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Can German planning work?

Little remains in planning today of the optimism and energy evident in the 1933 CIAM IV discussions, 1943 Athens Charter and two books Le Corbusier wrote in the solitude of the Pyrenees in 1944; the ideals of housing as central to the creation of humane cities, traffic subservient to a healthy environment, the dominance of green spaces. Half a century later city planners, like jungle explorers lost in the undergrowth, hack their way through the urban fabric armed with inadequate methods of prognosis, graphs and bar charts.

To try and reveal the process of planning the Deutsches Architekturmuseum exhibition 'City Development Plans' closed with a two day (29 February and 1 March) symposium entitled 'International Frankfurt City Building Discussion'. The majority of invited planners represented European cities in German speaking countries: Frankfurt, Munich, Stuttgart, Berlin, Hamburg, Hanover, Essen, Dortmund, Cologne, the Ruhrgebiet, Vienna and Zurich; the exception was Martin Aarts from Rotterdam and only one ex-GDR city, Leipzig, was included for comparison.

Can planning effectively steer development for the good of all, as opposed to the profit of the few, make possible affordable housing, check the overproduction of offices, make educational, sport and cultural spaces economically viable or initiate environmental rehabilitation by imposing ecological standards? Not unless there is a political will and available resources, without which planning becomes as futile as painting by numbers.

Yet political will can be as fleeting as the time between two elections. 'It is important to translate our concepts into action within a legislative period', urged the seasoned Hamburg city, planner Egbert Kossak. In a democracy people should be informed and consulted, but planners differ as to how this should be achieved. When the complex matrix of influential factors includes national policies for economic survival, opinions differ as to whether the input of a lay public is productive or merely a hindrance. For example, Dortmund airport and the prototype Transrapid magnetic track between Hamburg and Berlin are championed by those who see these projects as tools in the fight for employment and economic growth, but are opposed by environmentalists. Similar contradictions prevail in the debate on whether to subsidise Bremen's dying ship industry, which influences the economic welfare and planning of a whole region, or to make a radical break with the past and attract new technology, as the Ruhrgebiet has done. According to Christiane Thalgott from Munich, 'The fear of change is greater than the fear of catastrophe'.

Civil servants and politicians' inability to set up productive dialogues has led to mounting public frustration. Demonstrations are a mild form of protest in comparison to the years of pitched battles between riot police and squatters protesting against the demolition of old houses in Hamburg's Hafen Strasse. Peace was only declared after the city was forced to compromise. The word 'planning' in Germany no longer has a positive image (unlike the '70s). Everyone calls for deregulation while at the same time demanding stronger laws to regulate their neighbours.

Confronted by networks of global trade, finance and information exchange, should wholesale planning be abandoned in favour of a mosaic of development projects which focus on specifics? For example, around Rotterdam's port five areas, clusters of mixed activity, have been selected for intensive improvement. Measures include increasing residential units, controlling high-rise development and the use of cars. Such 'strategic planning' is supported by Albert Speer and his architectural and planning practice in Frankfurt which is currently working on a new city district, Rebstock Park, from outline plans by Peter Eisenman. Speer's description of present-day planning is 'hectic stagnation'.

Vienna's Hannes Swoboda thought it important to distinguish between what planning can, and cannot achieve. In Vienna the goal is to bring the city to the Danube, now possible through better flood control systems, improve interfaces between transport systems, deal more economically with building land and increase density of use. What planning cannot do is deal with future unknowns; sudden population movements, runaway unemployment or an outflow of investment capital. All three of these have hit German development planning since 1989.

Kossak summed up the underlying Western European problem, 'Planning strategies in these cities have little in common except that they are all threatened by an outflow of investment and jobs to Asia'. In 15 years a third of Hamburg's industrial employment has disappeared. The new capital Berlin is the poorest city undergoing the most radical demographic and economic restructuring, following the collapse of east Germany's industrial base, in which speculative development has evolved faster than the planners' ability to control its form. It has abundant office space but not enough jobs; a wealth of theatres and museums but not enough money to run them.

Directly after German reunification, Leipzig's population fell from 530 000 to 478 000. Among those who remain, the birthrate continues to fall dramatically. Before 1989 the city was known for its machine manufacturing industry and the success of the Leipzig trade fair. The city had 100 000jobs in industry; 12 000 remain. Another explosive negative tendency is the vast commercial sheds which have sprung up on green field sites, the result of land ownership problems in the city. An aerial view of the biggest shopping centre in Europe, near Leipzig, resembles a factory site with blocks as big as assembly halls surrounded by cars.

Meanwhile shopping possibilities in the city waste away. Despite these obstacles, Leipzig's Wolfgang Kurtz radiates a pioneering spirit. His city was the first ex-GDR region to produce an FNP (area use plan) on which to base future development. New industrial areas are being planned. Who for, one wonders? The new Trade Fair, designed by von Gerkan, Marg + Partners (AR March 1996) and completed in only five years, has released 95 hectares for 4500 new housing units for 9600 residents, office and commercial spaces for 18 000 jobs, and social and cultural buildings which Could employ a further 1000.

Who will be the new employers? Germans complain of high taxes, rising social security contributions, and east Germany's development costs which frighten away foreign companies and drive German manufacturers abroad. Planners, no more than governments, are able to stop the fluidity of international markets.

Frankfurt's discussions were not optimistic about the future of development planning. European cutbacks in the face of austerity might well cull the numbers of public service planners. Few words were spent on describing any urban image - instead talks were illustrated by facts and figures. Rarely were street scenes, inhabitants or city skylines shown. If land is capital which must generate profit, activities which generate no immediate monetary return will disappear or only exist in rich ghettoes.

Is the idea of the city as a dense centre of excitement and creativity sparked off by exchange an illusion, when matched against the urban reality of violence, pollution, and alternative long distance social and business contacts via agencies such as the Internet? Is planning itself a chimera? Planners, idealised as referees in a sharing out process, have been drafted as troops in a global economic war, defending their regions in competition against all others.
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Author:Dawson, Layla
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:May 1, 1996
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