The COVID-19 pandemic-related crisis surge, along with rising rents in the real estate market, has led to a rapid increase in the number of homeless people facing extreme weather conditions such as heat waves. High time to reflect on the land and housing issue, as Ela Kagel argues in her contribution to the Berliner Gazette text series After Extractivism, focusing on the case of Berlin.
When we recount the more recent history of Berlin, at its core it is always about the progressive devouring of open spaces. Where “creative Berlin” once arose, in the wastelands, the ruins, in the no man’s land between East and West, inner-city investment projects such as Wasserstadt Mitte or Mediaspree now compete for the attention of the better-off.
In 2006, the artist collective KUNSTrePUBLIK began using a five-hectare abandoned wasteland between Mitte and Kreuzberg as the “Skulpturenpark Berlin_Zentrum” for legendary art projects and public actions. The project lasted four years until sales to investors and extensive construction measures made further use impossible.
About ten years later, in 2021, the curatorial team returned to the former sculpture park, which is now completely built on, with the project “RE:TURN.” The last undeveloped parcel of the site remains in the memory, grotesquely small, a tubular plot in a ravine of adjacent new buildings. The grass stood tall on the lot, a few trees provided shade, and there was an impromptu bar. There, guests grew nostalgic for the fact that here too, on the smallest of plots, the excavators would soon be moving in. The next million-dollar investor’s dream had already taken over the site.
In his famous collection of essays, “A Sand County Almanac” (1949), ecologist Aldo Leopold describes an ethic of soil, which he summarizes as follows: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Leopold calls for seeing the land we live on as a community project, something to be protected and preserved. Thought of in this way, the project is intended to become the starting point for a caring relationship between people and the land.
However, the way we think about land ownership is usually exclusively economic. The owners of the individual parcels of the former sculpture park have acted according to this logic. None of them decided to consciously preserve their land as a natural open space in the city; instead, they all sold to the highest-bidding real estate investors. Wouldn’t they be declared crazy otherwise? Who would grow tomatoes on a plot of land in Berlin-Mitte?
From the political side, definitely not enough is being done to prevent the rapidly progressing speculation with the land of our city. One does notice a certain upswing in private-public partnerships, model projects and a rhetoric of good will. Ultimately, however, state policy has hardly any means at its disposal to stop the “rent madness.” Thus, truly radical approaches that could lead to long-term redistribution of land or unsealing of soil cannot be implemented politically. The pressure of the real estate lobby, the power of money and the intertwining of interests are too great.
The city as community property
There are a few initiatives in Berlin that have succeeded in an impressive way to challenge the power of money and to make new patterns of thinking and acting strong. One of them is “Deutsche Wohnen & Co. Enteignen,” a citizens’ initiative in Berlin that successfully initiated a referendum on the expropriation and socialization of private housing companies. This means that the majority of Berlin’s citizens voted in favor of expropriating private profit-oriented real estate companies that own more than 3,000 apartments in Berlin and transferring them to community ownership.
That such a thing was even possible in the election summer of 2021 was due in no small part to the fact that, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the housing crisis had reached a new peak: rents in Berlin have more than doubled in the past ten years, while wages have risen only marginally in the same period. The rent cap was abolished by the influential real estate companies before the election and eventually overturned by the Constitutional Court. This created the basis for a social dialogue in which socialization and expropriation were publicly discussed.
In addition, other exciting projects have emerged in Berlin that aim to permanently secure the city’s land for the community: The Stadtbodenstiftung, for example, sees itself as a “join-in offer to the urban society: initiate projects, strengthen neighborhoods, set perceptible signs of solidarity-based urban development through a broad mobilization of resources.” Following the example of the community “Land Trusts,” the “Stadtbodenstiftung” wants to buy land in Berlin, or accept it as a donation or inheritance, in order to permanently withdraw the land from real estate speculation and ensure management that is oriented toward the common good.
Here, too, the focus is on the idea of a community whose rules and social protocols are not at all easy to learn or define. Although urban land actually belongs to all citizens, most of them do not necessarily live in this awareness. On the contrary, the daily struggle for survival in a city in which the spiral of gentrification continues to turn not only makes people tired, but usually also lonely. Often enough, there is simply a lack of time and money for social participation. You have to be able to afford activism somehow, at least in terms of time. Thus, for many, the dream of community ownership remains at least as much of a utopia as the purchase of a private property.
Therein lies an important message for all community projects, whether they are alternative housing, community gardens, or open spaces for children and youth: Unless those who are socially marginalized are included in the thinking and funding, these projects will not be able to have a sustainable impact. The key is to develop principles of solidarity that are built into the DNA of these projects. Something like what Stadtbodenstiftung postulates for itself: “Via the soil to the solidary city.”
Hunger for soil
“Property obliges. Its use shall at the same time serve the common good.” That’s what the Basic Law says. At the same time, however, the basic right also protects the foundations of independent living and the free market economy. If we look at the insatiable hunger for land in a city like Berlin, we see the conflict of interests in this legal regulation. In addition, there are other interesting details, such as the fact that one can easily own 3,000 apartments in Germany while remaining completely anonymous.
Christian Trautvetter heads the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s “Who owns the city?” project. In the publication “Wem die Stadt gehört geht uns alle was an” (“To whom the city belongs is everyone’s business”), he describes how an end could be put to anonymous real estate ownership. It is fascinating to read how easy it would be to demand the social responsibility of real estate ownership that is anchored in the German constitution, if only all the authorities involved wanted to. By way of comparison, in our neighboring European countries, land registers are open to public inspection.
If we take a closer look at the “right to housing” enshrined in Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (UN Social Covenant), it becomes clear that the ideas of adequate housing go far beyond what is reality for many people today. For example, there is talk of “non-discriminatory access to housing” and “cultural adequacy.” Reading this article, it quickly becomes clear that today we are falling tremendously short of the standards we once set for ourselves.
Housing crisis and climate catastrophe
The discussion about standards takes on a new dimension in light of the climate crisis: Who will want to invest in a city that boils with heat in the summer? Where large areas of sealed concrete and dense development prevent any cooling?
The apocalyptic scenarios are already a tangible reality today as Tomasz Konicz observes in his contribution to the “After Extractivism” text series. It is hardly likely that anything will improve here by itself. Already today, not even half of all urban trees in Berlin are “healthy,” as the Street Tree Condition Report of 2020 forcefully points out. And the development is dramatic: while in 2015 a total of around 52% of the trees examined were classified as not damaged, the figure for 2020 is only around 44%.
While, on the one hand, urban ecosystems have reached the stress limit, new construction sites are being opened and new areas sealed every day. And this despite the fact that, at the latest after the UN Climate Report of April this year, it should be clear to everyone that it is “now or never” that we have to take countermeasures.
Soil is not only the basis of life and habitat for humans, animals and plants. The soil on which we live is the foundation on which we build our communities: our homes, our infrastructures, our social relationships. For 23 years, the Soil Protection Act of the Federal Republic of Germany has been in force, which is supposed to sustainably secure and restore the functions of the soil. Still no noticeable effect seems to come from this law, although this would be so urgently necessary.
The concept “Peak Soil,” developed by eco-activists, describes on the basis of scientific facts the fact that mankind has meanwhile passed the peak of the exploitation of the world’s soil. It is difficult to end this article with such a statement. What else can one write about this? To whom should one actually address admonitions or make demands, except to oneself?
Let’s go back to the beginning of this text, where we talk about the former owners of the plots in the sculpture park. At that time, just ten years ago, the sale of the land seemed to be the only compelling logic for everyone. I wonder: what would it be like today? Assuming the improbable case that there were still private people today who had larger areas of undeveloped land in the center of Berlin, and who just now, in the historically hot month of July 2022, noticed how essential such a fresh air corridor is in the city today.
Would they still sell it to the highest bidders today or deliberately hold back the land as a refuge, knowing that the value of the future city might no longer be measured on the basis of its concrete gold but its natural areas?
This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available on Berliner Gazette. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here: https://after-extractivism.berlinergazette.de
Ela Kagel is a freelance producer and curator in Berlin. Since 1996 she has been working at the interface between art, technology and business. In 2010 she founded the free culture department store SUPERMARKT-Berlin together with two colleagues. She is concerned with new forms of presentation and mediation of media art and explores the potential of cooperatives. She regularly publishes articles on this topic and lectures internationally.