After 26 years of hemming and hawing, the city of Berlin recently decided for good that the central focal point of the federal government district, where a “citizens’ forum” was supposed to be built, will remain a street with car traffic and an empty span of concrete and lawn on either side. The original plans from the time of Germany’s reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall called for this focal point to have public spaces and facilities where citizens and government would interact, the governed and the governors, a democracy lab. This is a “new low for city planning in Berlin”, said a former Berlin Planning Commissioner. The media has been unanimous in deploring the decision and calling it a betrayal of the people and abdication of civic duty; I was unable to find even one statement in support of abandoning the forum. I will argue that the decision has the hallmarks of being fuel for hard-right racist populism.
Instead of becoming a democracy lab, the forum site has been a barren and visitor-repelling five-and-a-half acres of concrete and grass for the last quarter-century. That doesn’t stop Berlin’s current interior commissioner from celebrating the space as “an icon in the national and international media that embodies Berlin’s place in the republic” and “cheerful, and well-received by its numerous visitors, especially in summer”.
“Visitors see it differently,” quipped the Tagesspiegel newspaper, sarcastically. “Hardly anyone wanders around, not even in summer.” In this “desolate wasteland […] there’s no food and drink or other amenities to make it worth a stop”. (I haven’t mentioned the further 33 acres of lawn in front of the Parliament and 520-acre park that are literally contiguous with the site in question and which are lovely and unlike the forum site do attract visitors but have no amenities. If you know the area very well and walk fast you’re 20 minutes away from the nearest place to sit down and have a coffee, which means 30 minutes-plus for visitors who don’t know their way around.)
This comes at a time when a desperate need for more responsive government was a chief reason for the establishment, just in 2014, of a new political party, the AfD, which is the first hard-right, neonazi-in-all-but-name party to win elected office since World War II. But when it started it wasn’t about white supremacy – it consisted largely of people frustrated with what they perceived as a lack of say in decisions made at the European Union headquarters in Brussels, which is the exact problem of political representation the citizens’ forum was meant to address. (In fact they do have such say in governance but are just too lazy to use it, but I digress…) Quickly, however, the AfD tranisitioned into extreme-right, Holocaust-denying, racist populist-nationalism.
Now we’ll never know if a citizens’ forum next to the parliament could have helped prevent this, thanks to, of all people, the Green, Left, and Social Democrat parties, who are the ones who have finally killed off the plan once and for all.
Paris’ equivalent point is the Place de la Concorde, with its iconic obelisk. Washington’s equivalent is the crossing of the axes formed by the White House, Capitol, and Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials.
The site is at the meeting point of the axes of the new government district and central train station, which all had to be built from scratch after West and East Germany reunited in 1990. It’s adjacent to the Reichstag from 1894, which is the only major federal building in the area that wasn’t destroyed in World War II. Apart from the citizens’ forum, this colossal undertaking, called the Band des Bundes (Ribbon of the Republic) was mostly finished around 2006 (some buildings are still under construction, and they just plain gave up on ever finishing the train station at all because they wanted it to be open in time for the 2006 World Cup). The citizens’ forum at the central point was intended to have spaces for public cultural, educational and political offerings, probably restaurants, maybe entertainment, or a visitors’ center for the parliament and federal buildings.
Currently, a street runs through the site. The street was never meant to be permanent; it was just a temporary bypass while a tunnel under the adjacent Tiergarten park was under construction. The plans were always for the street to be torn up as soon as the tunnel was finished and the space would be used for the citizens’ forum That was 13 years ago. Now the city of Berlin has decided to make the street permanent and officially cancel the plan for a forum.
Further, the city council made the decision essentially in secret. The former Building Commissioner who was in office during the planning and construction of the government district had this to say:
“If you decide a quarter-century later that a citizens forum where the governed and governors come into dialogue won’t work, you don’t just secretly walk away, you address it publicly. Just dumping asphalt on it is a low point of city planning culture […] If you truly want public participation, which the ruling Green, Left, and Social Democrat parties constantly emphasize – especially Building Commissioner Katrin Lompscher from the Left Party – then you should publish the plans so they’re accessible and understandable. [The Greens-Left-Social Democrats had only the minimum of legally-required public input, which in the real world is tantamount to not having any.] It’s telling that a city council led by the Greens, Left, and Social Democrats is making the street permanent while blithely talking about sustainability, instead of making such an important location in the capital an attractive public space.”
The decision is the latest questionable move in a city that is legendary within Germany and the world urban-planning community for its weak track record in city planning. On the other hand you can’t completely single out Berlin since prioritizing cars over people is a national ethos and it’s not clear whether Berlin is worse than the German average in this regard. But sacrificing a democracy forum for the people of Germany for a street with an insignificant traffic load that was never meant to be there in the first place is on a whole other level. It stands in stark opposition to the city’s view of itself as a cyclist’s paradise – which it obviously and aggressively is not, by any measure – and to the fundamental guiding principles of the parties that made the decision. The disregard for one of the populists’ most urgent concerns – public participation in governance – runs a high risk of hardening their views. It sends a message that the governors have little interest in interacting with the governed.