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Urban development—getting the mix right

24. November 2015

German urban development modelUrban development is back on the agenda in a big way in Germany. Faced with a shortage of affordable housing, a lack of accommodation for large numbers of refugees arriving this year (and set to arrive next year) and a rise in the number of individual households, it’s clear that there is a desperate need for new residential real estate. The way people work and shop is also changing, and the infrastructure required to support shifts in employment and consumer behaviour also needs to be developed. Read on to find out about some of the ideas, plans, and demands being made in response to urban development challenges in Germany’s major cities.

Urban development needs to change

Back at the end of July we blogged about Berlin’s restrictive zoning laws. The same “heavy handed” approach applies more-or-less across the whole of Germany. State and local authorities work on the basis of master plans they have developed to steer the evolution of their towns and cities. Certain areas are zoned for houses, others for industry; apartment buildings are permitted in specific districts, whereas others are designated as greenbelt land. All of this, although being quite restrictive, has tended to work fairly well in the past. The authorities, property developers and local citizens were all in the clear as far as what type of urban development would be permitted and where. Now there are growing calls, and even demands, for significant changes.

Berlin’s urban development zones

For the purpose of this blog, and as Capital Language Solutions is based here, the major focus will be on Berlin. However, what goes for Berlin also goes for Germany’s other big cities. If you take a look at Berlin’s Flächennutzungsplan, you’ll clearly see that about 75-80% of the densely built centre is approved for housing (the red and pink areas on the map), with the remainder zoned for mixed-use real estate (gemischte Bauflächen) such as offices, shops, etc. combined with housing (the brown areas) and open spaces such as parks (the green areas). Once you make it outside the commuter rail ring into Lichtenberg, Tempehof-Schöneberg or Reinickendorf, you’ll see that alongside the (less dense) housing, there are also large (grey) areas zoned for business and commercial real estate developments (Gewerbliche Bauflächen).

Adapt to thrive

The idea of living, working and enjoying your leisure time in the same inner-city neighbourhood is nothing new. Planners and developers have been delivering newly-built city quarters along these lines for years now. Nearly all of the large project developments in Berlin over the last twenty years have attempted to incorporate a blend of apartments, offices and leisure. Potsdamer Platz is a perfect example: cinemas, shops, restaurants, bars and cafés, along with a whole range of other places for people to spend their free-time (and money), share the same urban space as offices and apartment buildings. But in the more historic parts of central Berlin, the urban landscape is almost purely residential. Four- and five-story apartment buildings dominate. There’s almost always a restaurant, café, bar or convenience store on the ground floor and some buildings also have a small amount of office space for lawyers, doctors or tax advisors, but otherwise, it’s purely residential. And there needs to be a new approach to these residential districts, at least according to a number of experts, including Andreas Mattner of ZIA, the German Property Federation.

Higher density, higher buildings

Germany’s DIE WELT newspaper reported on industry experts‘ calls to make better use of available development land on November 18, 2015. The article’s headline, “Germany’s cities need to grow taller,” refers to a study carried out by Bulwiengesa on behalf of ZIA into residential, office, retail and urban development trends, and the extent to which user requirements are evolving. One of the report’s main conclusions is that German cities need to stop thinking about building outwards and start concentrating on filling the gaps they do have with taller buildings. Modern construction techniques make this more affordable than ever without sacrificing on building quality or lowering standards of living. More specifically, the reports authors call for Section 17 of the Federal Building Regulations (Baunutzungsverordnung), which regulates the footprint of a building on a plot of land (Grundflächenzahl) and a building’s total gross floor area (Geschossflächenzahl), should be revised and relaxed. As things stand, the law does not allow higher-density building. The experts behind the Bulwiengesa study are convinced that this needs to change if Germany’s cities are to be able to respond effectively to the challenges they face. They have called for a new zoning category to be introduced, mixed-use urban (Urbane Mischgebiet), and for the 22-metre building height restriction to be abolished.

Urban development is about more than just housing

The study’s authors also highlight the knock-on benefits of creating mixed-use districts:

  • more journeys by bike and on foot—as the distances between home, work and shops decrease, so does the need to drive or take public transport. This has concrete environmental and health benefits.
  • work-life balance—less time spent commuting or travelling to and from shops and supermarkets means more time for the finer things in life.
  • more lively neighbourhoods—mixed-use means more freedom for neighbourhoods to develop to meet the needs of their residents. People will not only live, but go out in their neighbourhood, shop in their neighbourhood and feel more a part of their neighbourhood.
  • more comfortable offices—Andreas Schulten of Bulwiengesa estimates that 370,000 new office jobs have been created in Germany’s biggest cities over the last decade. With more space closer to where people live, the benefits should be clear.

What do you think is needed to ensure that Germany’s cities can meet their populations‘ needs? Let us know in the comments section below.

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