Time of capitalist cities is over. We need totally new approaches to urban life

Katalin Gennburg, a politician from the German party Die Linke, talks to Cross-border Talks on housing policies

We need a law that takes housing away from the market – says Katalin Gennburg, Die Linke politician, member of the Berlin state parliament (Landtag), specialist in historical urbanism, urban development and city politics. In the talk with Cross-Border Talks’ Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat, she shares her thoughts on the ongoing crisis of cities as we know then today. She also suggest how a future, non-capitalist city should look like: “If we project the urban space, we must assume it would be publicly owned. Public lands, public plans and public housing – that is how the things should be. Finally, it is very important to make sure that the new houses that are built now are affordable. That they are social and will remain social in the future, too”.

Last year, Berliners voted to save housing from landlords – to recommunalise the giant number of flats that ended up in the hands of private housing corporations, which led to uncontrolled rent rises. Could you tell me what happened next after the vote? Is Berlin on the way to get these houses back?

Yes. After the decision of the referendum, where more than 1 million Berliners voted for the expropriation of the big housing companies, the new coalition decided to implement this decision in the plans for the next three years. We, Die Linke party had big struggles with the Social Democrats that were not in favor of the amendment of the expropriation. But we made it! We are now having a commission that is working on the question of the expropriation to be legally conducted, on a paragraph of the German constitution. Soon there will be one year since this commission has started working. 

Katalin Gennburg speaking during the Socialism in Our Time conference. Photo: Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat.

Making homes available for everyone is not easy nor fast…

The decision must be carefully prepared. The commission is a political space where we debate on concrete law on expropriation. We have to prepare the moment when the commission is ready and we have to prepare our own expropriation law.

You said that the Social Democrats were not very enthusiastic about the referendum outcome. How do they justify their position?

In fact, they did not. They only said that we needed more cooperation and not confrontation to do good politics in the way they see it. They were referring to last years’ politics which was structured around public confrontations – we have had active social struggles, social movements stepping up. Of course, for us, a the left party, this is how things should look like. The movements were a prominent factor to push solutions forward, and we have cooperated with them. The Social-Democrats, however, wanted to end this period.

Their other argument was that it was not clear if it was possible to expropriate. Obviously, the Social-Democrats do not want to even consider an idea of expropriation, let alone work on it, because they have a very direct connection to the lobby of the building industry. This connection has become traditional since the seventies, so there is a very clear conflict of interests here.

Let us assume, however, that the expropriation takes place in the end. What should be the next steps in urban policy in Berlin and elsewhere in Germany?

It is very important to say that the expropriation is just one thing to do. We need to re-regulate the question of ownership and to get the legal possibility of constructing public owned houses, housing units. There is a big set of instruments we have to work on both Berlin and all-Germany level

Germanwide housing policy should be built around one simple rule: that  housing should be a public good, and that there is a right to housing. To make this clear, we need a law that takes housing away from the market. We need Wohnungsgemeinnützigkeit to be back. We need Genossenschaften, or house-building cooperatives, that would construct houses – but not in a profit-orientated, market system.

Furthermore, we need to regulate housing and grant stronger rights to people who rent flats. We need politics on rent on the federal level. We actually had these rights, before it was deregulated by the Liberals and the Conservatives in the early 2000 years. Now it is time to admit that the deregulation did not bring anything good – and to re-regulate. 

Die Linke activist calling for legal limitation of rents (Mietendeckel). Source.

The big plan of social re-regulation of housing also includes city planning. In other words, if we project the urban space, we must assume it would be publicly owned. Public lands, public plans and public housing – that is how the things should be. Finally, it is very important to make sure that the new houses that are built now are affordable. That they are social and will remain social in the future, too.

During the Socialism in Our Time conference, you said that lack of affordable housing was only one face of a crisis that we were facing. You said that the crisis was affecting capitalist city as such. As a result, we need a completely new way of thinking about urban planning. What are the signs of this crisis? Or, first of all, how to understand “a capitalist city”?

A capitalist city is the one where the whole working conditions of the city, the inner city politics, is based on business plan, business logic. The most obvious aspect of treating cities like business spaces are privatizations, so frequent in the last decades. We have all seen privatizations of public infrastructure, from water to gas, selling out mobility infrastructure and housing units. 

But a post-war capitalist city has also a very concrete shape. It has spaces for working people (first of all, working men) and sleeping areas, in suburbia, on the other hand (supposedly the area of household women). Due to this structure, the capitalist city is inevitably a car-oriented city, too. Questions of environment, green zones, spaces for relaxation are completely uninteresting for capitalist city planners. 

But the current crisis is not only about the post-war cities being no longer effective or polluted. The crisis of the city space is intertwined with a crisis of work. We can see a wider social crisis, we can see inequalities and exclusion, if we watch our city spaces. 

It is clear that we need wise urban politics on both local and national level to solve these problems. But how can we improve things here and now? How can we start a change straight away, if we have defined the problem already?

We see over the last years, or more precisely last decades, a very strong movement for the reclaiming of city spaces. There are a lot of local initiatives that demand not only public housing, but also accessible city spaces. There are squatting groups that bring back empty houses from the market to social use. Also, there are movements that fight for car-free zones. I also must mention initiatives aimed at integrating neighborhood communities and transforming part of the cities according to the wishes of those who live there. So, change is demanded and is taking place. And we need further alliances, for instance with feminist movements…

How is a feminist perspective valuable when thinking about city transformation?

For me, a feminist city is an area organised around the idea of care and community building. Care, and not just money-making. Not an exclusively women’s city, but a city which is based on inclusion. Such a city has, for instance, free public toilets for everybody (this is, by the way, a question on which I work a lot). 

We could say that a feminist city is a city for everybody – as simple as that. The Left Party is advocating the idea of care politics as opposed to capitalist permanent rivalry logic. This can be implemented in city development strategies, too. Our cities can be safe spaces, they can be inclusive, they can be areas of solidarity – for example, with the refugees, but also other groups that need care. 

Are there positive examples in the world? Could you name places that have already implemented such policies or are on the way of implementing it?

These policies are not rocket science. In fact, some of the inclusive solutions, like the free toilets I mentioned before, have been implemented in cities that, overall, are not very social, like Sydney. 

But if we want a more consistent anticapitalist city strategy, things are more complicated. We need to work out these strategies. We need to make use of public digital infrastructure that is possible to be materialized now, in the digital era of capitalism. Barcelona is a place that attempts this approach. Local authorities have embraced the philosophy of feminist city and a smart city based on technology and data.  

In Eastern Europe, we have some experience with socialist cities, or cities built under the real socialism era. It would be a mistake to take them as models for the future anticapitalist cities, as they were built in the time where environment protection was not an important value. Nevertheless, can these cities be of any inspiration for today’s social city thinkers? Or should we look in a completely different direction?

In fact, the ‘real socialist’ cities fit perfectly in a mainstream city thinking of that time. What I said about car-oriented capitalist cities can be perfectly applied to Eastern European metropolises as well. They, too, had sleeping areas and working areas. Even if the state’s economy was not capitalist, the cities were profit-oriented, or accumulation-oriented nevertheless. 

From today’s perspective, we could not say this is the kind of anti-capitalist space we need now. This, of course, does not mean that we should not respect the effort of past socialist generations and the social aspects of that city-building. We should study that experience, analyze, draw conclusions – and then, as modern socialists, look into the future.

Socialist cities of the past: block of flats in Poruba district, Ostrava, Czechia. Source.

And what will we see in the future? Are we to strive towards huge metropolises divided into many independent, community-run neighborhoods? Or rather, should we strive towards decentralization and having smaller, more planned, friendly cities? Isn’t accumulation of people in big metropolises a general tendency, that we cannot really affect?

On the contrary – I think we can do a lot about that. The way the cities have been growing since the nineties and the idea of a ‘new metropolitan nation’ is like the peak of the super-capitalist way of city planning we had in the last 30 years worldwide. Now this thinking has come to a crisis. 

Due to the pandemic, many people got the possibility to work via the Internet. What happened then? They went to places that were previously abandoned. They did not rush to cities. Instead, they left them, if they had the chance to keep the job. So the conclusion seems obvious – people settle down in the places where they can work, and if they are not forced to go to huge metropolises, they do not. They know that a huge city means expensive and unhealthy living. So, the mode of accumulation is the factor behind city development.   

We really need a new way of planning based on common goods and not only ownership-oriented interests. With this rule in mind, we will build social cities. 

You have contact with ordinary people, with Die Linke voters, but not only. They must have their expectations about the places they live in. What are their demands? What do people want most from the city?

I have a lot of contact with people because I was doing a lot of organizing in the neighborhood. What I hear most is that people want a normal life. Not super-crazy, posh things. They want ordinary things to be affordable and within reach. 

It should not be a matter of luck to be able to stay in your place. It should be normal that people are not segregated. Gentrifying dynamics in cities is not what people want. They dream of cities where it is simple to do your daily business, to have places to bring your kids to school and to have places where you can buy normal food. This is more or less the basis: smaller distances, affordable housing and places to rest – green areas, gardens, playing spaces.  

I think this is a message to all the city or national leaders who like unveiling eccentric investments in the city centres: that people want basic facilities instead. A normal life in the neighborhood.

Exactly! If we see all the investors always coming with ‘super extraordinary ideas for the city’ – this is in most cases bullshit we do not need. Normal life in the neighborhood, as you said – this is what we need as a central idea of city planning.

Cover photo: The aerial view of Berlin.

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