Taking a page from Robert Moses’s playbook: Is Berlin de-greening?

Berlin is bucking global greening trends by building a new highway through its urban core and loosening environmental protections. Officials say there are no other options.


Berlin is the last city you’d expect to repeat history’s mistakes. Yet many observers feel the city has recently been doing just that by weakening its environmental protection laws, violating EU environmental regulations, and reopening one of the darkest chapters in 20th-century urban planning history: building a new freeway through the urban core along the lines of those commonly – but far from exclusively – associated with Robert Moses’ notorious 30-year reign as New York City’s omnipotent post-WWII chief planner. There and in countless other places, freeways in the middle of cities were promised to be essential components of “urban renewal”, a term that is now generally agreed upon to refer to the precise opposite of its intended meaning.

Both the freeway and rollback of environmental protections reverse the direction taken by livable cities over the last few decades. Planners, historians and city-dwellers are in agreement that virtually every freeway ever built in an urban core has been an unqualified disaster for the overall integrity of urban life, which is why no truly livable city has built one in the last 30, perhaps 50, years. Similarly, it seemed the matter was settled on the many values of urban green space.There’s no need to go into the how and why here, as mountains of research and inquiry have covered the topic.

The freeway, the A100, is to be 4.5 miles long with a projected cost of $1.5 billion – but this is in a city whose new airport, currently six years past the scheduled opening date, will cost seven times the original projected cost and caused the mayor who championed it to resign in disgrace.

As for the environmental regulations, the changes are no mere adjustments but rather policy shifts that will reduce green space, habitats, flora and fauna, and the very livability that has made Berlin wildly popular for the quarter-century since Germany’s reunification. In terms of the EU regulations, the city (and country as a whole) seems to be exploiting the EU’s slow enforcement to accelerate real estate development before it gets caught. The city’s view is that the loss of green spaces and ecosystem functions is unavoidable, but will have a net positive impact on livability and affordability.

The administration claims the deregulation is necessary due to Berlin’s exploding population and limited housing stock. Others point to the citywide abundance of vacation-rental apartments, absentee owners, speculation, and underused buildings and spaces, along with the administration’s legendary and notorious inefficiency, as proof that the deregulation is to a great extent a handout to the speculative real estate industry, using a boy-who-cried-wolf “housing shortage” as a flimsy and easily debunked smokescreen. In a time when populist, right-wing extremist politics are booming and distrust in politicians is high, it’s not unreasonable to argue that dismissing the latter viewpoint as the childish rambling of 60s-holdover eco-zealots selfishly putting their NIMBY* green ideals before the urgent needs of Syrian refugee families, as I recently saw Berlin Secretary of City Planning and Environment Andreas Geisel do at a public forum on the issue, could easily serve as gasoline for populist, anti-elite fires.

A brief review of some of the most noteworthy changes:

Promotion of real estate development in forests and woodlands: Until now, these were under special protection and real estate development required zoning changes and compensation paid by the developers to offset the loss of natural habitats, ecosystems, and protected plant and animal species. This kind of compensation is a critical environmental conservation tool worldwide. These requirements have been dropped and now developers only need a building permit in the approval for which foresters will be involved.

Promotion of real estate development in re-natured cemeteries: Restrictions on selling off portions of cemeteries that are rare and critical flora and fauna habitats have been significantly weakened. Cemeteries in Germany sometimes have high ecological importance due to unmanicured and to a lesser or greater extent hands-off landscaping. It’s not unheard-of for cemeteries to have a fairly closed tree canopy and resemble a woodland more than a golf course. Furthermore, Berlin has considerable excess cemetery space – hence the potential selling-off – so some of these areas receive so little maintenance that they are reverting to a wild state.

Previously, construction in cemeteries required proof of “urgent public interest” and an “exceptionally detailed environmental assessment”. Under the new law, no environmental assessment is required, detailed or otherwise, and the bar for public interest has been lowered from “urgent” to “predominant”.

The areas pictured here in the Friedhof Georgen-Parochial II in Friedrichshain, which have evolved into relatively wild woodland by urban standards, are currently in the permitting process for being sold off and cleared of vegetation and historic monuments for real estate development. The Department of City Planning, like all the city administration down to schools and police, is so underfunded and understaffed that it simply lacks the expertise and time to acknowledge, much less protect, its extraordinary ecological components such as dead trees, multi-layer vegetation structure and relatively natural successional processes, which are all exceedingly rare in cities.

Promotion of real estate development in largest park: Berlin’s administration and business community pushed heavily to build offices, housing, a shopping mall and central library in its largest park, Tempelhofer Feld, but lost on this one when a voter referendum to block it won by a landslide (covered here). In retaliation – openly acknowledged – the city overhauled its voter referendum law to allow the administration to campaign against citizens’ referenda, which was until now prohibited. Again I am unable to see how this is anything but a direct provocation of populist rage.

Weakening of tree protections: Until now, a permit to cut down trees for a building project was granted during or after the permitting process for the building itself. Now, the developer can obtain the tree-felling permit even when the building permit is only “expected”. But only 40% of building permits granted in 2015 were ever pursued – not even necessarily built, but just progressed beyond the permit stage. Under the new, weakened law, the buildings that ultimately never get beyond the planning stage can nevertheless still be awarded tree-felling permits.

Prosecutable inaction on air pollution: The EU has said it will sue Berlin if it continues its long-running failure to comply with EU air quality regulations, largely due to the abundance of diesel cars. The irony of the city choosing to spend, in the midst of the threat, $1.5 billion to promote more car use by building an inner-city freeway appears to be irrelevant to the administration. Whether the threat of fines will compel action is unclear. My guess is that it will not.

Prosecutable inaction on habitat protection: The EU has also said it will sue Germany if it continues to make no progress on establishing habitat protections that Germany said would be complete by 2010. This is a nationwide situation, rather than Berlin-specific. For 2,800 of these sites of high ecological value, no steps have been taken towards protection. The result is that cities can promote building on these sites since they’re not protected, and by the time the EU gets around to enforcing its rules it will be too late because the luxury apartments will have already taken the place of the green spaces, ecosystems and rare species that the EU intended would prevent those very structures from being built. Due to the deregulation and crippling lack of funds mentioned above, there might well be no environmental assessments documenting those features. The country is asking that the deadline be extended by an additional six years, meaning the total extension would be 12 years past the original deadline. Here too, one can only hope the threat of legal action will be compelling.



*Not In My Backyard, selfish desire to have unpleasant changes occur anywhere but one’s own neighborhood

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