28.06.2016 by Dr. Joachim Wieland

The value of a city: a plea for urban mixed-use areas

Handelsblatt Journal Special publication on the topic of the “REAL ESTATE SECTOR” I June 2016

Le Corbusier’s approach to urban planning has long since become a thing of the past. And rightly so. The Athens Charter, which he co-developed in 1933, stipulated that the residential, industrial, and recreational areas of cities should be separated. This model predominantly influenced urban development in the 1950s and 60s, and paved the way for monostructural districts. It was not until 2007, with the Leipzig Charter on Sustainable European Cities, that the EU’s construction ministers called for greater integration of the different areas. And despite this, building law is still shaped by Le Corbustier’s theory today.

What we need now is more flexibility. The trend toward city living and international immigration is leading to a shortage of housing in large agglomerations. There are few inner-city areas that are unoccupied and available for building on in the short term. What is missing is freedom for planners to opt for more intermixing, greater density, or addition of stories to buildings. Although there are vacant lots in old commercial districts, the current construction legislation often prevents living space from being created under the conditions there. For example, Section 17 of the German land utilization ordinance (BauNVO) defines zone categories, each with upper limits for site coverage and floor area ratio: residential zones (Wohngebiete) cannot be reconciled with commercial zones (Gewerbegebiete) or industrial zones (Industriegebiete). Under certain conditions, business zones (Kerngebiete) and mixed zones (Mischgebiete) permit the combination of residential and commercial environments, but the proportion of living space is limited, as is the height and concentration of buildings. There is simply no zone type that allows for a truly mixed, urban structure.

The result? Low-income households and refugees are forced to the outskirts and to sparsely populated areas due to a lack of housing and rising rents. This can lead to developments such as those seen in Paris’ banlieues. To avoid social discontent and facilitate integration, living spaces should be created where there are jobs, leisure facilities, and opportunities to get involved in a diverse social life.

Reason enough for the German ministry for building and the environment to discuss a new type of development area: the urban zone (urbanes Gebiet). This is a first step toward laying the legal foundations for urban structures that truly complement and reinforce one another – home to residential and office environments, services and local amenities, culinary establishments, trades and businesses, as well as social infrastructure. Manufacturing companies should also no longer be banished to the edges of town. After all, the advancement of digital technologies is leading to the emergence of a new form of production: urban production, which is low-emission, small-scale, and therefore suitable for cities. However, integration of the urban zone into BauNVO is not yet in sight.

The most popular districts of large German cities, such as Schwabing in Munich, emerged 100 or more years ago. It would not be possible to create them in the same way today. The legislation no longer permits intermixing. Despite this, pluralism of residents and businesspeople is seen as attractive. In addition, these districts are – not least because of their diversification – largely insensitive to economic slumps, and therefore retain their value for investors and owners.

This has been understood for some time now on the international stage. In 1961, American-Canadian critic Jane Jacobs criticized the urban planning policy of her time in her most significant work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She passionately called for diversity, density, and a small-scale approach, and branded monostructural cities like Detroit “suburban” and “a failure”:

“Even Detroit’s downtown itself cannot produce a respectable amount of diversity. It is dispirited and dull, and almost deserted by seven o’clock of an evening.”

She believed that, in the long term, this lack of diversification leads to the economic failure of districts and entire cities. And she was to be proven right.

Time is of the essence; we need to act. The revision of BauNVO is an initial, overdue measure. Further legal changes must follow: to ease pressure on housing, to promote integration and social harmony, and to permanently safeguard cities’ strength and value. 

Dr. Joachim Wieland, CEO