City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

A walk in Schöneberg, Berlin

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Energy policy, gentrification, protest, and the humble joys of communal flower beds

I didn’t think that a humble flower bed could have quite this effect. The verges — for they numerous, every few metres — turned out to be the key feature of the streets of Schöneberg, Berlin, where I was walking with my colleagues on Friday morning.

We were being given a tour by Dr Dieter Genske (Fachhochschule Nordhausen, Universität Liechtenstein, ETH Zürich etc), one of Europe’s leading experts on the relationship between cities, communities and renewable energy, particularly in Germany. Schöneburg was the subject of our tour as it is in the midst of an increasingly fierce gentrification battle, and so providing a concentrated demonstration site for examining civic action, urban regeneration and urban development.

And Germany was the subject of our visit as — perhaps with Denmark — it has the most interesting (and arguably most successful) energy policy in Europe and beyond. Germany has created an energy infrastructure which is, amongst other things:

  • highly distributed and localised (minimising transmission loss, and potentially enabling better demand management),
  • increasingly based on a diverse set of renewables (doubling its share of overall energy production from 10% to 20% in only six years),
  • generates hundreds of thousands of new high-value jobs in R&D, services and manufacturing,
  • and most interestingly of all, the infrastructure is majority-owned by communities themselves (individuals, small towns, villages, community associations.)

This is part of a historic turn away from nuclear power and towards renewables for the country; importantly, described as part of an “energiewende” (energy revolution, or turnaround, roughly), a phrase that has echoes of German unification; and so the implicit idea that this is a national mission shared by all Germans.

We were there, as part of Sitra’s Brickstarter project, to explore these relationships between systemic change, governance and citizen participation (we also saw Design Research Lab at Universität der Kunst, Renewables Grid Initiative, and Eclareon.)

Back to those verges. Schöneberg has as rich a history as any neighbourhood in a city that’s seen more history than most, but the verges were the first thing Dieter pointed out. Almost every verge we saw was maintained by citizens — usually those in the adjacent block, or business — and this is agreed either formally, through asking the municipality, or informally i.e. just doing it without asking; “the Berlin Way”, as Dieter had it.

Most of these flower beds are around the base of mature street trees (something else this neighbourhood benefits from.) Each is different, due to each block having different people in them. And of course each block being the right scale and density for difference, whilst retaining an immediate relationship with the street, neighbours and neighbourhood.

The street has this effortlessly lovely patterning and diversity to it as a result. Simple.

Here a kind of meadow has formed in the middle of the road. What cities would allow this?

Some are beginning to grow herbs and other edibles (of course, community gardens are rampant in Berlin at the moment. For example.)

Sometimes a café has built a wooden bench around the base of a tree (strong enough to resist late-night clumsiness) to act as a ‘bar’ for waiting customers on summer nights. Here we see the name of the adjacent cafe — ‘Soleil’ — spelt out in flowers. (Should be on page one of any branding textbook, this one.)

It’s an entirely small thing, and yet thoroughly inspirational. Of course, Berlin’s government is notoriously cash-strapped, and has been for years. Intriguingly, this does not seem to affect the city itself too much, which is as appealing as ever (a thought worth reflecting on, in terms of the hand-wringing over debt and austerity both here and abroad.) But it means the city has probably never turned down a request from citizens to look after their street. Dieter suggests they usually turn a blind eye, not replying at all, and so lending tacit approval without admitting liability.

But what results is not an act of poverty-stricken desperation. Nor is this some Big Society-style abnegation of civic responsibility, as in the UK. It recognises the opportunity for civic pride that might be enabled through such small everyday acts. It allows the city to get on with other things. (A chat with Finn Williams recently revealed the Friends of Arnold Circus in London have achieved a similar result, though after months and months of negotiation.)

For all the emphasis on major urban projects — on buildings, infrastructure and branding — it is through such entirely small acts that the healthy, resilient and enjoyable city is daily constructed.

How does a city engender this positive form of civic pride and activity? Can it work in London, say, with its fraught social contract, individualist culture and preference for a moan over action? Could it work in Helsinki, say, with its rock-solid social contract meaning a instinctive outsourcing from citizen to state of such activities? How to balance this civic activity and individual responsibility alongside that of a community — an extremely diverse community at that — and a strong sense of governance, an effective state, a “big picture”? (For what is key here is that Germany is doing the large-scale policy work too.)

Given that Germany’s communities (and small governments) across the nation have actively started build their own energy infrastructures — and we spent much of the 36 hours in the city unpicking exactly how — is this model capable of translating from country to city, and of scaling up from a block’s “shared ownership” of a verge to a block’s shared ownership of a heat pump to provide the block’s hot water from its waste water and of electricity from photovoltaics on the block’s abundant free roof space? Could this enable a similar patterning of resilience here too? (Ed. See much later thoughts about ‘Grid, Non-Grid’ thinking.)

These small patterns of plants, woodwork, mulch and ornamentation implicitly ask some serious questions.

Ernst Kirchner, “Nollenddorfplatz” (1912)

Schöneberg itself was a genuine delight. Dieter noted how the area was, to some extent, demarcated by “male prostitutes in that direction, female prostitutes in that direction, and transvestites over there”, a form of municipal boundary that is exactly how citizens think of cities and exactly not how administrators and politicians do.

We walked from U-Bahn Nolldendorfplatz around the corner to one of the most perfect streets I’ve ever seen. This is how much of Berlin was before the war’s bombs, and indicates the elegant Paris-inspired plans laid by James Hobrecht, the city’s urban planner in the mid-nineteenth century (Dieter points out that Hobrecht was Prussian, but in a region that is now Lithuania, and whose mother was called “Johnson”, and so a foreigner one way or another — as is the current head of urban design (a Swiss?); this is something other cities, particularly Helsinki, might benefit from.)

This street, with avenue of trees perfectly situated within the 22-metre high line of buildings, has a quiet grace that is near impossible to beat. We wander into a few of the open courtyards, which are also perfect little oases of sandpits, greenery and recycling bins.

It’s here, also, we see a small office of a community group organising a very local resistance against the increases in rent in the area. It’s very local as the badges on the window indicate a couple of cafés across the road have chipped in, as has the City of Berlin and the European Union. (You don’t often see a set of sponsor’s logos that scale from a cafe over the road via city hall to Brussels and the continent. Quite good.) The protest against the rents rising in this kiez — an old Slavic word for neighbourhood, apparently — seems active and well-organised.

Dieter, Karoliina and Bryan

Elsewhere in Schöneberg, the patterning of architecture is more varied, with streets often displaying most if not all eras of Berlin’s rich history simultaneously, World War II’s bombing punching holes in older blocks, sometimes rebuilt as part of the post-war effect (and marked with a plaque accordingly), sometimes left as pocket parks, playgrounds, and all covered with trees already flush in the full green of summer foliage. The only happy outcome of that bombing is that Berlin is now an intensely green city.

Although Berlin’s form partly resisted the truly devastating effects of the incendiary attacks then in vogue in the Allied bomber command, the hammering the city took left Churchill to describe the city as being “nothing but a chaos of ruins”. British Air Marshall Arthur Tedder, who accepted the Germans’ surrender, thought that Berlin would never be rebuilt.

In fact, most of the rubble in what would shortly become West Berlin was driven to the edge of the city to create the vast man-made hill of Teufelsberg (“The Devil’s Mountain”), carrying the western powers’ surveillance equipment throughout the Cold War; 75,000,000 m3 of rubble, some of which would have been from these streets, was driven west and dumped on top of Albert Speer’s incomplete Nazi technical college, which had resisted Allied explosives. Every brick round here has a story to tell, and perhaps only Berlin can pull off this kind of story.

And like any good city, the stories are still being written. We are led to what looks like a large vacant pseduo-modernist housing block, on a roundabout with a fine fountain, the local high school and some other more elegant blocks. This is effectively gentrificationcentralen, as it turns it out is not unoccupied, but has two residents left in it (one of whom is a lawyer, and holding out.)

The building is owned by a large construction company, and due for destruction, but many residents fear that the inevitable replacement will lead to rent rises throughout the area. The first sign is a curiously smashed phone box outside the building, incongruous compared to the generally immaculate streets elsewhere. A low metal fence outside the building is covered with fluttering tell-tale sellotape fragments.

A few days earlier these were holding up posters from the local community protesting against the block’s imminent demise. The other obvious feature here are the freshly cut tree stumps, indicating the removal of the mature trees that surrounded the block.

The vast blank facade now looks like a rotten tooth, and you expect it’s about to be extracted either way (but then I’m used to the way that British and Australian developers are allowed to throw their weight around; perhaps this is a more even battle. I know one thing: a British property owner would’ve had the roof off by now, to rapidly rot the structure from the inside.)

It looks this particular battle is already lost, but talking around, it’s clear that Berliners will simply move onto the next one. Perhaps the message is that while some battles may be won and lost, the importance of standing up in the first place — of a community defining itself through impassioned discussion and civic action — is a more important form of soft city than any one particular block.

A hand-made ‘School — Go slow’ sign. Many cities would have removed this.

Wandering around, we see many plaques to famous residents like writer Christopher Isherwood, the legendary conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, and several others I know nothing of (but we often see the exquisite sans serifs of Berlin typefaces that inspired a current favourite, Metric, by New Zealander Kris Sowersby.)

As my once-Mancunian-now-Frankfurter friend Taz later pointed out on Facebook, this was also where David Bowie holed up to create his hugely influential ‘Berlin trilogy’ in the mid-’70s (with housemate Iggy Pop looking after the domestic arrangements, sending Eno out to pick up some falafels, that kind of thing.)

Bowie lived here “because of the friction”, apparently. Other famous Schöneberg residents include Marlene Dietrich, Blixa Bargeld, Albert Einstein, Helmut Newton, Klaus Kinski, Billy Wilder, Ralph Steiner etc. etc. and so on. This gives a sense of the kind of area we’re dealing with. They’re no longer here but the ‘structure of feeling’ still is.

It’s also completely clear the place is regenerating itself, to some degree. Building sites are visible every few hundred metres, alongside smaller renovation work, builders and carpenters piling old wood in the streets.

It’s rather different to the Schöneberg of Isherwood’s day:

“From my window, the deep solemn massive street. Cellar-shops where the lamps burn all day, under the shadow of top-heavy balconied façades, dirty plaster frontages embossed with scroll-work and heraldic devices. The whole district is like this: street leading into street of houses like shabby monumental safes crammed with the tarnished valuables and second-hand furniture of a bankrupt middle class. I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.” [‘A Berlin Diary 1930’, in “Goodbye to Berlin”, Christopher Isherwood, 1939]

It isn’t just that the urban fabric has transformed since Isherwood wrote that famous “I am a camera” line. His Berlin novels initially describe the fervent chaotic transgressions of the interwar years, but increasingly reveal that “the whole city lay under an epidemic of discreet, infectious fear”, and that Berlin was “in a state of civil war.”

“Hate exploded suddenly, without warning, out of nowhere; at street corners, in restaurants, cinemas, dance halls, swimming-baths; at midnight, after breakfast, in the middle of the afternoon. Knives were whipped out, blows were dealt with spiked rings, beer-mugs, chair-legs, or leaded clubs; bullets slashed the advertisements on the poster-columns, rebounded from the iron roofs of latrines … Our street looked quite gay when you turned into it and saw the black-white-red flags hanging motionless from windows against the blue spring sky. On the Nollendorfplatz people were sitting out of doors before the café in their overcoats, reading about the coup d’état in Bavaria. Göring spoke from the radio horn at the corner. Germany is awake, he said. An ice-cream shop was open. Uniformed Nazis strode hither and thither, with serious set faces, as though on weighty errands. The newspaper readers by the café turned their heads to watch them pass and smiled and seemed pleased.” [“Mr Norris Changes Trains”, Christopher Isherwood, 1935]

OK, we’re just wandering through — simply skimming the surface — on a particularly sunny spring day, with the economy doing fine, but these same streets could not feel more different. It’s a tribute to the city’s ability to transform itself, and a defiantly optimistic signal about the possibility of recovery, of progressive change, and, well, of ‘the arc of history tending towards justice.’

On a particularly elegant street, with a rich diversity of housing types, Dieter points out a ‘refuge’ for young gay men who are often trafficked here from Eastern Europe. It’s run (funded) by the community itself. As our colleague Karoliina points out, in many cities there would be a NIMBY response to such amenities; here, in this case, a YIMBY response (this “YIMBY over NIMBY” theme is the core of Brickstarter.) There is a temptation to suggest that an openness to difference(s) is simply a function of a big city, as opposed to a medium-sized city — that it is almost a question of statistics, of volume — but there’s more to it than that.

The site of a previous protest, but now this new building is apparently accepted

For instance, will this well-meaning togetherness continue as the neighbourhood changes? Signs of active discussion — some coordinated by the the city; some entirely emergent — are all around us, and it is this gives real hope that the area might maintain its diversity whilst changing. Apparently local politicians are at least aware of the role they might play in enabling this delicate balancing act, which is also heartening to hear.

One such role is stating the absolute necessity to enable low-income families to afford the rent in this area, according to Dieter. Too often western politicians have abdicated sole responsibility for their city’s mix to the market, with damaging gentrification the inevitable result (the untrammelled market only ever tends to inequality, after all). Whilst the morality of this city’s architecture is often the focus, given its history and the obvious target of dumb stone, it is in fact the flow of capital, that driver of architecture, that should be constantly in question.

Here, with Berlin’s identity always in flux, these questions are scribbled on the streets themselves, in the actions of its citizens. On this unseasonably warm sunny spring day, it’s good to witness the traces of such activity, from the fluttering tape surrounding the near-vacant tooth of a block to those well-kept flower beds.

Whilst all large cities are necessarily diverse, some actually implicitly celebrate it (again, culture over statistics). Berlin feels like one of those. Indeed, James Hobrecht talked of the diversity of the ‘mietskaserne’ — tenements — in response to criticism of his plan in the late nineteenth century.

“In the Mietskaserne housing estates they are next-door neighbours — the children from the basement flat goes along the same hallways to the free school just as the those children from the upper class go to the grammar school. Shoemaker Wilhelm in the attic and the bedridden old Mistress Schulz in the backyard tenement with her daughter running a meager seamstress business they will be the best-known persons on the first floor. It allows to pass on a dish of the day, to help in times of sickness, to give away a warm jacket, and bring in incentives for additional schooling. From all that which will come out as comfortable relations between so differently socialized people it allows the giver to ennoble himself on the situation. In between the extremes of the social classes the poor from the second to fourth story will be nurtured by the cultural life of the civil cervants, artists, professors and teachers. This will come out as beneficial to the society even when it would only be that the latter would have a daily silent example in their sight of those which were mixed among them.” [Hobrecht, quoted here]

Beautifully put. The idea of “ennobling” oneself through daily contact with difference is a sentiment that was not so widely promoted at that point, or indeed since.

I’m reading Richard Sennett’s latest, Together, on cooperation. It’s his second in his homo faber trilogy, following the excellent The Craftsman and preceding the final, on making cities, which will be a kind of culmination of these and other threads. The new book starts with a mention of Robert (Bowling Alone) Putnam’s research on how people react to living with diversity. Based on a giant study, the findings remain brow-furrowing, to say the least. They appear to indicate that “first-hand experience of diversity in fact leads people to withdraw from these neighbours; conversely, people who live in homogenous local communities appear more sociably inclined towards and curoius about others in the larger world” (Sennett 2012, writing about Putnam 2007).

A while ago, from a London birthing ward, I wrote of “The condition that makes the city the greatest of all human inventions: ensuring people encounter diversity and difference in the space that they inhabit.” That sentiment was me drawing directly from Sennett.

“Cities are places where learning to live with strangers can happen directly, bodily, physically, on the ground. The size, density, and diversity of urban populations makes this sensate contact possible — but not inevitable. One of the key issues in urban life, and in urban studies, is how to make the complexities a city contains actually interact.”

This detail of “actually interact” is perhaps key. Sennett says that Putnam’s study is based on attitudes rather than actual behaviour. Their behaviour appears to indicate that people are “obliged to deal with people we fear, dislike or simply don’t understand.” We might live and let live, but our attitudes harden with diversity. According to Putnam.

I’m intrigued to see where Sennett takes us. (Watch this video of him speaking — carefully, slowly, brilliantly — at Harvard GSD earlier this year.) From a European perspective, it’s tempting to write this off as merely relating to American data and so drawn from a country which is increasingly unravelling, belying its rampant and worsening inequality and inexcusable social immobility. Or that the obvious inferences are just too obvious, and we’re missing some complexity in the data. But we know that the European context is quite capable of unravelling too, and this finding of Putnam’s is entirely counter the orthodoxy of the “civilising function” of cities.

I’m looking forward to seeing where Sennett goes with Together, in terms of making a case for cooperation enabling the “ennobling” described by Hobrecht.

Walking through Schönberg’s elegant avenues, as the slow Friday lunches begin to gently occupy the leafy street corners, it’s hard to see Putnam, and rather easier to believe in Sennett and Hobrecht. Long may that continue, as this particular neighbourhood, in a city of very particular neighbourhoods is caught in the throes of gentrification, and let’s hope beyond hope that this is not simply wishful thinking. Getting a glimpse of the social fabric overlaid onto these streets, and as an inveterate optimist, I don’t believe it is.

We sit down for lunch at a café, looking out onto its carefully maintained flower bed on the pavement.

Many thanks to Dieter for the walking tour, and my colleagues Karoliina and Bryan. It’s possible to believe that most problems might be cured by taking the protagonists on a good walk around a good city, followed by a good lunch. More detailed reflections on the possibilities of community-led energy infrastructure, in the context of German energy policy and culture, will be later noted on the Brickstarter project blog. And here are the rest of rest of my photos from this Schöneberg walk. This post originally published at on May 7, 2012.


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