New Europe’s City Embassy and local partner Holzmarkt, Berlin’s first cooperative area development project on the Spree, organised the Berlin edition of the Metropolitan Field Trip series. A diverse group of urban professionals and international City Makers was introduced to Berlin’s own City Maker’s scene, from creative entrepreneurs to active citizens as well as engaged policy makers. A unique element in addition to an already impressive programme: the first Players of Change conference, a platform for emerging urban visionaries.
‘More of this!’, is how creative entrepreneur Jochen Sandig concluded the Players of Change Conference on October 10th at Holzmarkt. The artistic director of Radialsystem, a former pumping station turned cultural centre, perfectly summed up the general sentiment amongst participants, speakers and initiators: we need more of mutual inspiration, more exchange of knowledge, know-how and experience, and more meetings encouraging cross-sectoral and interdisciplinary dialogue within the urban domain in Berlin.
Exploring the potential of bottom-up urban development in Berlin, the organisers of the Players of Change conference sought to empower young City Makers and innovative urban projects with expertise, networks and inspiration. Along the lines of ‘Let the City be our Playground’, the Genossenschaft für urbane Kreativität (GuK) – initiator of Holzmarkt – and the Mörchenpark e.V. – Holzmarkt’s dynamic green heart – invited emerging urban visionaries from Berlin to present and discuss their ideas with experts and the public and find partners and supporters.
The city is in need of such meetings and connections because of its tremendous development over the past 25 years, a familiar story to most. From a war-torn city split in half for four decades and facing bankruptcy, deindustrialization and soaring unemployment numbers after reunification, it has become one of the most dynamic and popular places to live, work and travel to. Its unique history and the international reputation as a party-Mecca and creative hotspot have spurred a development and regeneration process impacting the lives of many Berliners.
But increasing popularity has its downsides as well. Berlin’s long-standing, deep-rooted creative and alternative underground scene and sub-cultural character have not gone unnoticed and have convinced city officials and investors of the city’s huge potential for economic recovery and rapid returns on real estate investment. Berlin’s urban fabric is changing and it is changing fast. Empty lots from the city center to the fringes are being redeveloped, old factory buildings transformed and brought to new usages and apartment blocks and whole quarters are regenerated.
Previously abandoned and derelict areas along the Spree are currently transformed as part of Mediaspree, one of the city’s largest property investment projects to date. The developer’s objectives play into the global trend of attracting a creative class to the city by establishing telecommunication and media companies, as well as regenerating parts of the surrounding area and conversion of vacant real estate. With subsidies of Berlin Senate, companies such as MTV and Universal were attracted. Critics fear displacement and cultural change as a result of gentrification, privatization of public space and lessened accessibility of riverfront. The removal of a portion of the East Side Gallery, a 1.3 km section of the Berlin wall which serves as a historical monument and memorial for the Cold War is almost symbolic of the Mediaspree’s disregard for the city’s history and heritage.
Luckily, not only the initiators of Holzmarkt offer an alternative answer to Mediaspree. Just opposite the area, hidden behind the tall trees on the riverbank, is where Bau- und Wohngenossenschaft Spreefeld Berlin eG is developing alternative, affordable housing. Operating under complicating regulations, a cooperative of 90 shareholders constructed three eight-storey apartment blocks following principles of affordability, accessibility and diversity. A 20-minute walk from Baugruppe Spreefeld in the middle of Kreuzberg is Prinzesinnengarten, a former wasteland transformed into a green oasis as a result of a collective effort amongst friends, activists and neighbours. Private sector redevelopment plans were put to a halt through a collective open letter to the Senate and the 6,000 square metre garden currently still functions as a green, multi-cultural meeting place. Open green space is precious and valuable and fought over, as demonstrated by the former Tempelhof Airport and the struggle between government and citizens that followed after its closing in 2008. Redevelopment of the area for private sector residential uses was ultimately halted through a referendum, eventually leading to the opening of Berlin’s largest public park Tempelhofer Feld.
Our four-day Metropolitan Field Trip to Berlin gave insights into the challenge the city is facing today: preserving its sub-cultural dynamic and inclusiveness while restoring the economy. Local government is struggling but learning to understand the unique and lasting value of citizen’s initiatives in preserving Berlin’s creative identity, rather than prioritizing economic objectives. Within these conflicting interests and trajectories lie alternative answers to surging property values and gentrification threatening to take over the city. The Players of Change conference and many of the established citizen’s initiatives demonstrate that in spite of the looming threat of capitalization on Berlin’s creative potential by the government and investors, citizen engagement, citizen-driven urban development, creative and social entrepreneurship are still flourishing and more acknowledgement of the government is all they need.