Column Eike Becker, "Immobilienwirtschaft" 06/2018

Subsequent densification is the topic of the hour. Sounds like a mixture of packhorse, container ship and tenement barracks. And many authorities, armed with their current building laws, are fighting like rugby players to defend every additional metre. But in the world’s most attractive metropolises, people live together densely. Is construction in Germany possibly too low, too narrow, too loose and overall too airy? In my column in Immobilienwirtschaft 06/2018, I ask whether cities cannot also become better if their inhabitants move together more closely. However, urban densification must be politically intended and planned holistically. Then much denser cities could also become places with a high quality of life and community life.

The place is crammed with people. The atmosphere is something between that of a school trip and a street battle. The tenants of the Berlin Public Employees‘ Housing Association in the function hall in Theodor-Loos-Weg are crowding around the model of a 20-storey tower block. That is the building planned on the premises of what is now their car park. The sandwiches are quite tasty, but none of the affected comrades can really take to the award-winning new neighbourhood building. Many of them moved in here fifty years ago, when the Gropiusstadt quarter was completed, and together they have aged in peace. The houses are far apart, with much space for well-groomed lawns between them, and with a deserted playground, the early users of which have long since grown out of their children’s shorts. Those present at the event do not find it necessary that housing should be any denser right at their doorstep. And the promised café, the post office, the function room, the garden kitchen and the new park for young and old are still in the distant future. Those who live here are against any additional neighbours, cars, noise and building sites. They have comfortably settled here and want some peace. Just the way they have always had it.What is happening here in Gropiusstadt is going on in many places throughout the country.

Densification is the topic of the hour. It sounds like a mixture of drudge, shipping containers and tenement blocks, and it makes conflicting views clash: owners wish to increase the value of their properties, housing cooperatives wish to build additional homes for their members, project developers and investors wish to increase their profit, architects wish to improve the building quality, and municipalities wish to expand the offer of housing. For years Germans have constructed their buildings too low, too narrow, too loose and too airy altogether. That is mainly due to one of the most influential and most insane manifestos of the 20th century: the Athens Charter. In the last 80 years whole generations of urban planners have kept this bible of modern urban planning under their pillow, which has to this day shaped the appearance of most cities. The car driver’s satellite town in the green belt and peace, peace, peace are the topmost maxims, pushing aside all other needs such as that for urban vitality or sustainability. The Athens Charter is to be blamed for land consumption, isolation, the waste of precious living time in endless traffic jams and incredibly boring suburbs with unhappy dwellers. Although it was as early as in the 1970’s that the inhumane, schematic grid architecture received criticism from the advocates of a contextual building style, a key element of almost every zoning plan to date has been to impose the lowest possible upper ceiling of density. Together with the forced separation of living, working and recreation the Athens Charter has for all that time been feeding the zombies of today’s urban planning. What a shame! Today there are political, economic, ecological and social aspects that advocate a clearly more compact building style.

That is also why the Leipzig Charter adopted in 2007 by politicians calls for the city with an urban mix, including short distances, jobs on site and a mixed social structure. The overarching political goal is to allow as many people as possible to actually participate in the truly inclusive, informative city. However, concrete local implementation often fails due to populist pragmatism and clientele politics. The more intensive utilisation of developed plots of land with their existing infrastructure in combination with buildings of larger volume could make a significant contribution to cost reduction in housing construction. But the authorities are holding up the applicable building laws and bracing themselves against every single additional meter like rugby players in a scrum.

Compact cities have a smaller ecological footprint, consuming fewer resources, less energy and less land. In comparison with Hong Kong, one of the world’s cities with the highest density, the energy consumption of more loosely built-up Berlin is three times as high. In more sprawling cities such as Zurich it is six times higher, in the settlement mush of Melbourne it is twelve times, and in all-green Los Angeles it is 18 times higher. That cannot be compensated, not even by the most ambitious Energy Savings Act.

As early as in 1961 Jane Jacobs wrote her vehement pamphlet against modern urban planning and demanded higher population density as one important factor for creating better cities. The classical social theoreticians such as Durkheim or the works of the Chicago School of Sociology have also called for more density. Denser cities increase the possibility that people can in some way relate to each other will actually come together. Density promotes human interaction, and thereby economic innovation. Thus the probability of reaching a higher economic level, closer social ties or better subjective well-being is higher in the inner city than in the suburbs with their single-family homes. It is all about bringing people closer to each other in order to increase the number of contacts and to create real neighbourhoods. Well-frequented cafés, shops, museums and pavements are places where people meet. People attract people.

Higher, denser, closer, that is the aim. But how can it be done well? In Europe Paris has 21,500 inhabitants per sq km of the whole city area, which is a high population density. On the other hand there is Munich, the city with the highest density in Germany, housing 4,700 inhabitants per sq km, which is loosely populated by comparison. Paris as a whole is over four times as dense as Munich, five times as dense as Berlin and seven times as dense as Stuttgart. The most crowded quarters in our country, such as Berlin-Friedenau, Schwabing-West in Munich, Friedrichstadt in Dusseldorf or Hamburg-Eimsbüttel do not even have 20,000 inhabitants per sq km. Several arrondissements in Paris have between 30,000 and 40,000 inhabitants per sq km, which is about twice as high. So one does not even need to look at the far more densely populated Asian megacities to find out that most European quarters are far from reaching acceptable densities.

Now, what is the right dosage of excitement and peace for increasing the global feeling of happiness in an environment with an unnaturally fast lifestyle? It is not enough to simply copy the quarters erected in the late nineteenth century. Urban densification must follow a holistic concept and cannot mean just creating more floor space on the same footprint area. Densification can achieve a comprehensive improvement of the quality of life. That mainly relates to the quality of places to stay and open places, and it necessitates a firm resolve to rededicate areas: reducing street area for car traffic, expanding bicycle paths and walkways, opening up ground floors, creating roof gardens and adapting the parks to the changed playing and leisure activities. In dense cities the streets and squares have to offer more than space for hooting cars, bargain shoppers and latte macchiato drinkers. They have to become places for diverse forms of moving and meeting, for generosity and inspiration

Growth and densification will take place in the large cities. That can happen by coincidence and constitute an additional burden for the citizens. Or it can be designed and planned with intent to bring about a holistic improvement to our living conditions. Why are we not doing that?