Social urban policy must fight unemployment

Housing remains a fundamental right, but social urban policy must also add to its focus the fight against unemployment, explains in this interview Michael Müller, Mayor of Berlin.

For version in Mongolian of this interview visit FES Mongolia’s official website

“The provision of housing remains a key task,” says Michael Müller, Mayor of Germany’s capital Berlin, who was in Mongolia in the second half of 2017 for an exchange of experiences with politicians and city officials in Ulaanbaatar, the country’s capital, on the challenge of urbanization and growing cities.

Housing, infrastructure, and environmental pollution were among the main issues raised during Mr Müller’s visit, but for the Berlin-raised politician, who has witnessed the changes of city life in Berlin at different historical junctures including the city’s division and reunification, an indispensable focus of social urban planning remains the fight against unemployment.

On the occasion of Mr Müller‘s visit to Ulaanabaatar, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) talked to him to get to know more about the ongoing exchange of experiences between Berlin and Ulaanbaatar regarding urban planning and city growth and the political work to achieve social transformation on a city level in growing urban areas. 

You travelled to share your experiences on city growth from Berlin to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of a country in which many would contend city life and development bare no similarity with what is familiar in Germany. Would you agree?

Michael Müller: We have to surmount similar problems and challenges and it is precisely with regard to these issues that I have had discussions with my counterparts, the Mayor and Governor of Ulaanbaatar, and President Battulga Khaltmaa.

Berlin and Ulaanbaatar are both cities that are growing very quickly. That is why my first visit was to the Urban Planning Office: we compare notes and experiences and support each other by training and advising employees. Both cities are in urgent need of more affordable dwelling space, investments to improve the infrastructure and better climate protection measures. Completely different conditions prevail in Ulaanbaatar, of course. It is the coldest capital in the world. In winter, temperatures plunge to an average of minus 17 to minus 21 degrees Celsius there. This, of course, places completely different demands on the energy supply compared to Berlin.

"Since as far back as the 1960s there has been close cooperation between Humboldt University and the State University of Mongolia, which was reaffirmed in October 2016 with the signing of a declaration of intent"

In addition to common challenges, however, we also share similar strengths, above all in the fields of education, science, research and culture. Berlin and Ulaanbaatar profit from many years of cooperation in education and research between Germany and Mongolia. Since as far back as the 1960s there has been close cooperation between Humboldt University and the State University of Mongolia, which was reaffirmed in October 2016 with the signing of a declaration of intent. Prof. Dr.-Ing. Sabine Kunst, President of Humboldt University in Berlin, accompanied me to Ulaanbaatar and in all our discussions that took place reiterated that Mongolian studies would be continued at Humboldt University.

On one occasion, you stated that urban development cannot be understood as a haphazard process, it must be moulded by values of freedom, justice and solidarity. Can you give an example of how this could look in practice? 

MM: After a long phase of stagnation, Berlin was able to return to a clear, stable growth trajectory by 2011. In this very positive situation, Berlin had to learn how to deal with growth once again. Growth means opportunities, but also change. This triggers anxieties and concerns among the population over what such change means for them personally and their immediate environment.

Urban society faces the task of finding a consensus on how quantitative growth can be harnessed to produce a better quality of life. It is with this in mind that we devised the "Urban Development Concept for Berlin 2030".

This was not something instituted top-down and written at a desk. Instead, it involved various departments, public administrations, the interested public and not least of all the citizens of towns and cities themselves. It is only with the strong participation of citizens that we can adequately canvass the wide-ranging, multifarious nature of life in an urban centre as broadly and comprehensively as possible. It is to this end that we have set up the digital platform mein.berlin.de (link in German) to help us collect opinions, feelings and attitudes on the right strategy to adopt from the city itself.

Berlin, once on the front-line of the Cold War divided in two by a wall, is now a booming metropolis, often compared to New York, London and the like. What factors contributed to this transformation?

MM: In history, tolerant and cosmopolitan cities like Berlin have time and again proven to be engines of prosperity and participation. Such cities become places of longing and emotions, especially for young people of different nations, religions or sexual orientations. This is where creative talent comes together to exchange and develop new ideas. Yet Berlin is still an affordable metropolis, at least on an international scale. The reunited city was and still remains a fabulous venue, inviting artists and creative people to help shape the development of the city, and people are still responding to this invitation with great enthusiasm.

The political arena invested at an early stage in culture, research and science to strengthen this development. As a result, we now have a unique university and research landscape that is the envy of other metropolitan areas. This translates into sustainable development and the establishment of new institutions such as the German Internet Institute.

"Education is the key to solving the country's social problems and economic development. On the Mongolian side, there are enormous needs and a great interest in professionally trained, qualified workers in all occupations."

On the one hand, Berlin benefits from the fact that the city is at the nexus of cultural and scientific exchange, while offering all the advantages of a metropolis. On the other, the city still offers a lot of space and niches for people to develop their own ideas and turn them into reality. Many people have taken advantage of this environment to start up their own business and create new jobs. We are a StartUP metropolis and an idea incubator for culture and business. A metropolis without constant change, without an exchange of knowledge and ideas, would stagnate.

That is why we have to defend our values, which at the same time give us our competitive edge, against populist tendencies seeking to build walls.

The changes Berlin underwent in the past two decades have come at a cost. The residents of what was popularly known as an affordable city and a city for all, half of whom arrived in the city after the fall of the Berlin Wall, resent the consequences that came along with the new developments. From the sharp rise in rent and property costs forcing people out of neighbourhoods, to the selection of directors in public cultural institutions, critical voices contend that priority for urban planning and development is given to decisions that make Berlin more marketable as a destination. How have city authorities in Berlin dealt with these consequences, what was the greatest challenge in managing city growth and city life?

MM: Berlin attracts young people from Germany and abroad—people who are looking for opportunities, who are undergoing training or studying for their degree here or who are already highly qualified and move to the city with a good income. These contrast with "Berliners" and newcomers who are not doing so well: people who have lost their jobs in the political and economic upheavals of the last few decades, who are on the dole or have to muddle through with a modest pension.

"Due to rapid population growth, with the number of Berliners rising by more than 40,000 per year at present, our biggest challenge remains the supply of affordable housing, especially for small and middle-level incomes." 

Here I see it as a task of government to work for a just accommodation of interests and prevent skewed developments. In the Berlin Senate we are working at all levels to contain skyrocketing rents: in the federal government we are taking action to effectively put the brakes on soaring rent hikes. We have agreed with state-owned housing construction companies to create 100,000 state-owned municipal flats within a period of 10 years. We are resolutely opposed to the misuse of housing as holiday homes, even if this—at least from the perspective of respective providers—does not afford us the reputation of being more marketable as a destination.

Planning cities and city growth on the premise of making them more marketable to visitors is a familiar trend for cities in Asia, like Bangkok or Hanoi, to state only the most recent examples. Everyday life and neighbourhood economies have been ripped apart by closing communal spaces, such as markets, by rezoning or repurposing land use, and replacing old neighbourhoods with luxury or tourist-oriented amenities. The growth in the global status of Asian cities this ensured, has been accompanied by a trend of rising urban poor in capitals under-prioritizing social and community development. How do these trends compare to the challenges authorities and urban dwellers in Mongolia face, in the case of Ulaanbaatar? 

MM: Education is the key to solving the country's social problems and economic development. On the Mongolian side, there are enormous needs and a great interest in professionally trained, qualified workers in all occupations. This is linked to the long-term goal of creating jobs, strengthening Mongolia's economic power, building up a strong SME sector and reducing its dependence on its large neighbours, Russia and China.

In Berlin, specific offers have already been submitted by the Foundation "HandWerk Stiftet Zukunft" and the project to provide further training to vocational school teachers from Mongolia in Berlin and send experts on dual training to Mongolia. Internships supported by the Foundation are also under consideration.

During a visit to Mongolia in September in 2017, the Foundation further elaborated the project and announced that it was planning to cooperate with three Mongolian vocational schools. Terbishdagva Dendev, member of the Great State Chamber and Chairman of the Standing Committee on Economic Affairs, has launched his own initiative to establish and provide dual vocational training. Approximately 500 Mongolians are to be sent to Germany each year for a continuing vocational education and training programme. The German development agency (link in English) has also been active in the field of vocational education and training in Mongolia for many years and has among other things produced German-Mongolian teaching material. 

A Berliner, borough assembly member, senator for urban planning and now mayor of the City of Freedom, you have witnessed and participated in the urban planning and city life of Berlin at different levels over the years. Based on that experience, where can present and future political work be focused to ensure just social transformation on a city level?

MM: Due to rapid population growth, with the number of Berliners rising by more than 40,000 per year at present, our biggest challenge remains the supply of affordable housing, especially for small and middle-level incomes. For me, it is a given that dwelling space is a fundamental right. That is why the provision of housing remains a key task, especially for our state-owned housing construction companies. The "social city" with a social mix in all residential areas remains the main objective underlying Berlin housing policy. But another focus of social urban policy has to be on the fight against unemployment, since only work leads to participation and prevents social friction.

My goal remains full employment. Even though we have managed to cut the number of unemployed in half since reunification, our unemployment rate still hovers at around 9 per cent. Digitisation in particular will be facing us with new challenges because automation will replace many simple tasks. In order to finally combat long-term unemployment effectively, I have proposed a basic income based on solidarity for national debate. This involves creating socially useful work instead of paying for unemployment and then just administrating it. New jobs fully integrated into the social security system are to be created and paid at above the minimum wage.

Many services can be provided here, such as support for single parents or work for a clean city and safe parks. We are only at the outset of this discussion, but I am convinced that we have to finally start doing more to get people to work. ###

The conversation was led by Mila Shopova, regional communications coordinator for FES in Asia. For information on the activities of FES in Mongolia visit the country office website. For information on the regional work by FES in Asia on social urban planning and development contact regional coordinator and FES Indonesia director Sergio Grassi

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