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Liveable German cities: how did they get that way?

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Maybe the best known pedestrian zone in Germany: the Brandenburg gate, Berlin

Maybe the best known pedestrian zone in Germany: the Brandenburg gate, Berlin

I often wonder why European cities developed so differently from North American ones, especially German ones. Germany was destroyed after the war, and much rebuilding took place in the 50s and 60s. This was the era of cars and suburbs on this side of the Atlantic, and Germany could well have followed suit. But it didn’t. It has great public transit, pedestrian malls, green spaces, cities built on a human scale. But why is that so? Was it inevitable that it should have developed in that fashion?

That’s the key question tackled by Jan Logemann in Trams or tailfins?, a book that should interest any one with an interest in urban planning and liveability (nerdy me, guilty as charged, of course). The book offers tantalizing clues as to how development could have gone on way or another, but some key policy decisions tipped the balance towards the liveable German cities we know.

Transportation policies were key, of course. Far fewer people owned cars in Germany after the war, and public transit was seen as essential. In the US at the time, transit was seen as something that had to earn a profit or at least pay for itself. Railroads, in particular, were seen as corrupt, old-fashioned, and undemocratic, these views a possible legacy of the Pullman era.

a modest pedestrian alley in Berlin

a modest pedestrian alley in Berlin

As in the US, German public policy promoted car use: for instance in the 50s and 60s there was a tax deduction for mileage, a reduction of 20% of the tax on cars, and the famous autobahn system continued to expand. But in contrast to the US, this never meant abandoning public transit. The 1950 federal railroad act ensured that the railway followed principles of Gemeinwirtschaft, that is, balancing both social and economic aspects. Even conservative politicians did not see privatizing rail as a realistic option. There were passes for students, large families, commuting workers, etc. As a result, rail ridership increased from over 30,260M in 1950 to 38,100M in 1970 – a period that saw a marked decline of rail commuting in the US.

Potsdamer Platz, Berlin

Potsdamer Platz, Berlin

German transit was never expected to pay for itself, and there was a social consensus that it should run a deficit. To be sure, social status was still attached to the car; as a result, ad campaigns were used to promote transit as faster, smarter. In particular, ads were aimed at women shoppers: “the smart man – or, better, the smart woman – is taking the streetcar again”. That said, there was a social consensus that public transit was a necessity; for instance, public opinion was sympathetic to Hannover students who staged violent demonstrations when the (privately owned) transit company raised fares in 1969; the city consequently purchased the system and improved service, an outcome unthinkable in the US.

By the mid 60s, American policy was seen as a failure by most German planners. Friedrich Lehner, for instance, said “everything [in the US]was done for the automobile, and space-saving public transportation was neglected in a way that is incomprehensible”. New urban developments were designed so that shops could be reached by walking, and dense enough that public transit was effective for trips to the centre. This was done in reaction to the American model, as planners feared congestion, but were also concerned about preserving the urban quality of life.

Celebrating public spaces in Chemnitz

Celebrating public spaces in Chemnitz

Transportation planning is only part of the story, though. Housing was in critical shortage after the war, and the aggressive rebuilding program (3.8 million units between 1950 and 1957) consisted of appartment blocks, about half of which was subsidized social housing built on a uniform plan (35-70 m2, rented through public housing offices, rent controlled). Single family housing (Eigenheim) never became a priority, in part because mortgages were not tax-deductible as in US. Instead, Germans could save for a down-payment in a tax-free account (Bausparen). Further, over 40% of appartments were built by non-profit companies, often affiliated with labour unions. Projects such as Bremen’s Neue Vahr (10,000 appartment units, 30,000 residents) were build with shops, amenities, close to the downtown core for a “sense of home”. All such projects sought to accommodate a mix of people from low-income class, working class, as well as better off middle class.

Bubble blowers and jugglers in Dresden

Bubble blowers and jugglers in Dresden

Another difference was cultural. As opposed to Americans who moved frequently and looked at housing as an exchangeable commodity, Germans put a high premium on housing quality and tradition, preferring not to move unless forced to.

And there were certainly ample reason to stay put in the city: municipal spending on public goods such as theaters, swimming pools, museums, or libraries were at a much higher level than in the US. As a result, the German public as a whole benefitted from the services, as opposed to in US, where public services (such as transit) were perceive to mostly benefit only the poor. According to Logemann:

by the late 60s, however, most American consumers had shifted their priorities away from public goods and were unimpressed by the call of urban planners to revitalize inner cities. [Whereas in Germany] residents of newly constructed neighborhoods at the urban fringes continued to feel part of the central city as consumers and taxpayers. Urban public good were thus more sustainable in Germany, where services such as mass public transportation continued to be used by middle-class consumers.

Controls on business were another reason for the differents paths. After the war, there were price controls on essentials (foodstuff, electricity, transit fares, etc); some of these remained in place until the 70s, affecting the way Germans decided to spend their money. Aside from price supports, discounting was not allowed, even for things such as second-hand books (1958 law). This was done to support small independent shops. Similarly, shopping hours were restricted, in part to prevent weekend shopping at suburban malls. Labour unions were strong supporters of restricted hours, as were most people; in 1966, for instance, the city centre of Dortmund went dark in protest against a planned suburban shopping mall. Logemann:

one of the crucial lessons the German cities learned from the declining downtowns in the US was the need to keep city centres attractive to customers. The development of the Fussgängerzone, an inner city pedestrian mall, between the early 1950s and the early 1970s was central to such efforts.

Kassel was the first city with a pedestrian mall, centered around the commercial Trepenstrasse, in 1952, which was to be “realm of the pedestrian”;

A typical fussgaenger zone: stores and cafes.  (Altona, an area of Hamburg)

A typical fussgaenger zone: stores and cafes. (Altona, an area of Hamburg)

this initiave received nationwide positive attention, and was widely copied. By the mid 70s, most downtown retailers were on pedestrian malls and doing well; all such areas were well connected to public transportation. The urban development law of 1971 incorporated a primary goal of ensuring that “people ofdifferent views and interest can meet and congregate”, and urban squares and pedestrian malls developped accordingly. In contrast, the first attempts in the US, such as in Kalamazoo in 1959, had moderate success, but retailer opposition prevented success to be copied elsewhere.

9780226491493Logemann, Jan L 2012. Trams or tailfins? Public and private prosperity in postwar West Germany and the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Written by enviropaul

January 14, 2015 at 7:12 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] rubble at the end of the war, and could have been rebuilt in a car-dependant, sprawling model; they chose not to. And what a result! Turner, again, this time in […]

  2. […] lack true centers and community gathering places, things that the Germans particularly value (see here for a discussion of how German and American cities diverged in the fifties). Of course, not having […]

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