What Kind of City Do We Want to Live in?

Berlin and Beijing, Bonn and Chengdu, Essen and Changzhou. Partnership agreements are in place between more than 100 German and Chinese cities. At the invitation of the Foundation, "city makers" from both countries met in Berlin to share ideas about how they can work together to develop livable cities.

Robert Bosch Stiftung | October 2016

City makers from China and Germany met at the Berlin Office of the Robert Bosch Stiftung on September 28 and 29. At workshops and strategy labs, as well as on excursions in the city, the delegates focused on new opportunities for cooperation between the two countries. The first strategies and visions for developing livable cities had already been formulated by the end of the kick-off meeting.

Berlin and Beijing, Bonn and Chengdu, Essen and Changzhou. Partnership agreements are in place between more than 100 German and Chinese cities. There are big differences in the nature and quality of these partnerships. Some are characterized by close links, the regular sharing of ideas, and joint projects, whereas other initiatives fizzle out once the documents have been signed.  As part of its new programmatic focus, "Sustainable living spaces," the Robert Bosch Stiftung aims to set up an interdisciplinary network for livable cities that strengthens the cross-sector sharing of ideas between German and Chinese city makers while promoting innovative ideas and projects and increasing their reach.

Jan Siefke

"We believe that the focus of urban planning needs to shift more toward people – and this can only be done by getting them involved," explained Uta-Micaela Dürig, Chief Executive Officer of the Robert Bosch Stiftung, as she welcomed the 100 or so delegates from China and Germany to the City Makers’ Forum in Berlin. The Foundation organized the forum and project in conjunction with intercultural agency Constellations. The delegates in Berlin included architects, urban planners, researchers, representatives of Chinese and German cities and associations, historians, artists, and students. They were all unanimous in their view, however, that any citizens who wish to exercise their right to a livable city are "city makers."

"Food Brings People Together"

At the start of the event, experts showcased their ideas and visions. Social entrepreneur Kenny Choi runs a co-working space in the city of Guangzhou in southern China that aims to provide a place for social innovation and citizens’ needs. He also visits changemakers all over the world, such as the founder of betahaus in Berlin, and interviews them for his blog. Liu Jiaqi, CEO of private cultural center Chinabrenner in Leipzig, gives German guests an insight into the traditions of her homeland. "We shouldn’t underestimate the role of good food in city cooperation," she said.

Gerd Kronmüller, the man responsible for international relations at the Berlin Senate, and Wolfgang Schmidt, Hamburg State Councilman for International Affairs, also recounted their experiences. Schmidt praised his city’s more than 30-year partnership with Shanghai and named refugee housing as an example of how citizens can become directly involved.

Wolfgang Schmidt, Hamburg State Councilman for International Affairs

Seeing Berlin As a Laboratory

At the heart of the event was the work done in six small groups. Five of these groups explored the "urban laboratory" of Berlin, where there are numerous examples of people shaping their local environments. One group visited the Tempelhofer Feld green space, another toured an urban fish farm. What they wanted to know is whether these concepts could be transferred to China. Other delegates visited housing and residential projects and discussed future living in both countries. A third group focused on the topic of urban gardening and visited Berlin’s Prinzessinnengärten. And as people need cultural amenities alongside housing and food, a fourth workshop concentrated on urban culture and identity. Armed with sketch pads and pencils, the fifth group walked along the banks of the river Spree to observe and draw public spaces.

Impressions, ideas, and photos from the excursions were messaged to the Foundation’s Berlin Office. A group of students at Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, who call themselves "Kollektiv Raumstation," processed the information as it arrived in real time and presented it in a "City Makers’ Agency" that they built themselves. As a result, the members of the strategy lab who remained at the office were soon able to find out what kind of things were catching the eye of the excursion participants and what ideas were being discussed. This sixth group scrutinized specific proposals for improving the existing partnerships between cities. They critically examined, for example, the different ideas about the nature, objectives, and scope of partnerships, as well as the shortages of staff and financial resources at administrative bodies. "The process of applying for funding is extremely complex and laborious," remarked one delegate. Having split into subgroups, the delegates of the strategy session then discussed specific approaches to city partnerships with representatives from Berlin, Bonn, and Essen. What are the needs and resources? Who are the stakeholders? What ideas and visions are conceivable? The tenor of the debate was that instead of big plans at official level, the focus should initially be on existing contacts with students and businesses and that these contacts should be strengthened at a project level.

(David Weyand, September 2016)