Poor, Sexy Berlin

The failure of urban planning.


On an English-language walking tour of Berlin–before the Irish tour guide can deliver his own rant against the misguided urban planning at Potsdamer Platz–a Vietnamese woman points to a triangular skyscraper across the square that was supposed to be the central focal point of "new" Berlin.

"That building? The way the corner points directly at the square?" the woman says. "That's bad feng shui."

That pleases the tour guide, who goes on to describe the square as a failed attempt to convert a bombed-out wasteland, left untouched throughout the Cold War, into an artificial center of commerce. But the visitor's statement probably wouldn't sit well with the Berlin city planners whose heavily subsidized efforts to make the city the economic capital of the European Union have faltered.

Immediately after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, there were glimmers of hope in the form of private investment. Broadcast companies set up bureaus in the newly reunited city, and Western businesses looked for space to tap into the formerly closed-off markets of Eastern Europe. Overzealous government officials took a page from the American urban planning playbook, forging "public-private partnerships" to offer subsidies to seemingly anyone who wanted to build an office tower or a luxury apartment building. The large sums of government money, scantily supplemented by private funds, fueled a building boom that lasted through much of the 1990s. Even today, the Berlin skyline is littered with construction cranes, and signs in both English and German offer dirt-cheap rates on never-been-used apartment and office buildings.

But even as the building boom refuses to die, owners of some new apartment buildings contemplate tearing them down. The cost of maintaining and securing the unlived-in structures is becoming too much. The broadcast companies, which had planned to invest in Berlin in two waves, never sent the second influx of jobs and are scaling back the work force they did send.

"You just can't merge the East and West German economies like that and expect success," says Pieter Judson, a historian at Swarthmore College who has studied the social costs of reunification and postwar reconstruction. "It's being built up as a symbol. They want to attract new business and industries, but it's going to take years to happen, and in the meantime the government is just pouring more and more money into these projects."

The symbolic center of Berlin's excess is Potsdamer Platz, which was once Berlin's equivalent of Times Square. With beer halls and stores selling everything from the latest fashions to gourmet foods, Potsdamer Platz became a central meeting point for pre-war Berlin.

By the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, however, Potsdamer Platz was a literal wasteland. More than 80 percent of the square had been destroyed in World War II, and there had been no time to rebuild it before the wall and its death strip cut through the heart of the district in 1961. East Berliners stayed away, and West Berliners were reluctant to build anything in the wall's shadow. Having been handed a clean slate by the German Democratic Republic, Berlin city planners came up with a post-reunification vision that was intended to recreate the pre-war Potsdamer Platz with a decidedly 1990s twist. Between 1997 and 1999, 17 major buildings designed by internationally renowned architects were completed on the site, which was developed by Daimler-Chrysler and Sony. If all of the construction materials used to rebuild Potsdamer Platz were loaded on rail cars, the train would stretch 5,000 kilometers.

With thousands of square meters of office space, 8,000 new housing units and five multiscreen movie theaters in a 50-meter stretch, Potsdamer Platz was to be the symbol of the "new" Berlin, which German officials hoped would emerge as the cultural and economic capital of Europe. On paper, Berlin became increasingly attractive not only as a result of the fall of the Soviet Union but also because the eastward push of the European Union created new ties to developing economies in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary.

Or at least it seemed attractive to German planners. "All of the sudden [in the early 1990s] Berlin is going to become the de facto center of Europe," explains Fariborz Ghadar, director of Pennsylvania State University's Center for Global Business Studies. "Germany suddenly has a much more dominant role. The United Kingdom is not really seen as Europe, and French influence is seen as having been reduced, so the Germans just poured money into Berlin like crazy. They anticipated Berlin being the big center of Europe, and it just hasn't happened yet."

Ghadar thinks part of the problem is that there are already a number of relatively strong regional economies in Germany. Berlin has to compete not just with Paris and London but with Frankfurt, Munich, Hamburg, and Cologne.

"I think the reason it hasn't happened for Berlin yet is that the Germans are a little gun shy about articulating [their goal of European leadership] too strongly and the French are just adamant about Paris being the center of the world," he says. "If it's going to happen in Berlin, it's got to happen by market mechanisms," not planning.

Berlin is the perfect storm of urban planning gone wrong: too much government money, too much top-down planning, and too great a desire to build a tourist attraction masked as a symbol. So far, the top-down planning model has produced what is at best a tourist trap, at worst an outright failure.

Perhaps that's because Berliners have never seemed to want a traditional central meeting place. Berlin's history reaches back 750 years, and even before the forced division of the Cold War, it was more a collection of 23 urban districts than a metropolis with a distinct town center. Even though Potsdamer Platz drew 20,000 cars daily in the early part of the 20th century, making it the site of Europe's first traffic light in 1924, Berliners still had a strong degree of district pride, which was only strengthened by the city's Cold War experience.

In short, creating a common city center for all 3.4 million contemporary Berlin residents is impossible. As a major international city, it's too big, too unwieldy, and too important to have just one bustling town square.

"The idea was to turn this into a lively space," says Christian Tuschhoff, a Berlin resident since 1985 and a visiting political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. "But Berliners have not moved there, and all the flats are empty. They don't find this an attractive magnet." Planners, he concludes, "created something artificially."

Berlin isn't the only city to learn these urban planning lessons the hard way. Granted, New York still has its Times Square, but it's more a destination for tourists–much as Potsdamer Platz is becoming–than a place where people want to live. And it's next to impossible to single out any one residential or neighborhood business district that defines any other major urban area, whether in Tokyo, Los Angeles, London, or Moscow. Contemporary urban growth patterns have turned many cities into collections of places, which combine to create an overall urban identity. Surely it's no accident that the Berlin districts that are doing best are also those that have been thus far ignored by city planners.

In Mitte, a district in the east that has been left relatively untouched, trendy restaurants jostle for space with student-dominated bars, while back streets offer small caf?s and one-of-a-kind apartments. With five major thoroughfares crashing into each other at a central square, it is an urban planner's nightmare–gritty, chaotic, and full of businesses ranging from coffee shops to Thai restaurants. The major difference between it and Potsdamer Platz: It's crowded with a healthy mix of tourists and locals, as well as small, one-of-a-kind shops and restaurants.

"Berliners think of themselves as a member of a district, not as a member of Berlin," Tuschhoff says. "Berliners will not go to Potsdamer Platz unless they have to. They will shop and live and confine their daily lives to the districts, and that prohibits the city life of a true metropolitan area from developing." Berliners–particularly those who were in the east before the wall fell–talk about the strong sense of neighborhood pride, neighbors helping educate each other's children, weathering food shortages, and, on occasion, plotting an escape to the west.

Had government officials embraced a more organic approach, Berlin might eventually have developed a city center of its own. (The area around the historic Brandenburg Gate, made famous in news images from December 1989, would have been a likely candidate–if millions of euros' worth of subsidized building projects hadn't made it so sterile.) It's difficult to predict what Berlin would look like today and whether it would actually be faring better, in light of the larger national problems brought on by Germany's crumbling welfare state. But the government projects certainly didn't help. Like the Vietnamese woman who scoffed at the feng shui of Potsdamer Platz, many Berliners resent not just the high unemployment rates but the places created by the government–and the debt the building boom brought.

Government-subsidized building has left Berlin's 20-billion-euro ($25.4 billion) budget a mess. The city is a startling 50 billion euros ($62.7 billion) in debt, and its GDP has been flat since reunification.

Berlin's three state-supported universities have been told to cut budgets by 30 percent, amounting to 75 million euros ($94 million) every year until 2009, prompting widespread student strikes. In January signs painted on sheets hung from academic buildings throughout the city with slogans like "Don't play education's death song" and "Save the teachers of Berlin."

At the same time, owners of Berlin's 150 theaters, who also receive hefty state subsidies, fear they may have to close. Several of the city's famed museums are closed for renovations, which may stretch into the next decade because of a lack of steady funding. Budget problems may also delay completion of an expanded central train station in Berlin, which officials had wanted to open by 2006, when Germany hosts soccer's World Cup.

"Poor, but sexy." That's how Klaus Wowereit, Berlin's mayor, described the city to a group of British businessmen last December. To support the "sexy" part, Wowereit pointed to Sony, Universal, MTV, and several young clothing designers, all located in Berlin.

"The city is making all these cuts, particularly in its cultural institutions, but the cultural institutions are what represent Berlin's symbolic greatness," Judson says. "The contrast of the city's hopes and its symbolic value against economic reality is pretty major."

The top-down, five-year city planning agenda has failed to overcome the culture that Berlin built up during the first 750 years of its explosive history. Berlin is still sexy, and its districts are still vibrant. And its planners, alas, are still misguided.?