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Germany: East Berlin Is A Laboratory Of Housing Regeneration

Berlin, 12 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The former East Berlin, more than any other city in Eastern Europe, has benefited from huge capital investment, as Germany prepares to move its capital back to the reunited metropolis.

But urban planners are quick to point out that infrastructure reforms are not all a question of money. Heinz Willumat, the Berlin Senate's urban planner, says that reforms also require a strategic vision.

Some 700,000 people, two-thirds of East Berlin's population, live in panel-block housing. The buildings could not be torn down. Instead, as Willumat explains: "From the very start, the strategy and approach of Berlin's Senate was to consider the further development and improvement of these regions a priority task."

To that end, the Berlin Senate, which acts as the city's governing body, worked out a comprehensive regeneration plan. The first step was to change the administrative structure of these satellite suburbs. Under Communism, most buildings were state-owned. The Senate broke up this monolith, creating several large cooperatives for East Berlin's residential areas. The cooperatives formally belong to the Federal State of Berlin, and have to follow certain guidelines, but they act as private companies. Willumat calls this step decisive: "The huge disadvantage of all the other countries in the former East Bloc is that they did not create administrative structures to correspond to the new conditions. And this is why it is so hard to undertake reforms there and make the laws of capitalism work."

Most importantly, the Senate decided not to allow land restitution in Berlin's high-rise suburbs. This leaves each of the newly-created cooperatives free to dispose of the plots around its buildings. Some plots have been landscaped into attractive parks, while other plots were rented to investors who built shopping centers. All of the cooperatives' land can be used as collateral to obtain bank loans for more development.

Willumat says this step was also crucial: "I underscore this, because the cooperatives must have all of the land plots at their disposal....They must be able to act independently and to place their own construction orders....And such an administrative structure must be able to collect its own revenue so that it can later use it for further development of the suburb."

Having laid the legal foundation for regenerating East Berlin's housing estates, the city and German government have made money available for the task. Engineers at Berlin's Technical University calculated that by spending one-third of the cost of building new housing, panel apartments could be made structurally sound for decades to come. This still represents about DEM 60,000 per apartment.

So how is reconstruction being funded? Part of the money comes from Germany's federal credit agency, which provides Berlin's cooperatives with long-term subsidized loans. The city of Berlin matches those loans. The rest of the funds come from housing rents and the sale of land parcels to commercial developers. In addition, a whole parallel system of low-interest loans has been created to encourage individuals to carry out their own home improvements.

The Hellersdorf suburb is Berlin's easternmost high-rise housing estate. As in Prague's Jizni Mesto's, nearly 100,000 people live here, in mazes of five and twelve-storey panel blocks. But unlike in Prague, change is apparent as soon as you step out of the metro.

New shops and entertainment centers sprout from once barren waste dumps. Courtyards separating individual buildings have been turned into oases of green, often with elaborate playgrounds. Many of the buildings themselves sport new facades.

Ralf Protz, who is responsible for planning at the Hellersdorf cooperative, says the facelift of the buildings is more than skin-deep: "We are putting in windows that actually keep the cold out, installing new pipes that bring you water that isn't rusty, putting in meters so residents can regulate their heat intake."

Even before the general overhaul takes place, details get attention in all sections of the estate. The Hellersdorf cooperative, for example, is just finishing the modernization of all doors, entryways and stairwells in the suburb. Protz says that in addition to the improved security, the initial renovation provides a measurable psychological boost: "Before, residents were embarrassed to invite guests home...You can't underestimated the psychological impact."

But even more important than the physical regeneration of the area, says Protz, is the creation of real neighborhoods where anonymity once reigned.

The Hellersdorf cooperative recently teamed up with John Thompson, a leading British architect who pioneered housing estate regeneration in England.

Thompson, speaking with RFE/RL by telephone from his London office, says that his first attempt at housing reform taught him that it is essential to involve residents in the process. Thompson has since developed an approach he calls community architecture. Before any renovations happen, residents of an individual housing block or courtyard meet with planners and discuss their needs. Do they want more playgrounds for children, handicapped access ramps, green areas or more parking spaces, for example?

Says Thompson: "The best way is to go in...have an intensive period working with the people that live in these places -- find out what their real problems are -- most important, find out what their dreams and aspirations are. Because if a community is going to be healthy, it has to become active."

This gives residents a stake in their part of the estate, says Thompson, and encourages them to stay and care more about their environment.

"Integrated regeneration is needed...Otherwise, you can spend a lot of money on the physical form of a housing block but not actually improve conditions for people," he adds.

By cooperating with city and federal authorities and involving local residents, urban planners have already renovated 40 percent of East Berlin's panel estates. The overall cost so far has been high -- 7.5 billion Deutschemarks. But Protz says that in the long run, it will be well worth it. The next step, which has already started, will be to encourage apartment dwellers to form their own small cooperatives, to wean them off state subsidies and allow money to be targeted at low-income families, to prevent waste.

To those who ask whether Berlin can really afford to undertake such a gargantuan task, Protz has a simple answer: "I don't think it's an issue of there not being enough money. I think it's a demonstration of political will. Berlin took the decision to use the money it has for the development and stabilization of these suburban panel regions. And the subsidies are only needed at the start, because eventually, returns will come in and the whole project will start to pay for itself."

Heinz Willumat, at the Berlin Senate, says that East Berlin's regeneration program has already created 11,000 permanent jobs and he points to other less-tangible benefits, such as a drop in youth violence and crime rates. Willumat says the future German capital, both in its center and suburbs, remains a work in progress. And he adds: "Berlin is always looking for partners in Eastern Europe -- from Prague to Warsaw to Moscow, so we can learn from each other and continue to find new approaches to this problem."

The question is: is anybody listening?

This is part three of a five-part RFE/RL series on housing in Eastern Europe and the United States.