Urban Development

Green Berlin Could Turn Gray as Developers Charge Ahead to Fill the Open Spaces

Berlin
Open green spaces like this one could soon be developed. Source DPA
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Berlin needs housing and infill development is a way to meet that demand.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • At least 137,000 new housing units will be needed by 2025.
    • In 1990, the average Berliner occupied 22 square meters (237 square feet); today, it is 38 square meters.
    • The city meanwhile has a population density of only 3,800 residents per square kilometer, compared to 21,300 in Paris.
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    Audio

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Jenny Schon stood on her balcony, gazing out at a park in her Wilmersdorf neighborhood, framed by birch and fir trees, a mixed green zone of small gardens behind it, and the sky above. That view will soon disappear. A new four-story building is being built in front of her balcony as part of the infill development.

At least 137,000 new housing units will needed by 2025 to accommodate an additional 250,000 residents, according to the Berlin city government. To answer the call, Becker & Kries, the real estate company that owns Schon’s building, is financing the construction of the four-story building on the lawn across from her balcony and another one on the parking lot behind her kitchen.

According to the local administration in Berlin’s Mitte district, almost 17,000 new housing units could be built on existing vacant lots in the area. Infill development is also underway in the Gropiusstadt complex in the Neukölln district. Another area slated for infill is the Komponistenviertel in the Weissensee neighborhood.

On the whole, infill development is considered a relatively low-impact form of urban development, and has many advocates. Senate Building Director Regula Lüscher, for one, sees benefits from greater density such as new neighbors, shops and daycare centers.

Another advantage is that no new land is required, at least not on paper. Lost green space within developed areas is not treated as undeveloped space in land use statistics. And legally, these properties are already classified as building land, eliminating the need for the lengthy process of rezoning and redevelopment. Investing in infill is practically risk-free.

Wartime bombing created additional space, and the city's division into east and west stifled economic development.

Although views of green space are not protected by law, they are common in Berlin. Since the 1920s, architects have designed buildings and neighborhoods to be as airy and light-filled as possible. This generous approach to development resulted in buildings being surrounded by plenty of green space. The allotments and low-income housing developments were meant to liberate people from the narrow confines of blue-collar neighborhoods.

Wartime bombing created additional space, and the city’s division into east and west stifled economic development. For a long time, vacant lots and gaps between buildings remained untouched. The city’s population shrank from more than 4 million before World War II to 3.4 million in the early 1990s. At the same time, the amount of space taken up by housing developments grew by close to 110 square kilometers (42 square miles) between 1950 and 2005, especially as a result of the large-scale housing complexes in Marzahn, Hellersdorf, the Märkisches Viertel and Gropiusstadt.

Berlin’s historic neighborhoods were rediscovered in the 1980s. Instead of being torn down, the 19th century structures were increasingly renovated. Back courtyards were turned into green space. Artists moved in, followed by tourists and later property buyers. The lively, densely packed neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg, a slum in the days of the Kaisers, is trendy and pricey today. Empty lots are gone and attics have been renovated.

Berlin has historically been a green city. Source: DPA
Berlin has historically been a green city. Source: DPA

 

Housing standards are rising, too. About the same number of people live in Berlin today as 20 years ago, but now they occupy more space. In 1990, the average Berliner occupied 22 square meters (237 square feet). Today, it is 38 square meters, and the city meanwhile has a population density of only 3,800 residents per square kilometer, compared to 21,300 in Paris.

The Berlin government has commissioned a study to determine how many abandoned industrial areas, military barracks, railroad facilities and former East German government buildings can be repurposed to build residential housing for the long term. As of 2011, some 1,600 hectares (3,950 acres) of this type of property had been identified, which could satisfy the demand for new housing until at least 2025. And that would be completely without the need to develop infill in existing housing complexes. Still, infill development remains an important “planning objective,” according to authors of the study.

Infill development has its critics. The term is being applied too indiscriminately, said urban planner Cordelia Polinna of the Technical University of Berlin. Ms. Polinna argues that infill development in the 1960s and 1970s made little sense. The many makeshift postwar structures along arterial roads in the city’s outlying districts, which lack central open spaces, are better candidates for redevelopment, Polinna said.

But city districts are more likely to respond to investor projects than develop their own visions. Those who advocate infill development, Ms. Polinna said, shouldn’t be approving single-story supermarkets with customer parking lots, which she characterizes as an “insult to city planners.”

Translated by Christopher Sultan.

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