros – 243 euros more than residents of big cities. You also earn less in Lübeck than in Hamburg, but at the end of the month you have almost twice as much at your disposal with around 700 euros per month.
There are other factors as well. Students and other young people enjoy the big city life, including dealers in parks, beggars on the train, noise at night. If you have a busy job, a family, and especially children, you think more about the house and garden, clean air and good schools.
In theory, you may think urban, ecological and multicultural, but in practice you can enjoy the birdsong in the evening in the newly planted apple trees and the quality of the local high school. To ease your own conscience, buy an electric car and screw solar panels to the roof: “Our landlord in Frankfurt would never do that.”
Even the residents of big cities are against densification: the “Stuttgart 21” project, which aims to occupy an entire city quarter by digging the main station underground, almost failed because of Swabian “angry citizens”. In a referendum, the citizens of Berlin abandoned a plan to build apartments on part of the closed Tempelhof airport in the center of the city – amid loud complaints about high rents.
The situation is similar with other urbanizer projects, which is why the Berlin architect Hans Kollhoff criticized in “Tagesspiegel” against the “paralyzing protection of monuments”, “protection from sound, heat and fire” and “many areas blocked by the right to think” in big cities.
Sam Kollhoff, who considers the Stalinallee in Berlin “the only example of German urban planning and architecture” that “should not shy away from comparison with the great European and American cities”, left the Walter-Benjamin-Platz in Berlin, which he designed, with an anti-Semitic line fascist poet Ezra Pound.
Stimmann, on the other hand, describes himself as “connected in 1968” with “basic Marxist ideas”. But the wrong ideas of the day before yesterday, whether left or right, are not the right guidelines for tomorrow.
Back to the suburbs!
The theory and practice of building for suburban families is needed. These areas, despised by architects and neglected by planners, rather than modern inner cities, are the future locations of Germany. It is not enough to designate a building plot, divide it into parcels and sell it to families who build a prefabricated house on it. It’s just a way of destroying the landscape.
Even more than a city, a suburb needs careful planning: traffic connections, schools, shopping; social mix; saves space and energy, suitable for children and nature, and yes, a beautiful building that shapes identity.
Germany was a pioneer here more than a century ago – with garden cities such as Hellerau near Dresden or Staaken near Berlin, with real estate entrepreneur and suburban developer Johann Anton Wilhelm von Carstenn and housing estate architects such as Mebes and Emmerich. The pernicious influence of the urban architectural fad has set us back decades. Let’s not stare at inner cities, let’s design suburbs and small towns!