_ Carlo Clemens. University of Cologne and the University of Paris. 25 February 2021.
The chairman of the Green parliamentary group in the German Bundestag Anton Hofreiter caused a sensation in a Spiegel interview in February 2021. There he said: “One-party houses consume a lot of space, a lot of building materials, a lot of energy, they cause urban sprawl and thus even more traffic.” Against the background of the proclaimed “climate crisis” and the “housing shortage” in the cities, he advocated the to reduce the average square meter consumption per capita and to build on building areas as efficiently as possible. He formulates his green mission statement as follows: “Places with lively centers and short distances are ideal. Places where living, working and shopping are mixed. With extensive bus and train traffic, bicycle-friendly, pedestrian-friendly, with less space for the car, different types of living without segregation. That applies to cities as well as to villages.”
The criticism came straight away. The CDU state politician Christian Hirte accused Hofreiter of a “disturbed relationship to property and the reality of life in rural areas”. “The Greens want to ruin people’s dream of owning their own home”, said Daniel Föst, spokesman for building and housing policy for the FDP parliamentary group. The own four walls and above all the single-family house are a promise of prosperity and the best pension. Of course, the AfD shot the hardest. Alice Weidel assessed the advance as an “attack on freedom and property”. Hofreiter represents the “socialist demon of collectivization in society. The single-family house in the country is the dream of the hard-working middle class in our country, who hope for prosperity and freedom from the fruits of their work.”
According to the latest results of the so-called “housing offensive” of the federal government, 1.5 million new apartments will have been built in Germany by the end of the legislative period. In 2020, for the first time since 2001, more than 300,000 new apartments were built within one year. “Despite the pandemic, the construction industry was the engine of the German economy. We have created 1.2 million new apartments, plus 770,000 building permits have been issued. It’s a gigantic housing construction program”, explains Horst Seehofer in his role as Federal Minister for Building and Home Affairs.
Against the background of the motto “build, build, build”, I herewith would like present ten policy questions as food for thought in that they me help develop a genuinely conservative building policy profile that goes beyond a defiant opposition.
Criticism of immigration
Despite Corona and the lockdown, in 2020 Germany had a migration surplus of over 208,000 people. Migrants usually move to the metropolitan areas, where they find their communities and expect a higher quality of life. Anyone who complains about a lack of housing for lower income groups should not be silent about the immigration issue. Migrants thus compete with socially disadvantaged locals for cheap housing.
Increasing urbanization should be called into question. According to the “Moving Study 2020”, more than nine million Germans move every year. Almost 59 percent of those questioned do so in order to improve the individual quality of living. Only 6.31 percent move because they have to for professional reasons. An example: Düsseldorf is considered a booming city with a great need for new buildings. The nearby Duisburg, on the other hand, has to struggle with its dirty image. How do we manage to make “less hip” cities and, above all, rural areas more attractive – economically and culturally? For example, do authorities and university locations always have to be in the metropolitan areas?
Questioning building lobbyism
Not only planners and construction companies have a business interest in the new building. Banks and building societies make good money on construction loans. The politically desired low interest rate policy of the ECB tempts funds and insurance companies to invest in real estate in Germany – apartments, offices, shopping malls. State subsidies and the low interest rate policy lead to market distortions, especially for local municipalities, which are intensified above all by the east-west and urban-rural divide. For this reason, we have a significant vacancy rate in Germany from 1.4 million apartments in 2016 to 2.9 million in 2030. However, more and more new apartments are to be built. These circumstances and also various lobbyists must therefore be questioned.
Discover the potential of a restructuring culture: consolidate and re-use
Historically, rebuilding was a natural part of the German and European building culture. The structural condition was incredibly valuable due to the cost alone. In modern times buildings are deemed to have a short half-life. New buildings are wrongly deemed to be more prestigious. This unnecessarily increases the gross construction volume and thus the overall energy demand. Horizontal or vertical densification or the conversion of non-residential buildings such as vacant offices and retail spaces offer the additional advantage that public development with energy and water networks is already given. No additional surface sealing is necessary. On the contrary: courtyard or storage areas could be unsealed and converted into gardens.
Reflecting on the tradition of the European city
In the defiant furore in defence of “the single-family home in the pampas”, we forget that, based on our tradition, it is not the American suburb, but the European city that could be our role model. Dense, mixed-function city quarters create real urbanity. This is one of the reasons why the old Wilhelminian style districts are so exciting. We should consider whether we prefer busy shopping streets in the city districts or large shopping and industrial parks on the outskirts. We could guide consumer behaviour accordingly.
The car-friendly city is not a holy cow
The traditional ideal of densely built-up, polycentric urbanity is countered by the modernist spirit of the Athens Charter of 1933. The avant-garde around Le Corbusier had set itself the goal of overcoming the traditional living conditions of the historic city. Modern urban planning primarily provided for the functional separation of residential quarters, i.e. rooms for living, working, shopping and recreation should be separated. One consequence were brutalist satellite towns that have developed into social hot spots everywhere. Another consequence was the “car-friendly city”. According to their premise, the war-torn West German cities were rebuilt. Historic buildings were erased, and huge aisles were drawn into the cities. The car is particularly important for families. Downtown shops need their parking spaces. But in spite of the Greens policy of paternalism, one should not demonize every initiative for non-motorized private transport. The bike is conservative!
Ecological criticism of the urban sprawl
We should also criticize the “informal settlement mush” (Dieter Wieland) from an ecological point of view. Pure sleeping cities in the pampas make long transport routes inevitable. Environmental protection was once a conservative concern. Ernst Rudorff founded the conservative homeland protection movement in 1897 in order to curb the ruthless destruction of nature through industrialization. In 1973, in his “Eight Deadly Sins of Civilized Mankind”, Konrad Lorenz lamented the “devastation of living space”. The foundations of life on our planet are not inexhaustible. Why should only the Greens party campaign for the preservation of forests and green spaces? In 2019, the average per capita living space in Germany was 47 square meters. That is an increase of almost 35 percent compared to 1991. We might want to contain the excessive use of land and resources out of love for the natural home and the local cultural landscape.
The moral value of owning a home
Left-wing liberal urban economists suggest post-family forms of living because they want to overcome the traditional family. The increase in single households and the associated need for more living space per capita is a result of the isolation of our postmodernist hedonistic society. On the contrary, for the conservative the private home is the best place for the small family, for parents, grandparents and children living together. Homeowners noticed this in particular during the lockdown. The family is one of the foundations of the conservative social model. However, the opposite to the socialist block of flats is not only the detached family house. There should be variations.
Strengthening the regional building culture
Municipalities have planning sovereignty over land use and development plans. It becomes problematic when decision-makers in the council and administration have no sense of what makes houses and places lovable. The “radical economization of the building process” contrasts with the. Our cities and towns are becoming more and more faceless. Investors cultivate meadows and fallow land with unimaginative modular architecture. In order for our cities to become a place of cultural identification again, we should work to strengthen regional building culture. This means: revitalization of regional building traditions, context-related integration into the existing traditional architecture, reinterpretations of historical references, use of regional materials, use of house features that have emerged over time and have proven themselves aesthetically and energetically. A revitalization of regional cultural diversity is needed.
Do we have to grow any further?
At the end of 2020, there were 83.2 million people living in densely populated Germany. For the first time since 2011, our population has not increased. Our cities are built. We should not only question the political building frenzy and the ever-present demand for more and more new buildings as well as the artificially induced shortage of home supply. Researchers and conservative policy makers should look into vacancies, remodelling and rural areas. Other research and policy questions include: What creative potential does the structural change through digitization enable? How much office space, how much commuter traffic is still necessary in times of home office? Where can building regulations be relaxed in order to enable cheap temporary living space, e.g., for trainees, students and singles?
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