Urban Renewal and the End of Social Housing: The Roll out of Neoliberalism in East Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg: Urban Renewal, Urban Policy, and Modes of Regulation

By Holm, Andrej | Social Justice, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Urban Renewal and the End of Social Housing: The Roll out of Neoliberalism in East Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg: Urban Renewal, Urban Policy, and Modes of Regulation


Holm, Andrej, Social Justice


HISTORICALLY, URBAN RENEWAL HAS BEEN AN INSTRUMENT AND EXPRESSION OF SOCIAL and political tendencies and power relations. The slum-clearing measures by Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann in 19th-century Paris aimed at order and urban sanitation for the fast-growing cities in the age of industrialization. In the 1960s, urban renewal strategies involving the complete demolition of old buildings and their replacement with new ones exemplify the ideology of functional cities in the age of Fordism. Re-urbanization strategies in the current phase of urban policy are boosting a post-Fordist orientation toward sophisticated lifestyles and conspicuous consumption. Both the results and the procedures of urban renewal mirror the social and political circumstances. Haussmann's rigid clearing-up stood for an authoritarian state and rode roughshod over poor people's needs. The renewal projects of Fordism were expressions of welfare-oriented top-down planning. In this article, I argue that the current phase of urban renewal represents a passage into a neoliberal strategy that renounces the prior orientation toward welfare. There is stronger involvement of private investors and interests in urban development and it is characterized by a new kind of urban governance.

The renewal of the Berlin district known as Prenzlauer Berg--the largest renewal area in East Berlin--exemplifies this neoliberal turn of urban policy. All of the typical characteristics of urban renewal in the 1990s are visible here. Without the ballast of former policies, the political elite in Berlin was able to introduce and implement new strategies of urban renewal in Prenzlauer Berg after the reunification of Germany. East Berlin became a laboratory for the transformation from socialism to capitalism, as well as for new urban policies.

Today, the nearly 60,000 units in Prenzlauer Berg represent the biggest associated neighborhood in "Wilhelminian style," with a housing stock built before 1914. It is considered an inner-city neighborhood. The working- and under-classes, plus employees in lower positions, traditionally dominated its social structure. During the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the housing stock deteriorated because a political decision was taken to withdraw all investment from the area. East German housing policy was highly centralized and most capacities focused on the construction of new, prefabricated, and large residential buildings. At the same time, the quality of the buildings deteriorated rapidly. By 1990, l0 to 20% of all housing units were empty, creating a housing situation that was worse than after World War II. Eighty percent of all flats lacked modern heating, with 100-year-old coal ovens typical. This lack of modernity generated an all-pervasive smell. During the winter months, a heavy grey smog settled over the streets of Prenzlauer Berg. Only 50% of the housing units had bathrooms and a toilet, with 25% of all inhabitants sharing a toilet with tenants from other flats. Especially in the rear buildings, two or three flats shared a toilet located on the staircase. Given the physical condition of its housing, Prenzlauer Berg was a perfect backdrop for urban renewal.

East Berlin in the 1990s: The End of "Careful Urban Renewal"

Urban renewal debates in Berlin at the beginning of the 1990s represented the ideals of careful urban renewal. A counter-project to the autocratic area rehabilitation policy of the 1960s and 1970s (demolition and new development) (Schulz zur Wiesch, 2001), the reform of urban renewal started with the International Building Exhibition of 1984 and referred to three types of carefulness: (1) physical care, or the careful handling of historic buildings, an avoidance of demolition, and an orientation toward gradual renewal procedures; (2) social care, or a considerate handling of old tenants with the specific goal of not endangering the existing social structure in the renewal area and to prevent displacement; and (3) planning policy care, or care given to expanding the capacity of inhabitants to participate, and to avoid implementing any measure against their will (Hetzer, 2000; Bernt, 2003). …

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