For sale: public property

Interviews about the 'Universal declaration of Urban Rights' (Berlin)

Old structures are in most cases subject to speculation and closed to public.

In Berlin visions about the city and who ‘owns’ it, are more outspoken than in many other European cities. It may be its very specific history that made Berliners critical about their (local) government.
In this article we report about the thoughts of a selection of involved citizens of Berlin. In interviews they answer questions on the subject of public space and property. What of the current situation in Berlin is worth being kept, what still needs to be realized and what is not worth to keep?
‘Why do people with big pockets of money and their confederates have more rights than the community?’ asks one of the interviewed. In ‘Klartext’: Berlin doesn’t want to be ‘for sale’.

Berlin debates urban rights in a ‘Universal declaration’
March 2016 the ‘Akademie der Künste’ in Berlin organized a series of debates on city development in particular in relation to public space and property. Questions asked: do we have a right to our city, what do we really know about our city and can we run the city as a community?
The interviewed gave their most clear observations and opinions to these important questions. In these era of privatization of almost anything, from healthcare, public housing, public transport, energy, public safety, also the cities itself are on offer and for sale. Public spaces, local government owned buildings are sold to the highest bidder. In countries like the UK and the US public spaces are sold and put under private scrutiny. Squares surrounded by large brand stores are under surveillance of private guards at the doors. The ‘Universal declaration of Urban Rights’ is an open project to collect ideas to protect community rights in cities on sale.

Ideas worth to be spread
In this open project 20 involved Berliners were interviewed and asked for their ideas about urban rights: what is to be kept, what still needs to be achieved and what can we abolished?
The ‘quotes’ in this article don’t represent the full and accurate spoken text, but its meaning. For the check of what exactly was said, the quotes are accompanied by initials (after the quote) of the interviewed person. The full names are at the bottom of this article.
All interviews can be found on the website urbanrights.org.

The former airport Tempelhof (Berlin) now in use as public park.

What is to be kept?
Society has changed, especially in the field of designing the city. ‘Platforms in the civil society are so much more interdisciplinary organized than the public and political bodies, that one can state that these bodies run far behind of society.’ (AK). This is surely one of the issues groups of active citizens have to deal with in their contacts with the authorities. It makes it hard to come to concrete arrangements concerning the use of public spaces. ‘The city’ is no single actor, but dozens of actors and decision makers.
‘Public places should be kept open to public and not privatized. The development of ‘gated communities’ claiming (by buying) their own ‘public space’ is to be pushed back.’ (ES). In the UK and the US such developments reached a new form: public space, open to public, but under surveillance by private guards and under private rules.
‘We must keep the small open places like the ones along the river Spree, where I can drink my coffee, express my own creativity. These places have become scarce in Berlin, in order to build universal shiny buildings like that one across the Spree. Those building are sold to us a ‘urban modernity’ but they all look the same all over the world.’ (KS).
‘What we must keep is the right to claim and protect public ownership, that should be off limits to the interests of profit making by the few and their political confederates.’ Most of those involved in city making will underline this statement. Profit making is strongly present in housing sector: ‘Affordable housing is to be kept. The city is a place to live, not a place to speculate.’ SF.

What is still to be achieved?
Democracy is not a fixed system for all times to come and is subject to changes in vision and developments in society. In city making democracy is most direct, while it is about local subjects. In Berlin the building of new apartments on the former airport of Tempelhof was blocked by referendum in 2014. Still politicians try to go around its clear outcome: ‘zero building activity on Tempelhof’.
‘We must assure that politicians are not able to work around the decision made by referendum by the citizens of Berlin too easy’. (MH). Worldwide Tempelhof is considered to be the most spectaculair transition from an important infrastructural object to a public park. What bothers many is the speculation in the cities.
‘When speculation is a fact, then we all should benefit from the profits, not just a few.’ (MB). Speculation is one of the reasons many ‘free spaces’ disappear behind fences. ‘We must keep a number of those free urban spaces for people and especially kids, to express themselves by making things, unguarded. Yes it takes more freedom in a society so bounded to rules of insurances and prevention of anything to go wrong.’ (PR).
‘We must fight for the right for community owned pieces of free area, in my case for the purpose of community green of public gardening.’ (SK).

A small Kiez café in Friedrichshain, still untouched from project development.

What can we drop?
‘What we must abolish is the selling out of public space to the highest bidder. Even governments are part of this game and spend lots of money to obtain a stretch of land in the city. In addition this proces of selling and buying involving government bodies should be open and transparent. The current situation of deals made behind closed doors should come to an end.’ (AK).
Some people would like to diminish some rules in the public domain: ‘As long as people behave responsible, ease the power of rule.’ (JP) This plea is often heard and is based upon the believe that humans in general behave responsible if responsibility is transferred to them. Too optimistic? Maybe. But too many rules in the public domain make people passive and prevents them to feel responsible for what is going on outside their home. It stimulates a culture of complaining and avoidance of the community.
More and more people are disturbed by the immens CCTV-camera surveillance in the public domain. With the constant argument of ‘safety and controlling terror’ on can not feel free anymore in the public space. Make a pee on your way home, and 9 out of 10 you run the risk of being filmed. ‘Stop with this city wide spying on people and make public space more free again.’ (ES).

Quoted from video’s:
Andreas Krüger (AK), Enrico Schönberg (ES), Kai Schachtele (KS), Margarete Heitmüller (MH), Siri Frech (SF), Paul Reimert (PR), Severin Kontor (SK), Joanne Pozenc (JP).

All interviews can be found on the website urbanrights.org.