The book "Wir bauen Deutschland" takes a look behind the scenes: who are the decision makers, developers and promoters of German cities. Photo © Julian Zatloukal, Stylepark?
Making German cities a better place
by Martina Metzner
Oct 18, 2013

Subway stations or bridges, playgrounds or intersections, new build estates or recreational zones – the majority of us simply take for granted the urban environment that is being created on our doorsteps. It’s only when clouds gather on the architectural horizon that citizens spring into action, march their city’s streets in protest against outrageous rents or, as witnessed in the case of “Stuttgart 21”, go as far as to set up protest camps to stop a controversial building project. Such planning aberrations may leave many feeling utterly misrepresented and they have of late often vented their rage and anger on the planners. The media tends to be responsible for igniting such a public outcry that urban planners and local authorities are letting us down. Indeed, the fact that local councils, building departments and other municipal authority divisions employ highly committed professionals, who are passionate about creating a better future in their cities and ardently seek to reach the best possible consensus under the given circumstances, is not something that gets readily noticed – nor does it get pushed into the limelight.

“Wir bauen Deutschland” attempts deliberately to cast a glance behind the scenes: Daniel Arnold, publisher and CEO of Deutsche Reihenhaus AG, has made this book in a move to place the spotlight on the decision-makers, developers and sponsors of our cities who, quietly and unnoticed by the public, spend their days contemplating development plans at their desks, award building contracts and occasionally succeed in bridging the – often enormous – gap between political agendas and citizens’ wishes.

Diverse and pluralistic – a portrait of Germany

The result is a 270-page compendium of interviews with 40 urban planning experts. Equipped with a standardized list of questions, Jeremy Gaines and Stefan Jäger traveled the length and breadth of the country in a move to portray a diverse cornucopia of professionals. Their interviewees included mayors of small communities, urban councilors and senators of major cities, building authority officials in the east and west, south and north. Pluralistic and diverse in tone, this compilation succeeds in painting a detailed and informative picture of Germany.

Without fail, the portraits reveal their protagonists to be truly passionate about their job. The majority of them graduated in Architecture, Civil Engineering or Economics and then went straight on to a career in public administration or politics; few of them took the longer route via the “private sector” before settling in their current profession. Probably, what makes their work so special is that they devote their time to developing projects that will only be realized a few years down the road, when they themselves may no longer be in office. By contrast, they get to implement projects that their predecessors approved years before them.

It is the most pressing problems in our society that come at the top of the stacks of files in the urban experts’ offices. They cover a wide variety of issues, such as tapping unbuilt space for additional downtown dwellings in response to the growing influx to the cities, subsidized housing to combat the rise in people living in precarious economic circumstances, upgrading existing buildings in an effort to reduce energy consumption, barrier-free living environments to meet the needs of the aging society and, last but not least, the restructuring of transport networks. The list is endless...

Highly individual practices

Ultimately, what this book presents is the tremendous diversity in approaches and individual problem-solving strategies that urban planners employ for their local districts. That said, there are plenty of parallels as well.

Take municipal properties, for example. In Hanau, Lord Mayor Claus Kaminsky and Martin Bieberle, Head of Urban Planning and Public Services, have been able to tap new financial resources through the sale of the city’s market square. The idea is to revitalize the area with a new shopping center. Just a few kilometers down the road, in Kelsterbach near Frankfurt Airport, Mayor Manfred Ockel is taking a very different tack. He simply bought the federal highway that cuts right through the town and transformed it into a 30-kph speed zone. The result: Drivers who get caught in a tailback on the nearby interstate are no longer using it as a shortcut. Be it privatization or new public ownership, the intriguing thing about these approaches is that they reveal highly individual practices. Bielefeld is another good example: Contrary to ordinary urban planning practice, which means decreeing things from the “top”, in other words, using a “top-down” approach, Head of the Bielefeld Planning Department Gregor Moss and his colleagues opted for a “bottom-up” model and asked the people of Bielefeld: “How would you like to design your market square?” The result is a multifunctional square that hosts a weekly farmers’ market and boasts the biggest inline-skating facility in Germany. “A spot of luxury in the heart of city,” says Moss, “both for the people of Bielefeld and for visitors alike.”

Public authorities and sexiness don’t really match

It’s examples like these that make for a compelling read because they each reveal a highly individual and specific approach to the issue of “Who are the planners in charge of our cities?” Just like in a mosaic thousands of tiny fragments combine to produce a snapshot of urban development in Germany, beyond the public arena and the brash spotlight of the media, which tends to focus mostly on the big names. Contrary to stereotypical beliefs about civil servants, the book illustrates that urban planners are indeed highly committed and resourceful when making decisions and spending money on behalf of their communities.

The only thing missing here is the “periphery”, i.e., the city, which is the very focus of this book. Another useful addition would have been an introduction to the current status quo along with some background information. As it is, you need to be very up to date on the urban planning policy debate or willing to do some extra research to comprehend fully the implications of individual decisions. Moreover, the one or other view of a city or picture of a square discussed in the interviews would not have gone amiss and been a perfect complement to the photographs by Albrecht Fuchs. Taken in isolation, they are indeed marvelous, however, their composition is somewhat lacking in inspiration. Which once again serves the stereotype that sexy is not an adjective that can be applied to public authorities. We therefore recommend “Wir bauen Deutschland” not so much as an easy-read for lay architects but as an interesting and informative publication for urban planning experts.

Wir bauen Deutschland
Publisher: Daniel Arnold
Authors: Peter Conradi, Werner Durth, Jeremy Gaines and Peter Götz
Hardcover with dust jacket, 272 pages, approx. 140 illustrations
Jovis Verlag, Berlin 2013
42 euros

Manfred Ockel is mayor in Kelsterbach, photo © Albrecht Fuchs
Stefan Szuggat, chief officer of the agency of urban planning in Dresden, photo © Albrecht Fuchs
The local head of the building department Gregory Moss in Bielefeld includes the population in the urban planning. Photo © Albert Fuchs
Mayor of Hanau Claus Kaminsky, photo © Albrecht Fuchs
Mayor and head of the building department Olaf Cunitz, photo © Albrecht Fuchs
The book features 40 portraits in an insight into the work of the real decision makers in urban development. Photo © jovis Verlag
Author Dr Jeremy Gaines and Stefan Hunter led the interview published in the book. Photo © Marco Urban