Town or country?

Anyone who wants to travel from London’s Heathrow airport to the Siemens Crystal in the city’s Docklands district will need to spend around one-and-a-half hours on the underground, which is almost as long as the flight from continental Europe. The alternative is a taxi ride costing at least 100 pounds that could leave you stuck in a traffic jam. But in comparison to many of the world’s megacities, this is probably an impressively efficient infrastructure.

The extent of the current and future problems in these rapidly growing urban agglomerations has been made clear by Siemens in its futuristic glass structure covering an area of 2,000 square meters not far from London’s financial district. The Crystal is an interactive museum with dramatic video and audio installations and a barrage of terrifying figures about population growth, climate change, and urbanization. It combines a chamber of horrors with inspirational technology.

In total, 30 experts are employed in this future workshop. They welcome customers in the field of public infrastructure from all over the world and introduce them to solutions that have already been implemented elsewhere. The Crystal is also open to members of the public and gives them the opportunity to play games in order to find out how difficult it is to prevent a large city from collapsing. The Siemens Group estimates the potential business from the world’s cities to be around 300 billion euros.

The magic word here is “smart cities” and many companies are now basing their business models on the concept. Automotive manufacturers may understand this as a carsharing system, energy firms as a network of charging stations for electric cars, startups as an app for finding parking spaces, transport companies as a digital signpost to the nearest cycle hire center, and Siemens as a toll system for inner cities or CCTV cameras to create safer public spaces.

But what makes a city a really livable place for people? Is it just about new hardware and software, more intelligent mobility systems, better organized public services, and less polluted air?

<p>Not all the experiments with futuristic cities have been successful, as the examples of Brasília (left) and Masdar show.</p>

Not all the experiments with futuristic cities have been successful, as the examples of Brasília (left) and Masdar show.

For decades urban planners have tried to design the future on their drawing boards. Their attempts have included experimental cities like Brasília, the capital of Brazil, in the 1960s. Its architect Oscar Niemeyer himself said of it in 2001: “This experiment was not a success.” Other examples are garden cities (in England in the early 20th century and in Hellerau near Dresden), car-free cities (such as Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates, an experiment in the desert where progress has currently come to a standstill), and telematics solutions (which Paris believed in the 1990s would be the ultimate solution to its congestion problems): all of these projects have been highly disillusioning.

What makes a city really livable? It could be the feeling of being at home. This surprising finding was presented by the Association of German Cities at its general meeting in the spring, without any hint of a backward-looking approach.

The migrant crisis and the resulting deterioration in the housing situation had obviously put so much pressure on municipalities that the president of the association Eva Lohse, 61, felt the need to get back to basics. “Cities are designed not only to offer a home to people whose parents and grandparents lived there, but also to be open to people who come to the city to seek new opportunities and earn a good living,” said Eva Lohse, who is also mayor of Ludwigshafen. “This openness is something that characterizes our cities. It is one of the basic principles behind the success of cities as places to live.”

“People in the lower income brackets must not be forced out of cities because the housing there has become unaffordable,” says Lohse. Their buildings, landscapes, and festivals promise strong links with the region and a good quality of life. They come near the top of lists of the most livable cities. But it is clear that for a long time they have only been a home for people who already live there. Or those who can afford to stay.

"We cannot allow low-income layers being displaced from the city, because the apartments are prohibitively expensive," says President of the German Städtetag Lohse. But in fact that has long since been the case. The cap on rents is not working. It is having the opposite to the desired effect. There is a shortage of housing in the few cities where everyone wants to live and the pressure on them is too great. Even in Germany’s Ruhr region the problem is both an internal and an external one, as Rolf Buch, 52, CEO of the housebuilder Vonovia in Bochum explains.

“The mayor of a city is elected by the people who live in the city and not by those who want to live there.” Buch believes that this lies at the heart of the problem. The people who are already there do not want to be disturbed. By contrast Buch is a supporter of inner city densification. His company, which was once known as the “German Annington” and had a reputation as an unscrupulous real estate agent and rogue landlord, has since become a model property owner and developer. At least this is how Buch, who has been CEO of the company since it was floated on the stock exchange and renamed in 2013, presents the situation. Around 2,000 highly standardized and therefore cheap apartments are built by the company every year on land that it already owns in cities. But this will not solve the German housing problem. It is said that 150,000 too few homes are built in the country every year. Despite this, Buch has a clear idea of how to resolve the issue.

“Politicians are pumping money into the system in the form of housing benefits and building subsidies. But money isn’t the problem,” he says. He maintains that the planning offices do not have enough capacity. There are too few architects and civil engineers and too many regulations that delay construction projects.

Buch also explains why this has happened. Around the turn of the millennium everyone thought: “No more construction is needed in Germany.” The population was shrinking and anyone who could afford to was moving to the countryside. But then society, the ways in which people lived, and the role models all changed. The number of households rose and people wanted larger homes. Young people began moving from the country into the cities. Working couples with children liked the fact that they could live close to their workplaces and their children’s schools. Buch also mentions the second homes belonging to large Arab families that only come to the cities in the summer. And now there is the migrant crisis.

Should we be building new communities on the outskirts of our cities? According to Buch we will not be able to avoid doing this. But we must not repeat the mistakes of the 1970s. “In urban development terms it is a much bigger problem than densification.” So will people have to move to the country and commute into town? “I don’t think anyone wants to commute,” says Buch. It causes unhappiness and is a social problem waiting to happen. Even in the city. “If we don’t achieve a mixed society with a wide range of social groups living together, then our cities will die.”

Dresden has done everything right. The city, which has 500,000 residents, is growing and is debt-free. It also has enough housing in every price range, good schools, world-class museums, monuments, and cultural facilities, and beautiful surroundings. High-tech companies of all sizes are moving there. It has a famous technical university, eleven Fraunhofer institutes, five Leibniz institutes, and three Max Planck institutes. And yet there seems to be something rotten in the city.

The xenophobic demonstrations by Pegida that take place every Monday in the beautiful squares of Dresden’s old town have destroyed the peaceful atmosphere. Fewer tourists, at least from inside Germany, are visiting the city and the researchers, artists, and engineers from other countries are concerned. Although the city is in principle open-minded, no one really believes this anymore. Everywhere people in the cultural sector, from the Hygiene Museum to the Palucca University of Dance, are promoting the openness of Dresden, despite the fact that they are also documenting its absence.

Robert Franke, head of business development in Dresden, is putting up a brave fight. He is generating quite different headlines, explaining that Bosch is planning a new chip plant in the city that will cost one billion euros or that VW has opened an incubator for startups in the Transparent Factory. The former East German city that “has been the most successful in making the transformation” must not fall behind in the face of international competition for business. Franke wants to make it more obvious that the city not only has tasteful cultural activities and historical buildings to offer, but is also looking to the future. The city council responds to the Pegida phenomenon, which is seeing participant numbers falling, with unconditional dialogue. How do you want to live? How do you want to be involved? These questions are continuously being put to the citizens of Dresden.

Elisabeth Merk, 54, trained as an architect. She is head of the planning department in Munich and looks at the subject of feeling at home from the perspective of buildings and of architecture that creates a sense of identity. To ensure that people feel at home, they must have the opportunity to “connect their internal images with reality,” regardless of where they originally come from. Memory and the built environment must come together. The urban perspective on the future must encompass people’s individual futures in the form of a promise.

<p>Cities with a future: car manufacturing in Dresden (left) and the Crystal, the Siemens future workshop in London.</p>

Cities with a future: car manufacturing in Dresden (left) and the Crystal, the Siemens future workshop in London.

Elisabeth Merk says that the segregation of the population is less of a problem in her city than it is elsewhere. Even in new luxury construction projects, she includes social and cooperative housing wherever possible. Munich, which has for many years been governed by Germany’s social democratic party, attempted at an early stage to persuade property developers to pay part of the cost of infrastructure, green spaces, and open areas.

The city, which because of its high rents and headline-grabbing luxury renovation projects is gradually becoming a place where normal people can no longer afford to live, has an urban development strategy with the title “A city in balance.” Of course, the strategy includes subjects like sustainability and preventing climate change, but that is not all. When Elisabeth Merk was planning the completely new district of Freiham on the outskirts of Munich, she laid out an area the size of the city’s Marienplatz on the greenfield site to ensure that the public spaces had a human dimension.

However, she takes a skeptical approach to all the wonderful promises made by the mobility industry, including vehicle sharing and automated transport.She explains that it would, of course, be impressive if the same number of people could be transported by one-tenth of the cars and if the amount of land required fell dramatically. But it is not clear how much space is needed. “Should we rebuild the city for cars again and who will pay for this? Who will have access to these services and what will the cost be? Does sharing mean genuine participation or just extreme personalization?”

Merk says that in London, the city that is home to the Siemens Crystal, the residents’ domestic staff live in distant suburbs and the tradespeople sleep in their vans in order to avoid paying the congestion charge.

She does not want to see this happening in Munich.

Photo credit: C R Laing/GettyImages, FRANCK FIFE/GettyImages, KARIM SAHIB/GettyImages, Matthias Makarinus/GettyImages, Bloomberg/GettImages, philipus/Alamy Stock Photo,

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