Building liveable, social cities for the economy of tomorrow in Asia and Germany

Urbanists from Europe and Asia are facing some of the same challenges, but from often quite different angles. Experts from nine Asian countries visited Germany to explore social city making in Berlin and Leipzig.

Urban planners from across Asia visited Germany in September to gain a better understanding of social city-making in Berlin and Leipzig and discuss some of their own insights into city planning. The visit was hosted by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung as part of its Asia regional programme on Economy of Tomorrow (EoT).

A key message was that top-down planning is not enough to ensure socially just urbanization, and that the technology-centric approach known as smart cities cannot alone address the needs of citizens. An inclusive and social city must include affordable housing, public transportation and participation of the public in planning and development.

”We want to define ‘smart’ as what is good for residents” said a representative of the Deutsche Städtetag, the Association of German Cities. “There is no success of projects without the participation of residents and their ownership,” he said.

The visiting delegation included the director of Seoul’s centre for housing policy development, a State Assemblyman from Malaysia, the deputy director of the China Center for Urban Development, and think-tank representatives and academics from Indonesia, Singapore, India, the Philippines, Thailand and Viet Nam.

"The framework to build a social city must rest on a desire to shape social cohesion, to avoid social segregation in cities, and to activate participatory decision-making by residents through neighbourhood management and social processes."

There was a lively exchange of ideas with the Asian experts about their German counterparts’ observations, challenges and possible instruments to provide affordable housing, sustainable transport and civic participation, under the concept of a holistic social city and integrated urban development.

The framework to build a social city must rest on a desire to shape social cohesion, to avoid social segregation in cities, and to activate participatory decision-making by residents through neighbourhood management and social processes. This was the basis of an intensive exchange between the urbanists from Asia and members of the German Bundestag (federal parliament), representatives of the Berlin Senate department for Urban Development and Housing, as well as with the urban planning department of the City of Leipzig, representatives of the Deutsche Städtetag, the Association of German Transport Companies, the German Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the Berlin Partner for Business and Technology, a public-private organization promoting businesses in the city. 

The expert delegation from Asia also visited a housing cooperative in Berlin to discuss instruments to guarantee affordable housing, even in a housing market that is showing increasing signs of a speculation bubble. A trend that triggered the question of whether affordable housing should be a consumption good or a human right. Innovative and sometimes radical solutions being discussed in Germany include a quota for affordable condominiums in new buildings, leasehold land schemes, a general cap for housing prices or even expropriation of huge housing companies.

 “We manage to provide housing for one third of the market price and still have a small net profit,” said a representative of the Berlin housing cooperative. “But unfortunately, rack-renting is not really penalized in Berlin.”

Between 2008-2018 rent prices in Germany’s capital Berlin practically doubled, with middle income families and single earners hit the hardest by the increase (link in German). Michael Gross, member of the German Bundestag, highlighted that much more investment in building new housing space is needed, while the public sector needs also to regain control of already existing housing. Unfortunately, the public sector controls only a small percentage of the housing market and currently has no sufficient instruments to correct the rising housing rents, said Michael Gross.     

In the second-tier city of Leipzig, the Asian experts learned about the “Leipzig Charter on Sustainable European Cities” as the social-city concept on European level. The Leipzig-Charter defines among others integrated urban development as a prerequisite for successful urban sustainability and considers strategies for upgrading the physical environment in deprived urban areas:

“Our cities possess unique cultural and architectural qualities, strong forces of social inclusion and exceptional possibilities for economic development. They are centres of knowledge and sources of growth and innovation. At the same time, however, they suffer from demographic problems, social inequality, social exclusion of specific population groups, a lack of affordable and suitable housing and environmental problems." — excerpt from Leipzig Charter on Sustainable European Cities.

The delegation made also a field trip to meet staff of a Magistralen-management office—an office that functions as an intermediate organization between the urban planning department of the City of Leipzig and the local residents in a neighbourhood close to one of the main pathways (Magistrale) in Leipzig.

The neighbourhood along the main road has suffered from insufficient social infrastructure, cultural and social events and is characterized by comparatively high rates of unemployment and poverty. The office runs activities to improve the overall social infrastructure and to stimulate active involvement of residents in decisions about the neighbourhood. The principle for the offices’ activities is that a greater sense of ownership among the residents for their living environment can lead to greater interest and continued participation among the residents in the making of their city.

In Leipzig the Asian city-makers were therefore able to study the revival of a city whose population growth is picking up after a period of a decline in the 1990s (link).  

“It is important to bring into harmony city interest with private interest to achieve social cohesion,” said one official of the planning department of the city of Leipzig proudly. “We provided a good infrastructure net, encouraged a social mix in the city, supported neighbourhood management and set incentives for creative people to come to Leipzig. By this, we have turned the situation completely around.”

In a meeting with the German Association of Public Transport the Asian delegates discussed the possibility of a paradigm shift with public transport at the centre to achieve climate justice and the Sustainable Development Goals of the Agenda 2030.

“For us, trams are the key technology for a successful and efficient transport transformation,” said a representative of the Association.

The idea of smart city, which is quite popular in Asia, was brought up time and again during this Asian-German exchange on a Social city. The smart city however is not a holistic urban development concept, since it generally puts the interest of technology companies first and foremost, while basic needs like affordable housing and other concerns of the urban poor are often marginalized. Experts at the Deutsche Städtetag, for instance, stressed that the starting point should be to acquire knowledge of the community, then to support community projects and intensify them by also applying smart technology if it improves people’s quality of life and increases the efficiency of urban processes.

This guiding principle and the question how smart city elements can be incorporated into the holistic Social city concept will be addressed in more details in an upcoming FES publication Smart city in the Social city.

For more information on the regional work by FES on economy of tomorrow and social city contact the Resident Representative of FES in Indonesia, Sergio Grassi. 

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