Soft Urban Renewal in the Rehabilitation Areas in Berlin - Prenzlauer Berg

Birgit WEND, 1999

This fact sheet presents a foreign case of urban renewal: the renewal of the Prenzlauer Berg district in Berlin in the late 1990s. This fact sheet is interesting in that it exposes the problems encountered in the context of urban renewal, in a country often cited as an example, as regards access to housing.

The participation of the inhabitants is an essential element of the rehabilitation process. It produces a double effect : in many cases, it is possible to take decisions in order to improve the social situation in the neighborhood (realization of social projects, obtaining and cancelling a renovation project for a building, depending on the situation).

Even if the actions carried out by the inhabitants are not always successful, they allow them to show their interest in their neighborhood and this cannot be overlooked by the political leaders. These initiatives need the support of various stakeholders, such as the development company STERN GmbH or the tenant advisory company. But it is also clear that the social problems caused by increasing unemployment and the lack of apprenticeships in the district cannot be solved by rehabilitation, even under the participation model.

Political, economic and institutional context

We are in Germany, in Berlin, more precisely in the district of Prenzlauer Berg. The conservation of the building fabric and the consideration of the needs of the inhabitants concerned are, here, two principles of urban renewal in Berlin, adopted by the Senate on 31 May 1995. The Senate and the city council of Prenzlauer Berg have commissioned the development company STERN to rehabilitate Prenzlauer Berg. The basis for the participation of the residents in the redevelopment process is formal: paragraph 137 of the BauGB declares the following to be affected: tenants, users, owners, employees and industrialists. The conditions for participation are defined by the instructions of the Senate in the special urban law, dated 6 May 1995. These instructions also regulate the right to early information, advice and participation of residents in the preparation and implementation of the rehabilitation process.

In the rehabilitation districts, the law provides for the provision of a room for citizen representatives and the establishment of a rehabilitation advisory committee.

The renovation of the city’s 19th century historic districts is part of the process of Berlin’s urban development in preparation for its reunification and transformation into the capital of a reunified Germany. Due to the considerable financial burdens of the city, urban renewal as a public duty is unfortunately being pushed to the background. The Berlin government relies mainly on private investment. At the same time, social polarization is increasing in the inner city districts, which reinforces the threat of eviction for low-income households.

Description of the process

Date of the experiment

The experience described is based on the preparatory study carried out by STERN from 1990 to 1993 and since 1993, the year of the public declaration of the rehabilitation districts. Their duration is estimated between 15 and 20 years.

Number of people involved

In the 5 rehabilitation districts, approximately 49,000 inhabitants live. If we add the inhabitants of the neighboring districts who benefit from special protection (according to paragraph 172 of the BauGB), we have 74,000 people. About 100 people have organized themselves into representative groups.

Reasons for the residents’ organization

The willingness of residents to get involved in the districts concerned is not new. In the 1980s, the regime of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) intended to demolish whole parts of the 19th century city, as most of the houses of that time were not equipped with a bathroom and the toilets were on the landing. The heating was still coal-fired and the buildings had not been maintained for several decades. Moreover, the housing of that time was for the GDR the symbol of a bourgeois and decadent way of life. The inhabitants protested strongly against the planned demolition and the threat of relocation to the monotonous, outlying prefabricated housing areas. They presented alternative solutions and managed to postpone the demolition.

In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. In this context of political changes, the motivation to commit to one’s neighborhood increased beyond the elected representatives of the citizens concerned by the rehabilitation. Various organizations such as tenants’ associations or initiatives (e.g. the WbA initiative  »Wir bleiben alle  » «  we all stay ") were formed, in order to defend against the threat of eviction, to improve the urban environment and to create projects for the improvement of the social infrastructure.

The organization of the inhabitants, in different forms, is motivated by their interests in influencing the rehabilitation process, but also by the inevitable contradictions between the principles set for rehabilitation and the reality of the facts :

The departures do not always have objective causes, the inhabitants all live the situation differently and sometimes leave for their own reasons.

Residents’ demands

The representatives of the inhabitants and the rehabilitation advisory committee, where they are represented, ask for the strict application of the legal instruments, to protect the inhabitants of the district from eviction, in particular the families in difficult situation :

Strategies used by the inhabitants

Chances of the inhabitants to change the renovation policy

The renovation policy of the Berlin Senate tries to balance the interests of private investors, which are necessary for the financing of urban renewal in the historic inner city, with the social goals it has set for the protection of tenants. Very often, private interests win out in spite of everything. Since the city of Berlin has come to terms with this, it will take a political change to reverse the situation. In the present case, only an active cooperation between the different stakeholders (tenants, advisory board, development company STERN GmbH, tenant advisory company and the district council) can rebalance the situation by dealing with specific cases and successfully consider the needs of groups in difficulty. Residents’ organizations are an integral part of this careful strategy.

Participation of the inhabitants in urban planning

This is the fundamental principle of soft urban renewal. Apart from the representatives of the population affected by the renovation, there is the advisory committee, which makes it possible to discuss and resolve conflicts arising from the renovation process between the representatives of the inhabitants, the administration and the political representatives. Only recommendations for decisions to be taken are given.

Alternatives proposed to the population concerned

The law, which regulates renovation areas, requires the landlord to offer the tenant a range of alternative housing in the original neighborhood, and under the same conditions (rent level, number of rooms, etc.). It is up to the tenant to decide whether to stay in the new unit or move back into the old one once the work is completed. When the owner has chosen to be subsidized by the Senate, for the renovation of his building, the town hall of Prenzlauer Berg takes care of making housing available, as well as paying the moving allowance. In the case of private financing, this is the responsibility of the landlord and it is often in this case that serious problems can arise. If the tenant is not committed to enforcing his rights, he will have to resign himself to moving. For the middle and upper classes, the housing market is large and the number of moves to other areas has increased considerably in recent times. For low-income families, the only option left is to move to a neighborhood where the renovation has not yet taken place, these families are called « urban renewal nomads ». It should be noted that the law, for certain specific and difficult cases (such as a very old person with a low income), gives the tenant the possibility of refusing the modernization of his apartment.

Stakeholders involved in the process and their role

Reactions from the various sectors

The rehabilitation districts of Prenzlauer Berg are part of the dense urban housing belt, dating from the end of the 19th century, around the former city of Berlin.

At the national level

Most of the neighborhoods are located where the URBAN program is in effect.

Several projects, two playgrounds, a green space near a youth house, a children’s house on an adventure ground could be financed by the program. These investments are accompanied by a hiring program. These projects could not have been financed by the city hall budget, they are an important contribution to the social stabilization of the neighborhood.

To go further

The website of STERN. STERN is a private development company, in charge of the rehabilitation of several districts in Berlin, and which advocates the participation of the inhabitants in the renovation process.

The project Prenzlauer Berg