NewsEuropeBerlin, failed city?

Berlin, failed city?

“Berlin is becoming the city of chaos,” said the president of wealthy Bavaria, the conservative Markus Söder (CSU), last January, days after the New Year’s Eve celebrations got out of hand in the German capital with attacks on the Police and emergency services and 145 detainees for riots. The phrase, pronounced in full frenzy of the electoral campaign, would not have more importance if it were not for the fact that more and more Germans, and Berliners, think the same. The fame of a failed city, where botch work happens, construction takes forever and nothing works well, has haunted this city of 3.8 million inhabitants for years.

“Be careful, Berlin is not Germany”, justify inhabitants of the rest of the country when someone comments on the new cut in a subway line, the jungle that the housing market has become or the calamitous state of public schools and wonders what happened to German efficiency. Condescending talk of the city-state of Berlin is the order of the day. Those who did not do it when the capital inaugurated its new airport, nine years late and with 1,400 million additional costs, do so now.

Berlin has just repeated the 2021 regional elections. The Constitutional Court annulled them, in an unprecedented decision, after an electoral day of absolute chaos, with very long lines, schools closed for lack of ballots and voters who were left without voting. It was planned badly. Local, regional, federal elections and a referendum coincided. In addition, the city marathon was taking place and the vans that transported the ballots were stuck in traffic jams. The conservative opposition only had to focus on those failed elections and on everything that is wrong in Berlin for the result of the repetition to put them 10 points ahead of the mayoress – the Social Democrat Franziska Giffey -, although it is still not clear that the right will govern.

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Traffic cut around some pedestrianization works in Berlin, on January 30. picture alliance (dpa/picture alliance via Getty I)

The lack of personnel is a widespread evil in public services. It is easy to verify this by looking at the queues at the district offices or when trying to get an appointment on-line to register The last Sunday there weren’t any in all of Berlin until April 20, and then neither, because the calendar doesn’t go beyond two months.

The shortage of teachers in public schools is especially bleeding. It is very common for classes to be suspended because there are no substitutes. And the training of the students accuses him. A recent report by the Institute for the Development of Quality in Education (IQB) found that Berlin schoolchildren are below the national average in spelling and mathematics. Most of the buildings of schools and institutes need reforms and better means. Only 130 of 654 schools have fiber optic connections, according to the magazine focus.

Overcrowded classrooms and lack of housing – it is estimated that Berlin would need 125,000 more houses – are two sides of the challenge posed to the city by the constant arrival of new inhabitants, which also overloads public transport. In the last decade, the population has grown at a rate of between 50,000 and 100,000 a year, says Stefanie Remlinger, mayor of the Mitte district. “All big cities have problems, but the challenges in Berlin have been many these years: the arrival of thousands of refugees in 2015 and 2016, the pandemic, inflation, refugees again in 2022. In 2015 there was chaos, but this time no, and nobody recognizes it to us”, he laments in an interview with EL PAIS.

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Criticism of the city’s poor governance dates back to the 1990s, when there were plenty of staff but little efficiency, recalls historian Ute Frevert. In the 2000s came cutbacks and a lack of teachers and police to prevent illegal activities. The city’s peculiar history, always attractive to immigrants, and its political past, as a city divided between east and west after 1945, explain part of its problems. “At the beginning of the 20th century, Berlin was known and admired throughout the world for its ultra-modern look,” she notes. It had grown very fast since the 1870s and had been planned accordingly with an innovative system of public transport, sanitation and urbanization that attracted urban planners from all over the world to learn from its experience.

“In a way, the union of East and West Berlin after 1989 poses as many problems as the union of East and West Germany. No other city had to face these challenges”, admits the historian, who believes that, in general, Berlin has done quite well. There are many data that prove him right.

The famous phrase of the mayor Klaus Wowereit, who described Berlin as “poor, but sexy”, is long out of date. The city, long considered Germany’s black hole of poverty, now ranks sixth among the 16 German Länder, with a gross domestic product (GDP) per inhabitant of 44,472 euros in 2021. The economy of the capital , based mainly on the service sector, is growing at a much higher rate than the rest of the regions.

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Since 2015, GDP has increased by more than 30% compared to the 18% national average. And predictions such as that of the Ifo Institute suggest that it will follow that path in the next decade. The ICT and research sectors are pulling the bandwagon and already outnumber those of retail, tourism and hospitality, according to a recent analysis in the economic newspaper handelsblatt. Berlin attracts talent from all over the world. If in Germany on average 3.1 companies are created per 100,000 inhabitants, here it is 13.6. Venture capital flows to Berlin, where international investors put 4.9 billion euros last year for new companies, 50% of the total invested in Germany.

There are also many things that work in Berlin, services that are in short supply in other capitals. The historian Frevert comes up with, for example, the large number of public swimming pools or ice rinks. Despite the numerous cuts for works and repairs, public transport is fast and quite efficient. Garbage – scrupulously separated – is collected punctually. Berlin will be a disaster, but it is my disaster, think many in the capital, where speaking ill of her is not incompatible with adore her. Frevert sums it up well: “Those who choose to complain or point fingers still prefer to live in Berlin rather than in Stuttgart or Hamburg”.


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