Citizens’ Initiatives We Are the City

At the latest since the public outrage over the Stuttgart 21 project, no major urban development project in Germany is begun without taking citizen participation into account early on. But for many citizens, being asked for their opinion is no longer sufficient. They want to be actively involved themselves, and develop solutions to problems for which city administrations and the real-estate business have no answers.

betahaus| Berlin betahaus| Berlin | Photo: Stephano Borghi In science, many projects are no longer being worked out by permanent employees, but by changing teams of free-lancers. The number of voluntary and involuntary self-employed is on the increase. But where do they find an affordable infrastructure that adapts to the changing order situation? Betahaus on Berlin’s Moritzplatz offers work stations that one can rent for a few days per month or for 24 hours at one go. On its spacious loft floors, chance places graphic artists and programmers next to translators, architects and designers next to solicitors, or video artists next to journalists. The central café of this co-working space has become a meeting place for the neighbourhood and a platform for new ideas and project partnerships.

German city administrations have now recognised the contributions that initiatives situated at the interface of art and economics are making. Recently, the Berlin real estate fund was directed to assess not only the market price, but also the neighbourhood public interest when evaluating the utilisation of plots of land. A key factor fort his development was the intensive engagement of a group of artists who had acquired the grounds of the former Rotaprint Printing Company in Berlin Wedding. Under the label Exrotaprint, the landmark ensemble was renovated and awakened to new life with a mixture of businesses, studios for culture producers and social service facilities.

Direct responsibility for the neighbourhood

An additional form of self-generated initiative has established itself as an influential niche product of the real-estate industry: the building group. Instead of purchasing an owner-occupied flat “off the self,” a number of persons take on the investment risk together. They can then take part in decision-making and save on average 25%-30%. However, building groups do not merely want housing that is inexpensive and customised to their needs and wishes; they also look for trans-generational types of housing and place value on sustainable construction. Their goal is to shape surroundings that are both urban and family-friendly, which makes them important catalysers of revitalisation of inner-city neighbourhoods. For this reason, urban planning policy in Berlin and Hamburg supports building groups in the financing phase by reserving plots of land.

The larger the initiatives become, the more responsibility they bear for the city’s public space. “Am Urban” in Berlin Kreuzberg, the largest building group to date, with 140 home-builders, stands out with its radically integrative concept. On the grounds of a former hospital, not only flats and commercial surfaces have arisen, but also facilities for mentally ill persons and publically accessible open spaces. Maintaining this openness and taking the linkage to the neighbourhood seriously now lies in the hands of the members.

Swapping crisis for city

In times of austerity, when municipalities’ finances scarcely suffice to care for existing parks, it is increasingly citizens’ initiatives that create new open spaces. In the Glauchaviertel in Halle an der Saale, citizens transformed a vacant lot into an urban garden. Next to a colourful meadow with a garden pond, patches of ground can be used free of charge for growing vegetables, fruit and herbs. Theatre performances, workshops on environmental topics and flea markets enliven the green space. The volunteer supporting association Postkult e. V. runs additional projects in the neighbourhood such as the swap-meet “Umsonstladen“ and the “Stadthof Glaucha“, which is being planned and renovated with young people.

City Garden Glaucha, Halle City Garden Glaucha, Halle | Photo: Postkult e. V. What kinds of opportunities for action are being opened up by citizens’ initiatives can be observed in particular in the crisis-ravaged cities of south-western Europe. In the Turin district Miraorti, residents and schools are utilising a vacant lot as a communal garden and experimental surface for small business ideas. In Lisbon, artists are founding a hotel where, as an artist-in-residence, one can pay with art as well. In Toulouse, designers are opening their studio next to a bulky waste disposal site. If one hands over something for disposal, one can experience how supposed rubbish is transformed into a trendy design piece.

In 2013, under the title “We-Traders. Swapping Crisis for City,” the Goethe-Institute of the region South-Western Europe started a platform with workshops, exhibitions and web forums to link and support such initiatives. What these “we-traders” have in common is a redefining of the relationship between value, profit and the common good. They denote in terms of democratic policy a decisive step forward from co-determination to co-creation, thereby enhancing ecological, economic and social sustainability, since those active in development and involved in production take care of things.