Kind of urban

Kind of urban

Ackermannbogen in munich. Image: christoph knoch

New residential quarters between lifestyle product and sustainable urban building block

In growing german cities – such as munich, berlin or frankfurt – affordable housing is in short supply. And as demand continues to grow in line with population, lower-income households in particular are gradually being pushed out of the booming centers. To a certain extent, this problem is exacerbated by the so-called energy turnaround, which focuses on reducing energy demand and increasing the decentralized generation of renewable energies, and which thus makes the renovation of the existing building stock imperative. Not infrequently, however, energy-efficient refurbishments act as a cover for luxury refurbishments and thus unintentionally encourage gentrification. An additional challenge lies in the consideration of demographic change with an aging society.

If we take the classic three-pillar model of sustainability as a basis, we have to acknowledge that in developing a "sustainable architecture" considerable progress has been made in the areas of economy and ecology in recent years. But the social parameters have by no means developed to the same extent. Particularly in cities where there is no (longer) consensus that there must be a substantial amount of public housing, questionable developments are emerging.

It becomes particularly problematic when aspects of public welfare are neglected in housing construction and substituted by visual appeal and urban staging, as is increasingly the case in germany. Precisely because social sustainability is characterized by a high proportion of soft factors that are difficult to measure, it is often claimed rather than realized.

What can be observed concretely? Project developers and housing companies react to the wishes of their clientele, but they also influence and control them. A best earning "creative class" asks for apartments that clearly stands out from a mere catalog goods. Above all, however, they rely on a neighborhood environment that corresponds to their mostly urban lifestyles. LOHAS (lifestyles of health and sustainability) and bobos (bourgeoise bohemians) are happy to pay for this perfect fit. And this is exactly where the investors’ mental exercise begins: what can they offer these demanders so that they and their capital do not remain in the modernized, but authentically grown stock including the "trendy neighborhood" disappear?

Although – or precisely because – the neighborhood is a rather informal typology of territory, which cannot be precisely spatially delimited, but in which a strong connection to the lifeworld of citizens and residents is expressed, it has long been the most important level of intervention for most cities.

Somehow urban

Ackermannbogen in munich. Image: christoph knoch

Consequently, they bring this to bear in their municipal development strategies – whether in the case of hamburg’s long-standing "stepchild" veddel or in munich’s ackermannbogen, but also on the novartis campus in basel. But now the real estate industry is also getting into the act. It is no longer just individual properties or the company’s own portfolio that are targeted, but the neighborhood, which represents a kind of matrix between the buildings and is sometimes the actual unique selling proposition of the housing supply.

At the same time, we live in a time in which countless postmodern lifestyles are differentiated. This pluralization has reached an extent that would have been inconceivable in the past fordist phase of mass production and mass consumption – between the terraced house and VW kafer.

It’s not just an apartment or house that’s being marketed, but a lifestyle-adequate neighborhood

The "new lack of transparency", as jurgen habermas once called it, but is by no means unmanageable. Especially since recent housing market analyses are usually based on the study of different housing and lifestyle groups. In a survey of 30.000 households in bremen, for example, it was not only possible to meet the needs of 14.000 dwellings, ten housing style groups and their qualitative demand were also identified. If one knows the social data and the settlement typology of quarters, it can be deduced from the study which groups in which rough orders penetrated into which locations.

This is a double-edged ie, because in practice investors also use the data to find out in which locations the highest margins for solvent customers can be realized. Such precise milieu information is increasingly in demand and is also distributed via industry associations. The glassy real estate customer or resident has – hopefully – not yet emerged, but transparent lifestyle clusters that can be condensed into easily addressable target groups.

Such "neighborhood developments" may create a kind of "romantic urbanity" but they exemplify the basic attitude of developers and real estate companies, who, with an implicit lack of interest in urban identity, ultimately tend to pursue social segregation and urban uniformity. This marks the beginning of an unprecedented, systematic commodification of neighborhood development. The new players are not interested in improving the world, but in achieving ever greater efficiency for the capital they invest. Production is no longer roughly flat and in coarse stucco numbers, as was still the case in the basic era, but is more small-scale, flexible, and individual. It’s not just the apartment or house that’s being marketed, but a lifestyle-adequate environment, de facto the entire neighborhood.

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