An interview held by the international trade magazine Playground@Landscape with University Professor and Graduate Engineer Christa Reicher from RWTH Aachen University / Faculty of Architecture / Chair of Urban Planning and Design.
What do the city centres of the future look like?
Playground@Landscape: How can we keep alive the image of the European city, with its centre as an overarching meeting place and public space? Who or what are the drivers of today's development and what are the consequences?
Klaus Burmeister: On the one hand we must return to the development of the city with the market as a central meeting place and for interaction between citizens. On the other we must reinvent the European city against this backdrop. The all-pervading sadness and ennui of globalised locations for branches of multinational clothing companies and brands should be seen as a spur for a radical rethink in light of the department store crisis, the increasing number of vacant stores and the desolation of many city centres. And also as an invitation to civil society. For residents now have the opportunity to get back their city again. Every city now has the chance to reinvent itself specifically. And this would also strengthen local democracy. After all, the polis with the agora as the central gathering place was the nucleus of democracy.
Playground@Landscape: Almost all metropolises are becoming too expensive – barely affordable any longer for the average person. They are no longer vibrant.
Klaus Burmeister: They follow the concept of global cities, they are hubs in financial transaction networks. Other cities are increasingly like a kind of Disneyland, where you pay an entrance fee – Florence, Heidelberg, Venice, also neighbourhoods of Paris, London and Barcelona. Worldwide mass tourism, currently driven by Chinese tourists, will further homogenise even more cities and regions.
Playground@Landscape: Does urbanity need to be reinvented? How?
Klaus Burmeister: I also observe this and wonder whether these are still real, actual cities. The core areas at least of these tourist hotspots are specific economically determined artefacts, artificial places, illusory worlds that should not be confused with the city itself. But naturally they constantly interact with the other metropolises mentioned by you. They are products, it could also be said that they have become brands whose task is to create added value. The city was and always has been more. This “more” created urbanity in the first place. Urbanity is density, is life and work, has become home. To some extent because urbanity requires, invites and requests appropriation. Which Barcelona still offers. Because Barcelona is simply more than Las Ramblas or the Sagrada Familia. But you're right, mass tourism is threatening to shift borders and to hollow out cities in a specific way. Perhaps such city hotspots should even be declared a pure amusement park? The global cities must be assessed differently. They change metropolises, such as San Francisco, and turn them into gated communities for the rich with enduring social consequences for the community. And this is a development which will continue uninterrupted and which can only be influenced with perseverance, a clear political will and the involvement of civil society.
Playground@Landscape: Can't the European city centres play a contrasting role with their urban quarters? Here you can shop, stroll, meet up. A wide variety of restaurants, bistros and cafés also encourage people to linger. What is your view of their importance?
Klaus Burmeister: The city centres are like business cards, whoever can read them knows a great deal about the people and the respective city culture. City centres are not really inviting places in which to linger any longer. The diversity has often become simplicity, but ideas are now required to increase their appeal again. Pop-up stores stand for such approaches that help to enliven city centres with temporary business ideas. Why shouldn't craft shops, for example, be offered the opportunity to be present in the city? Home offices as well as co-working spaces could be set up in empty shops. And they are also perfect for education and further training delivered virtually. Nurseries and facilities for basketball, volleyball and football can also be brought into city centres. They would certainly help to invigorate them and also encourage a return to residential use. It may sound crazy but city centres must demonstrate their benefits for residents. And health also has an especially important role to play here.
Playground@Landscape: Obesity, coronavirus and the public space: a study found that obese people (with a BMI above 30) and men are at increased risk of death. Do cities need more green and exercise spaces? Only a workout can save us: more life quality on the doorstep!
Klaus Burmeister: Well, cities with a good quality of life are cities that provide open space for their residents. This includes open areas, squares and parks. Just imagine New York without Central Park. Precisely. It's unimaginable. Moreover, urban greenery is essential for the small-scale urban climate and for the wellbeing of people. Such open spaces are places for exercise and meeting others. The question of whether they have a direct stimulating impact on individual mood must be left aside. But what does seem certain to me is that our lives would be much poorer, with fewer opportunities to exercise, without such green areas.
Playground@Landscape: What action is required to optimise the revival and design of our city centres?
Klaus Burmeister: People with creative ideas and open participation processes are required to implement such ideas for a renaissance of the European city centre. And in addition, potential investors, traders and the active collaboration of proprietors are naturally also required. And on top of that freedom of thought and the scope to experiment. Each city should go its own way. They could become places of learning and cities of knowledge in which there is space to live, work, meet others and communicate, and naturally for culture such as theatre, cabaret and cinema. We can only create forward-looking, liveable city centres if we look beyond expansion and revitalisation driven solely by commerce.
Playground@Landscape: Your thesis, which I heard on television, is: if German city centres are abandoned then "democracy is also eroded a little more".
Klaus Burmeister: Yes, that's right. Why? Because, like an organism, the city links and embraces all spheres of life. In this image the city centres are the visible and tangible lifelines for the free exchange not just of goods and services but also of information. Moreover, like a seismograph they reveal the respective condition of a city. Desolate and abandoned city centres are warning signs and an expression of a crisis. But crises are also turning points. Turning points for the better. In the same way that a high temperature is a sign of fever and requires action to be taken, the now manifest crisis of our inner cities also represents, in my view, an opportunity for reconsideration. Also and for the very reason that the city remains the vibrant place to directly participate in the community and therefore in our democracy. We need to take advantage of the opportunity in these times of radical change.
This interview was conducted by Thomas R. Müller (Playground@Landscape)
Klaus Burmeister, who is a qualified high-voltage electrician, worked first at Berlin's Free University and then at the city's Institute for Futures Studies and Technology Assessment after completing his studies in political science. In 1990 he co-founded the Secretariat for Futures Studies in Gelsenkirchen. In 1997 he founded Z_punkt: The Foresight Company, which is today one of the leading international strategic foresight consultancy firms. In 2014 he established the foresightlab, which he heads up. In 2016 he became the managing director, and since April 2019 he has been chairman, of the charitable organisation "D2030 – Rethinking Germany".
For three decades he has been dealing intensively with the challenges facing our economy and society. The process of digital transformation, technological disruptions and social upheavals and society’s active participation in necessary transitions are the main themes of his work. This requires an understanding of systemic relationships, networked thinking, new forms of learning and cooperation, the readiness to experiment and visions for a sustainable future that is worth living in. Further information: www.foresightlab.de