Self Made City: Strategies for Future Urban Living

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With an increasing number of people moving to urban centers worldwide, new solutions for growth are needed; strategies for densification that actually bring benefits to the surrounding neighborhood. Using the example of the SPREEFELD project in Berlin, Kristien Ring conveys the idea of the “Self Made City”.

In Berlin, over the last ten years, hundreds of projects have been developed by residents through an ownership-based form of co-housing called the baugruppe. Furthermore, new co-op associations are increasingly building rental, community-determined and socially oriented urban projects throughout Europe. These projects are helping to redefine participative processes and offer alternatives for development that greatly cut costs but introduce high building quality at the same time.

SPREEFELD is more than an architectural project; it is a manifesto that inspires us to think about the future of urban residential construction and city life in general.

Spaces where people not only come together, but also have the feeling that they belong and can have a direct influence, play a vital role. This is the “Self Made City” where people are collaborating on every level to create their own niches and oases. Currently, we can observe the growth of the sharing society on many levels, which greatly contributes to a new urban spirit. However, all too often we see how our cities are determined mainly by profit-driven developments and short-term oriented investments. The most expensive apartments in the center of the city stand empty, while the majority of citizens struggle to afford the ever-increasing rent prices.

More than an architectural project
So who makes the city? SPREEFELD, in Berlin, is one project that exemplifies many of the aspects mentioned in the introduction. Located directly on the banks of the Spree River, enormous social and planning challenges are associated with this site on the former Berlin Wall strip, which remained undeveloped for decades. The initial developers set financial, urban, social and societal objectives. For Christian Schoeningh, founder of Die Zusammenarbeiter, who initiated and managed the development of the project, this was not only a matter of bringing real life and urban qualities to the derelict shoreline. This project was a way to demonstrate to the city that ‘big investors’ are not the only people capable of developing large-scale projects. It also stressed the idea that publically owned land must be used wisely with long-term social and financial goals in mind.

In 2001 Schoeningh gathered a group of people together (the future residents and owners of the project) and developed a successful baugruppe in Berlin-Mitte. After these experiences, Schoeningh began to focus on continually expanding their societal goals and developing new methods to realize these goals. Die Zusammenarbeiter have expanded the field of architecture to include the roles of project initiator (creating the idea of the project and gaining enough interest for funding) and project manager. Moreover, they consider the development of financial and legal aspects of the project and negotiations with the city. Thus, SPREEFELD is more than an architectural project; it is a manifesto that inspires us to think about the future of urban residential construction and city life in general.

People of every possible income category can find their own personal niche.

In order to safeguard the non-speculative nature of the property and to reduce the initial costs of investment, the land was acquired on a long-term lease. A co-op association was chosen as the effective organizational and legal form for counteracting personal interests and the “entitlement mentality” of individuals. This enabled decision-making processes to focus productively on the good of the community and the project as a whole. The co-op association is the owner and developer of the project and all the residents are members of the association with a long-term, low rent lease. Membership fees are based on the size of private rooms and everyone shares the cost of community spaces. The co-op uses a cross-financing principle to finance apartments for lower-income families and other common goals. This makes the financial ‘construction’ of this project particularly complex. For example, those who have larger than average apartments on the top floors are required to pay higher than average membership fees. However, the association has set these goals and the financial make-up in its bylaws, hence everyone who joins the project and association already agrees to these terms. The ongoing challenges of living together in a community are continually discussed by the executive board and various committees of the association.

Personal niches and the role of the architects
The development is comprised of three buildings, each designed by a separate architect: Silvia Carpaneto, Florian Koehl and BARarchitects. The architects collaborated on many aspects of the exterior facades, while they were individually responsible for their own interior planning. Dividing up the large project in this way made it more manageable and enabled a more personal relationship between the architect and individuals. This project experiments with alternative living typologies: there are various “cluster apartments” for group living (combining many small private living areas together with a shared kitchen and living spaces), small single units, family apartments, as well as a wide range of shared community spaces. Therefore people of every possible income category can find their own personal niche.

Eco-friendly ways of living and high ecological building standards were implemented throughout the project. For example; an electric car, powered with surplus energy that is produced on site, is the only vehicle parked on the premises and is shared by all residents. Otherwise, the 120+ residents use bicycles and public transportation. The ground floor spaces are occupied by a diverse group of users, further contributing to the neighborhood’s lively character. Particularly affordable spaces are reserved at the ground floor level as ‘option spaces’ which are flexible and changeable. Users are selected for the option spaces through an application process which is based on how their activities will contribute to the neighborhood. This is a special aspect of the process that attempts to integrate young entrepreneurs into the project, such as the ones who had been temporarily using the site before it was developed.

Let’s go from being consumers to being pioneers and create liveable cities that are constantly driven with by new ideas that come from within.

This urban form is based on the idea of openness and accessibility. Three buildings effectively break up the space facing the Spree River and allow for the entry of sunlight and a view of the river. Also, public use of the riverside is guaranteed for everyone. At this location, the city meets the water and the water meets the city.

Self-made projects with real impact
This project, along with others of a similar nature, not only creates living spaces that are based on the real needs of people today, but also bring new neighbors into existing communities that have a vested interest in staying there and “making the city”. These urban forms support micro economies and sustainable, resilient development. We can observe how in a very short period of time, this project in Berlin has grown from a small development with just 8 parties to the SPREEFELD with 64 parties and further projects that include an estimated 400 living units. In this way, self-made projects can have a real impact on the city.

In order to support this trend, alternative types of development need to be seriously considered as a strategy in the architectural profession and on a political level. Most often, the largest challenge for prospective groups is buying a site. In particular, gaining the necessary financing fast enough to beat other investors. By appropriating public land for development in the form of a leasehold, a land trust, or even an investor competition, social, cultural and urban planning goals of the city can be realized through private initiatives and long-term, self-administration. Goals such as social mix, mixed use, ecological standards or non-profit constraints can all be set within policies. England, Finland and many other countries are reestablishing policies in order to facilitate collective building. So, lets go from being consumers to being pioneers and create liveable cities that are constantly driven by with new ideas that come from within.

The success of our cities in the future will depend upon how we utilize further developments to improve urbanity—with an adequate amount of affordable living spaces and planning to meet our growing ecological challenges. The quality of these developments will determine our resilience; not only of the built environment, but also socially, in terms of the people living there and how society interacts and evolves. Together we can make our cities better places.

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