Shaped by the patterns of decentralization, non-regulation, lack of interference, an emergence of can-do spirit; adding up to a city in a state of constant flux, equipped with a bustling creative scene, an unenforceable smoking ban and an airport-turned-park.
When we decided on the first city focus for the inaugural issue of The Alpine Review, the decision seemed natural: It would be Berlin. The city where both the magazine's initiators had just spent some time—and where they found me, too—and more importantly, a city that embodies the topics of The Alpine Review.
Skimming the media headlines, an odd image of Berlin emerges. On one hand, the city is completely broke, to the tune of some 60bn Euros. (To put this in context, that's about as much debt as the state of California with ten times Berlin's population.) Inner city trains regularly break down because maintenance was cut to save costs, the new international airport is delayed by yet another year, unemployment rates are consistently high as there is hardly any traditional industry left. Much of this, directly or indirectly, is a legacy of Berlin's moved, chaotic political past, the Cold War, German Reunification.
On the other hand, we see a plethora of thriving subcultures as well as an emergence of a startup industry and a strong maker culture. As for airports, one of the old airports has turned into a huge park, smack in the middle of the city.
But most importantly, The Alpine Review is about the flat, networked world. And Berlin as a city is a mirror of all the things we look for in this magazine.
The patterns at work here are decentralization, non-regulation, a lack of interference, a can-do spirit, and emergence. Let's take them on one by one.
Decentralization feels quite natural in a city without a real center. Berlin had been split in two for decades, and while the city as a whole recovered nicely, the decentralized nature of smaller, individual neighborhoods—a Kiez!—persisted.
Contrary to the German stereotype, there isn't a lot of regulation in Berlin, or rather it seems it is only partially enforced. This seems to be part of the city’s legacy. During the Cold War, the West German government wanted to make West Berlin a beacon of freedom against the socialist East. Concretely, the government created incentives for Germans to immigrate to Berlin: tax breaks, exemption from military service for men, no curfew, and massive subsidies for theaters, operas and universities. Even today, Berliners have a relaxed stance towards rules. Just look at the smoking ban in bars—you won't find smoke in bars across Germany anymore, but in Berlin the ban is still largely unenforced. Partly, we see this lack of top-down regulation and enforcement because the city simply doesn't have the money to take things more into its own hands. Combined, this creates free spaces, both in a physical and in a philosophical way. Just look at the former inner-city Tempelhof airport: due to the lack of a strong development concept, it was turned into a temporary park, which is both huge and hugely popular. Let's hope that follow-up development concept stays evasive and we can keep the airport park.
What I'd refer to as a can-do spirit probably isn't something you'd associate with a German city. As Berliners like to point out, Berlin isn't part of Germany—not really. Economic pressure here is relatively low, due to moderate costs of living. While prices are rising, living in Berlin is pretty cheap compared to other European capitals. This allows artists—as well as freelancers, designers, makers, and startups—to make a living and create on the side. Tons of interesting people move to Berlin because they know they can get by with temp jobs, if need be, and still pursue their dreams and visions in relative style and comfort. Sorry, New Yorkers, on this particular count Berlin clearly wins.
The effect of all these things is emergence: from all these largely uncoordinated efforts by artists, makers, students, small companies and all the others, a new layer of urban activity arises. It's a bottom-up thing: collaborative, not predefined, and constantly changing. It's something we see in other cities as well, but it's particularly pure in Berlin. An uncoordinated, bottom-up innovation that lives in the network, in physical meetups, in tribes. It exists on the intersections of the artsy, the pre-commercial, and the commercial.
Growing pains / Embracing the network
It is these intersections where the truly interesting stuff is happening, and where we simultaneously see growing pains of all sorts, ranging from gentrification to social tension. After all, the city doesn't move as a unified body, all parts operate at dramatically different speeds, and despite Germany's welfare system, some are left behind. However, we see groups of anti-gentrification activists from very different backgrounds, some raising legitimate, important questions, others seemingly romanticize a ‘post-Wall’ squat-house past. Until today, in Berlin-Kreuzberg you will hardly find a large brand chain store besides the supermarket. In the midst all of this, independent craft stores & third wave coffee shops are opening left and right.
These growing pains don't scare off the tribe of those, though, that live in Berlin's brother & sister cities, like Montréal, Brooklyn, Barcelona or San Francisco. Berlin has hardly any traditional industries as most of the factories left a long time ago. The people that work here are either in politics, media or the service industries. Tourism is one of Berlin's largest sources of income, and since its appeal as a place to live extends across Europe and well into the US, startups find it increasingly easy to get the best talent to move over. What the city lacks in efficient planning, it makes up for through the network. The international exchange through this network is going strong.
When the editors, Louis-Jacques and Patrick, decided to focus this issue on Berlin, they simply swung by, and the Berlin tribe embraced them right away and made sure they got to meet all the people they needed to know, over coffees, dinners and drinks. By the time they left, they had met and recruited a whole slew of local authors—mostly transplants like myself, as true Berliners are rare.
Change as a Blueprint
We look at Berlin and see a city in constant change. It's a cliché, but holds true. When I came to the city about a decade ago, I felt like I was too late: it felt vibrant and changed at breakneck speed, but I had a gut feeling that the best was over and set. In hindsight, I couldn't have been more wrong: it's still changing at the same speed and there is no indication that it’s going to stop any time soon.
Can Berlin, despite its troubled, chaotic, historically a-normal past, serve as a blueprint for other cities? What can we learn from it?
Certainly Berlin cannot serve as an example of good urban planning, as urban development here seems more bric-a-brac than actual planning. However, there might be a lesson in there, somewhere, about embracing a city's chaos and weaknesses (see this issue - Makerplatz) while playing to its strengths. About attracting and supporting the so-called creative industries, not by throwing money around, but by getting out of the way and being able to offer help where it's most needed, like easier work permits for non-European talent. About leaving less regulated spaces and planning for emergence.
Because one thing is certain: Berlin's not going to stop changing any time soon. So let's try to be the change we want to see.