The Declaration for a Better Berlin

Right now in Berlin we are being bombarded with the election campaign but I do not know anybody who looks forward to voting come September. I cannot vote but if I were allowed I would also face a tough choice. None of the options are appealing and what we will get seems so certain and terrible that potential alternatives pale. Germany being as it is the election focuses on the heartland and there isn’t that much being discussed that people living in a city can relate to.

This particular city, Berlin, is doing better than it has in ages but is still in terrible shape. What it is sorely missing is the idea that it can be better and that we can make it so. To offer a start on that path I have drafted a list of ten points that should be improved. By now I’m sick of complaining and I imagine that I’m not the only one. I will be putting my weight and any weight I can borrow behind changing —initially— some of these things.

The points are not meant to be taken literally. In some cases they are more provocations than implementation plans, but in all cases they highlight a need and a way forward. I may have missed lots of things and the points below may not be perfect, but this list, like this city, is in beta.

Some points are already being executed by people and organisations on the ground. I want to draw attention to their good work and support them where we can. People working for the benefit of the greater good can use all the help we can give them.

Politicians are not the focus of this initiative but I do think they benefit from people who hold them to a higher standard. This is a list of things that need doing. I don’t care who gets it done.

1. World class bike paths

Berlin should have some of the best bicycle paths in the world. It deserves better than it has right now. If you want to see what I mean by this, go take a look at Copenhagen or Amsterdam.

This is not a pure matter of creating infrastructure, since most infrastructure will fail if the social conventions don’t support it. The city needs to start taking cyclists seriously if any of this is supposed to work.

Some targets to strive for:
– at least 40% of all personal transport should take place on a bicycle
– at least 20% of commutes over 5km should be done by bike
– at least 50% of all motorized traffic should be done with non-personally owned vehicles
– lorries entering the city should be taxed, older lorries should be taxed more heavily

Public transportation in Berlin is on the point of falling apart. All stations should be renovated and expanded to a point beyond just keeping them running. Most U- and S-Bahn carriages should be replaced and they should all go faster.

2. Fiber to the home available everywhere

The lack of serious broadband in Berlin is ridiculous. Fiber should be laid up to each building to facilitate fiber to the home everywhere in the next 5-10 years. All non-local fiber optic lines should be public property.

3. Better Public Space

The Spree is a dead river running through Berlin on which you can see the occasional boat. Swimming in the Spree should be made possible. Public space around the riverside should be improved into a coherent whole.

Tempelhofer Park should remain as empty as it is right now.

4. Fully digital government services

Berlin’s bureaucracies are maddening, unnecessary and they waste an incredible amount of time. All government services should be receivable online with only those services that include a proof of identity or notarisation to require a visit to a physical office.

Payment and identity for government services should be fully digital.

5. Food independence

Berlin (with the addition of Brandenburg) should be a net producer of food. Berlin should allow for more urban gardening to happen within the city.

6. Energy independence

Berlin (with the addition of Brandenburg) should be able to fulfil all of its energy requirements itself. Grid infrastructure should be public property.

7. All government data and documents public

The public should have direct access to all documents and data that the city government creates and stores.

8. A functioning hub airport

Berlin needs to have a proper connection to the rest of the world and the BER airport should be completed quickly.

9. Balanced property market

Improving the quality of life in the city will make the city more unaffordable than it already is. This cannot be remedied wholly, but the increase in property values can be put to better use than to supply investment funds with a predictable return. The improvements above need to be paid and money from overvalued parts of the city can be used to prop up the underdeveloped parts.

The best option would be to institute a hereditary tenure like we have in Amsterdam (with home owners leasing the land from the city in 10-50 increments) but people might object if we suddenly nationalise all land in Berlin. In any case Berlin should not sell any land it still has but lease it out instead.

Instead I propose instituting a very progressive property tax on both land and buildings.

10. Not a single sub quality school

I don’t know why there would be a debate about this point.

8 thoughts on “The Declaration for a Better Berlin”

  1. thank you for the positive power and spirit. If you live in Berlin, if you care about Berlin, you should be allowed to vote. And in the meantime we take responsibility for our environment already – thanks again for the good karma.

  2. That’s a great list. Only problem is that Berlin is basically bankrupt and won’t spend any money on most of these points. Usually investing in these points will be a great way to raise Berlin’s profile and get more business into the city. But if you can’t invest anything, that doesn’t help. So the best way to help Berlin is to find a way for the city to make more money, I guess.

  3. Thanks Johannes. Berlin has been writing black figures since 2012 so the city is a lot less poor than it used to be.

    The only things that still keep Berlin acting as if it is poor are habit, ineffectiveness and German fiscal doctrine.

  4. @Johannes: The other part seems to be the Länderfinanzausgleich where Berlin is doing better and better. I would guess the new entrants bring in more than they take out.

    This is a matter of fiscal doctrine but it seems an obvious conclusion that a city that doesn’t hemorrhage money anymore and actually has a net surplus can be called less poor.

  5. Wow, a real blog comments discussion. Feels like 2004 all over again 😉

    The thing here is that even with Berlin being “less poor,” the question is if they have any money in the budget to invest in the infastructural things on your list. And if not, what we can do about that.

  6. Yeah, let’s keep it alive then a little more.

    The poor thinking and short sightedness can lead to lots of really poor decisions. Some of the things on the list require money, others are just a matter of design, of decisions, of politics. Like Dan Hill said in Dark Matter, if things are designed one way, they can just as well be designed another way.

    For instance the fact that the city has sold off so much land. You can only sell it once. Without a plan for what to do with the budget hole next year it’s an extremely short sighted policy. As short sighted as the ideas that motion towards the construction of buildings on Tempelhofer Feld. Those that would take a Central Park that’s given and pave it over with concrete are either corrupt or stupid (or both).

  7. Alper, I fully agree that Berlin has made (and still makes) lots of bad financial decisions.

    Your point about Berlin being “less poor” sadly isn’t true, though: Having a balanced budget for the first time in ages just means that the (really quite crushing) debt hasn’t increased for once, but stabilized.

    It’s a combination of the stronger economy through tourism and increased contribution by digital economy, of lower interest like Johannes point out, and of ridiculously deep cost cuts over the last 5-10 years that now slowly start to show on the spreadsheets.

    In other words, the budget is only balanced because major expenses are cut.

    And don’t get me wrong, I’m not defending this – in fact I believe that many necessary investments have been cut which will hurt the city more than it helps (during my last year in university here, the departments were cut by about 50%, for example, and cutting education budgets is always a bad idea).

    BUT its not all dismal – I’m convinced that there are quite a number of relatively cheap things to do that would improve quality of life in the city. For example, I’d say that keeping Tempelhof open; more smartly declaring dedicated bike lanes; less selling out rather than leasing out government-owned land like you point out; are all low hanging (and delicious) fruit to pick right away…

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