Preliminary remark:

This text was written in 1995 and published in 1997 in the anthology ‚Zivile Gesellschaft‘ (Civil Society) edited by Schmals/Heinelt. Reading this text now, 25 years later, in the real year 2020, I am amazed at how accurately the necessity of the urban development strategies I outline for solving urban problems were described back then – and at the same time I am shocked at how little of the outlined solution strategies, which in my opinion have lost none of their validity, have penetrated into the reality of society and its planning. Yet such a form of planning would be more necessary than ever in order to put a stop to the problems of nature destruction with its biodiversity and climate change on the one hand and the increasing lack of natural resources and space on the other! I have therefore inserted a heading before the last section that emphasises the topicality of 2020 – not in the sense described optimistically in this section as a strategy that has already been implemented, but as a call to finally implement it now, with increased urgency.

With the time machine to twenty-twenty

The plane lands in Schwechat. Relaxation spreads. Finally back in Vienna, the model metropolis of the continent. Urban life liveble. I move along the runways to the high-speed train to the historic centre of the city. As I emerge from the depths, I am greeted by a calm bustle. People are sitting on terraces, chatting and laughing. I am standing in front of the town hall, which rises up before me in pompous, listed splendour and endless width. How I used to search for the right entrance and how often I got lost in its labyrinthine corridors! Since the electronic guidance system was installed, the heart of Vienna has also become transparent. I enter the building purposefully and find the right path. The corridors are teeming with people. Since the old municipal departments have been converted into service stations for the districts – and these in turn into service stations for the district forums – there is a constant coming and going here. From the council for the elderly to the youth club, everyone comes here for advice. Expertise that used to be sold almost exclusively in consulting firms is now a public service available at any time in Vienna City Hall. The administration is organised along the lines of a large consultancy firm. Initially, there was a long discussion about whether customers should be charged for this service, and if so, how. The card system, which is currently still being trialled, was agreed upon: Every Viennese now has a certain number of counselling units per year, which they can call up anywhere. They usually transfer some of these to their ‚categorical‘ representatives in the district forum. The people rushing through the corridors here almost all have entire groups behind them. They are ‚categorical representatives‘. Behind the glass doors of the former ‚offices‘ you can see people engrossed in eager conversations in front of large screens. Incidentally, the glass doors were only installed after a fierce city-wide debate: Should the venerable old doors really be sacrificed for such transparency? Would it be more than a symbolic act? After all, they had been careful enough during this experiment to carefully store all the venerable doors in the cellars and leave the old door hinges in place. Fortunately. Because every now and then they are hung up again. For filming historical films and TV series set in 20th century Vienna, which enjoy great popularity, or for the big historical city festival, for which Vienna dresses up every year in its past splendour from before the 1999 reform: All the counsellors then don sleeves again and play the impregnable official. Of course, the control system is switched off on this day – and just like in the old days, nobody knows who is sitting where or whether they are sitting at all. And then everyone is cured of any nostalgic feelings…

Civil society as a beacon of hope

When the concept of civil society emerged in German-speaking discussions among sociologists and political scientists at the beginning of the 1990s, it was hardly noticed by urban planners, who like to underpin their concepts with set pieces from social science theories. Strangely enough, one might say. This was because a theoretical discourse had finally re-emerged for the further development of what had been one of the key focal points of planning since the 1960s: citizen participation. The civil society approach, which has a wide scope for interpretation(1), essentially means a pluralistic society whose citizens have a high degree of collective awareness and responsibility for the whole. (2) Of particular interest to the urban planning debate are those currents in which „civil society is conceived as an area that projects directly into the domain of state policy via a whole network of self-governing authorities and associations“ and in which the entire sphere that makes up civil society „assumes the tasks of state control from within itself“.(3) This approach found its way into Europe via Eastern Europe after the fall of communism, the soft revolution in the communist states. With its round tables and institutions organised by citizens themselves, the structure of society temporarily came very close to this target image. The points of contact with the Western concepts of intermediary organisations, which played a major role in the discussion at the time, are unmistakable: here, too, the focus was on a society organised by citizens themselves, in which the relationship between ‚civil‘ self-governance and the state was problematised: What role does the state play in such a society? Which tasks are left to state authorities? The fact that the municipal level played a key role in all these tendencies supported the later development of a political subdivision of Europe into regions.(4) As a result, Vienna, as a pioneer of a civil society organisation of the urban region, also gained greater weight in the context of Europe, and this certainly had a positive influence on the implementation of civil society in major European cities. 

Between hostility to planning and the need for planning: the dilemma of urban planning at the end of the 20th century

In the 1980s and 1990s, planners and local politicians were confronted with a phenomenon that was new in the history of urban planning: a deep-seated hostility to planning on the part of large sections of the population. Even though the educated middle-class elite rediscovered their enthusiasm for architecture during the same period, this phenomenon of rejection of urban planning was not alleviated. Whether it concerned new housing estates, redensification, the accommodation of homeless people, asylum seekers and repatriates or the construction of new transport routes – not to mention landfills, power stations and other necessary infrastructure facilities – almost all large-scale projects were initially confronted with self-organised citizens who put up massive resistance to such plans. The best that the planners and politicians were able to achieve in the debate with them was a general understanding of the necessity of such projects, which was immediately secured according to the Florian principle: „D’accord, it has to be done, but please not in our neighbourhood.“ In the English-speaking world, the stereotype of this behaviour had already led to an ironic abbreviation: NIMPY – Not In My Backyard!

That was fatal. This attitude intersected with a renewed need for planning during this phase. The end of the 1980s, and in particular the period after the ‚Wende‘, had brought a new surge in planning requirements, which the then city planning councillor Swoboda repeatedly compared to the Wilhelminian era. Looking at the future projections of demographers, sociologists, environmental planners and spatial planners, there was already much to suggest that the need for planning would increase considerably in the future. Above all, it became clear that we would have to accept the fact that future solutions could not consist of a continuation of what is commonplace today.(5) I wrote at the time: „We will not only have to deal with intensified competition for natural resources, but also with fierce competition for the use of space, which could develop into a major socio-political issue, especially in cities and urbanised areas. Only a courageous policy that thinks in the long term and is not conformist or opportunistic, together with the same kind of planning, will be able to tackle the future problems of our society in a responsible, humane and democratic way.“(6) And Hannes Swoboda emphasised very early on the major socio-political role that large cities would play in maintaining society in the future: „Without the enormous integrative power of large cities, society can no longer be imagined anyway.“(7) How right he was! But how much this depends on an urban policy that orients its solutions towards the future and does not try to save the structures of the past with law and order was probably only realised by some at the time.

The Janus face of citizen participation

It is an irony of history that this widespread hostility to planning was essentially borne by a fruit of earlier, forward-looking democratic endeavours by these very planners: the citizens‘ initiatives. Quite a few citizens‘ initiatives were set up in the 1960s and 1970s with architects and urban planners acting as midwives and were nurtured by them (including me!) in an incubator, so to speak, until they had become a common form of citizen action. They had had their best times with urban renewal, but from this breeding ground they also drew a generally defensive basic attitude. With the explicit objective of preserving existing qualities and especially in the later absolutisation of this objective, they then became a barrier not only against bad plans, but against planning in general, when the new period of urban expansion and urban restructuring dawned. Planning participation in the organisational version of the participation of citizens‘ initiatives took on a Janus face. 

Yet the participation debate of the 1970s and early 1980s had nothing to do with garden arbours and a backward-looking idyll. In the best sense of the word, it was directed towards an emancipatory future, its content was the reduction of decision-making power and the dismantling of domination, its aim was to break up internal and external authoritarian structures.

The stagnation of civic participation as an emancipatory movement had already become apparent in the course of the 1980s. Since citizen participation in urban planning was still basically based on a concept of the civic public sphere in the Bahrdt tradition, which had not integrated the multicultural and information technology developments of the past two decades, it had reached a dead end in theory and also in many cases in practice. With its procedures and its narrowly localised action groups, it had become bogged down in a small and micro-spatial scale on the one hand, and in a limited representation of interests on the other. The terms ‚citizen‘ and ‚resident‘ narrowed the horizon to an idea of the quality of housing and life that could just as easily refer to a multicultural urban neighbourhood as to an idyllically coloured past world. Whether it was a question of defending an urban neighbourhood as a space for a heterogeneous society in terms of income, lifestyle and orientation against a planning system that operates the segregating effect of land prices, or of fending off social and political problem cases from one’s own neighbourhood, whereby solutions for foreigners, asylum seekers or the homeless were pushed back to the public authorities to be solved elsewhere: The content-neutral, democratic demand for citizen participation legitimised both positions in the same way. 

Even if not always and not everywhere self-evident, citizen participation in planning was recognised in principle from the end of the 1980s – and certainly in Vienna, where the then city councillor Edlinger had even emerged as the author of a thick-bodied work with textbook character on citizens‘ initiatives.(8) But it seems to be a historical law that all movements and currents develop their professionals, and so the practice of organising participation developed into a field for experts with well-meaning political support. They, in turn, pursued their profession and paid little attention to a planning theory discourse that began to address the fact that the forms of participation developed in the 1970s and early 1980s were now having a counterproductive effect in many situations and had lost their forward-looking, emancipatory character. Citizens‘ initiatives and citizens‘ groups often exhausted themselves in their demand for participation in the defence of rights, which in view of the necessary reorganisation of our urban structures amounted to a defence of privileges. 

It would have been up to the professionals to deal with the contradictory nature of this formal model. However, this was countered by the pressure to act in the planning frenzy of those years and an understandable pragmatic interest in citizen participation. Citizen participation offered the opportunity to steer the process through information and dialogue. Town planners, local councillors and mayors who were working on plans and above all wanted to implement them tried to do business with their potential opponents at an early stage, to overcome the barriers of hostility, mistrust or at least scepticism and to make the projects palatable to the citizens. This had led to a market for specialists in the staging of participation procedures, without the fundamental problems of the forms of participation, such as the limited field of vision, the socially selective mechanisms, etc., being addressed any further.

Wagon castles against the future

Incidentally, the question can be asked whether, at a time when fundamental and threatening changes were taking place worldwide, the success of civic self-organisation in citizens‘ initiatives was not perhaps linked precisely to the need to defend one’s own world according to the patterns of the familiar and thus, as a rule, those of the past. What was still a discussion among intellectuals and politicians at the time of the Club of Rome began to penetrate the living rooms of citizens in the 1990s: The information technology revolution noticeably changed everyday life; in the global spatial reorganisation of production locations, the effects of the world market became tangible as a reality – not only in its pleasant aspects of the availability of goods at any time, regardless of the season, but also in its fatal dimension of disappearing jobs; the global demographic shifts of the dimension of new mass migrations became visible in the streetscape with its many different-looking people, an experience that was underpinned in a threatening way by periodic press reports about the unstoppability of an explosive increase in the world’s population. The major conferences in Rio and Berlin, which took place in 1993 and 1995, also demonstrated the short-sightedness and helplessness of the political leadership elite at the time in the face of the problem of ecological limits to further development according to the previous technological and economic patterns.

Is it any wonder that the citizens used the ‚citizens‘ initiative‘ and ‚citizens‘ participation‘ models, which we planners had once made palatable to them and which were successful in many cases, as a defence against any change to the existing qualities? Now that people have learnt to represent their own interests, they have also used this approach – against the construction of further housing, against the accommodation of asylum seekers and repatriates, in some cities even against social housing. An endless chain of examples could be listed in which the content of civic action was not only defensive, but was first and foremost characterised by the intention of preserving vested interests against new arrivals. In any case, the ’song of sharing‘ (Lafontaine) was not primarily sung by citizens‘ initiatives. Neither the form of organisation, which in its undifferentiated nature expressed nothing other than the desire to assert one’s own interests, nor the structure of participation, which did not relate to issues affecting the city as a whole, or at least did not assume that it did, led to the kind of responsibility for the whole of urban society that is so central today and which has a decisive influence on the attitude of urban actors today.

It became clear at that time that, in view of the problem dimensions that were emerging in the 1990s, a model that had stopped at the citizens‘ initiative or the addressing of ‚affected citizens‘ as a global category had to be abandoned.(9) The problem with citizen participation did not lie in the fact that some planning objects were so narrowly defined that they met with a homogeneous set of interests among the affected citizens. Rather, it lay in the structure of participation itself, which tended to be based on direct involvement. This became particularly precarious when decisions of major importance had to be made, for which urban planners and local politicians sometimes had to (or should have) venture out with plans that went far beyond what was customary at the time. The customary citizen participation was not up to the task. 

In search of a new model

At this point, we had to ask ourselves some (self-)critical questions: Are our participatory planning ways and means sufficiently suitable to not only just keep our heads above water in the present, but also to reduce future problems at the same time? By retreating into the acceptance of those ‚affected‘ and interested citizens‘ groups, are we not producing some compromises whose solving power is more likely to lie in merely accumulating effects that will in reality exacerbate future problems? Did we contribute to the production of illusions, of ideas of life in urban society that would appear to later generations as unworldly and idyllic at best? Had we perhaps even supported, in good faith and with all contrary intentions, a sense of entitlement that may have played a subterranean role in enabling the Haiders & Co. to take root? Their central political and ideological error lay in their backward-looking fantasy of solving social problems, coupled with a ruthless defence of their own interests. A heretical question, but one that we had to think about. After all, in many European cities at the time, right-wing extremist movements could be found in neighbourhoods where socially oriented planning or renewal had once been carried out with great commitment. This circumstance demanded that we scrutinise our visions and our solutions more closely than we had done so far in terms of their viability in a future that was already emerging. Can they hold up in the light of the undeniably huge problems that our societies, especially our urban societies, will have to contend with and which are already manifesting themselves today in emphatic but probably still comparatively harmless preludes? 

Urban planning as an interplay of urban actors: the mobilisation of collective reason 

Nota bene, the answers to this could not simply be urban planning concepts with which, in the familiar manner, architects‘ and urban planners‘ speculations are declared to be truths. Such speculations could at best form a starting point. More and more urban planners and local politicians realised that the decisive factor was to set a process in motion with the planning.

At the beginning of the 1990s, the formula of urban planning as a process was a novelty that found its way into some of the more advanced urban development concepts of large cities, for example in Vienna, Berlin, Hamburg and Munich. However, it was soon realised that this also required a statement on the structure of this process – and this not only had consequences at all levels of decision-making and administrative action, but also – because it was closely interwoven with this – with regard to the way in which planning participation was organised. This presented an opportunity to develop forms of participation that, by virtue of their design and composition, transcend particular interests. To quote myself once again from my earlier statements: „Urban planning must be returned, also in the construction of its participatory procedure, from a matter of interest representation to a matter of joint responsibility. This also means that the discussion about citizen participation must no longer be limited to the implementation of participation per se. It must thematise the fact that the greater self-determination that has been achieved must also be linked to greater responsibility for the whole of urban society. One of the characteristics of civil society is precisely that citizens, in the collective self-regulation of their affairs, also responsibly take into account a superordinate overall good, and even more: that the pursuit of the good of the whole is one of the driving forces behind their actions.“(10) This would require citizens to think in terms of responsibility for the city as a whole. However, as we all know, this cannot be solved by appeals, but only by an actual transfer of responsibility. My thesis at the time was that city-wide responsibility can only be achieved if citizens are seen as urban actors in all their diversity and if the form of their participation in the planning discussion is structured in such a way that all the main ‚categories‘ of urban actors are represented. I strongly believed that participation in this process should be structured in such a way that all conceivable points of view could be incorporated into the planning process: those of the relevant urban actors that can be identified as a group or current, those of all relevant disciplines and, last but not least, the different points of view that arise from the perspectives of the different scale levels, from the micro to the macro level. The result would be a mobilisation of the collective reason of the city’s citizens.

Of course, this involved far-reaching issues, some of which were still taboo, namely a consciously greater control of social processes. This meant that it was not about the participation of citizens in general, but about the well-considered composition of a group of people who represent the diverse interests, the different ideological currents and the various specialised disciplines as they can be found in a city; but who can also bring the different spatial, social and political references of the problem and its solution to bear. Forms of organisation among citizens and forms of cooperation with the municipality must express this greater responsibility, i.e. they must have structures that have a broader perspective structurally built in, that bring it with them quasi nolens volens, and that in the same way introduce an attitude of thinking together in problem-solving that concerns urban society as a whole. 

Experiments on the road to civil society

With this discovery, a decisive step was taken towards civil society, which not only led politically out of a stalemate of disinterest and mistrust, but also freed planners and local politicians from the overwhelming task of being the only ones who had to hold up the flag of the common good in a pluralistic catch-as-catch-can. Surprisingly, however, the vision of a humane civil society based on responsibility and self-governance was slow to gain ground among urban planners. There is a pragmatic reason for this and perhaps also a planning science reason. The pragmatic reason is the unexpected onslaught of planning issues, which left planners no time for fundamental reflection on their actions and instruments. One planning science barrier was perhaps the certain alienation between planners, architects and social scientists that had occurred in the 1980s, a reaction in the Freudian sense to the devoted orientation towards this spectrum of sciences that had characterised the architectural and planning landscape of the 1960s and 1970s, without leading to the hoped-for breakthroughs in urban planning problem-solving. In any case, the conspicuous consequence was a retreat of planners to the practical planning terrain and, where it was supposed to be a matter of reflecting on this practice, to the terrain of planning science. 

However, even without the guidance of the social sciences, the field of planning practice has now produced some fruitful results. 

Since the early 1990s, some interesting new forms of participation of urban actors in planning had emerged, ranging from public planning forums to private law constructions of cooperation between urban actors and public authorities, which can be read as illustrations on the way to civil society – even if they have hardly paid any attention to this social science discourse, which was running parallel to this period and represents such a suitable theoretical framework for interpretation. (11) It was not until the mid-1990s that contacts were established between planners and social scientists on the subject of ‚civil society‘ – and then, significantly, on the initiative of sociologists and political scientists, who discovered that something had also developed in urban planning that corresponded to their theoretical and conceptual ideas.(12)

These new forms could hardly be categorised under the well-worn term of planning participation – in their essence they represented something else, something much more far-reaching: they represented structures of a new quality of social regulation, in which close coordination and networking between self-regulation and municipal control was achieved, as we know it today. 

The first indication of this was the Stadtforum Berlin, which was set up in 1991 under the planning pressure following the fall of the Berlin Wall. It brought together urban stakeholders from tenants to investors, disabled people, churches, housing associations, women and representatives of the political parties, the districts, together with representatives of the various professional organisations and all conceivable disciplines that play a role in urban planning. This forum had no decision-making powers, but was a body for preparing decisions together with the responsible politicians and the administration. Although for various reasons it only had a moderate influence on the actual planning decisions, it nevertheless represented a breakthrough in thinking. For the first time, the model of the participation of undifferentiated citizens had been broken and the various categories of ‚citizens‘ as urban actors had been placed on an equal footing with other traditional actors (investors, homeowners). It was, as it were, the weather glow of civil society that was evident here. I myself was actively involved as a co-initiator and member of the steering group – so please forgive me if I cannot resist the temptation to describe this case in more detail below. For those who find such a detailed retrospective less interesting, I recommend simply skipping this chapter.

Urban planning in an open dialogue process: the Berlin City Forum

Strictly speaking, the Berlin City Forum originated from a citizens‘ initiative, but then with a city-wide scope: As a result of the hectic planning frenzy triggered by the task of merging the two parts of Berlin, the fear had arisen among experts and concerned Berliners that, under the enormous time pressure, those politically responsible could now resort to procedures that would no longer take into account the demand for citizen participation. This concern gave rise to a concept that would combine a democratic planning process with efficiency and speed: a broad, city-wide forum for public discussion

of Berlin’s urban development, derived from Dutch procedures for reaching consensus on important public issues(13), in which representatives of all categories of urban stakeholders would come together. The core idea was to set up a discussion and coordination round of representatives of the important groups in the city with experts from all disciplines within and outside the administration as well as those with political responsibility. The topic was planning objectives and principles of urban development and urban design. The purpose was to support the preparation and decision-making process through a rational negotiation of all points of view in a way that was transparent to the public and which was quasi physically represented in this committee by its participants. It was hoped that this would lead to the formulation of broadly supported recommendations which, although they had no parliamentary status, would at least morally bind the political level.

Such an idea was new in Germany, so nobody really knew how to organise it. Firstly, such a forum needed funding in order to become operational, and secondly, it needed a body of such standing that it would be taken seriously when serious planning decisions were made. An initiative group could not offer either, unless it was supported by suitably important personalities and organisations. In Berlin at the time, a good solution would certainly have been to liaise with the governing mayor. However, this would have presupposed that the governing mayor saw his function as non-partisan and that he had a sense for such a political innovation and its value. But he was not such a mayor. Instead, the concept was adopted by a single senator. Even if this was the senator with the ‚right‘ portfolio, namely urban development and environmental protection, the forum had already made a serious birth defect that was to play a very restrictive role in the future. After all, important technical aspects of urban development in Berlin were already being handled by other Senate departments (Building and Housing, Transport), not to mention other aspects of urban development that would have been useful to integrate firmly into the work of such a forum. 

In the political implementation, however, the model of a negotiating body was only partially adopted, but had undergone a considerable modification in the direction of a body of experts. The proportion of experts appointed to the city forum by the senator was above average and the selection of representatives of the important groups in the city showed gaps – it was only in the course of the following years that corrections could be implemented here. I was quite dissatisfied with this point in particular at the time. I called the question of composition a pitfall for the success of such a forum. I wrote: „The first step is to carefully select the groups that must be represented – after all, the number of participants must remain manageable, as it is supposed to be a working body. Nor should it simply be organisations – it is equally important that relevant interests and positions are represented even if they are not organised.“(14)

But who should represent these organisations, groupings or movements? At that time, fairly formalised ideas about democracy still prevailed in Europe. Accordingly, most people would have answered this question by saying that such representatives would have to be elected. But that would probably have ruined the whole idea. The principle of delegation harbours the danger that such officially delegated representatives would feel bound by a predetermined vote of their organisation and would no longer be able to deliberate openly(15). But who should then determine who is important? As we were not used to a citizens‘ group co-opting on its own responsibility, which was considered a legitimate procedure, we could only hope that the senator who had taken matters into his own hands would make a good choice. Fortunately, he was guided by the principle of putting together a panel of independent people who are respected and trusted within their own ranks. This resulted in around 60 permanent members. On the one hand, there were recognised personalities from the important groups in the city: from tenants‘ associations and trade unions to investors and housing associations as well as political parties; on the other hand, there were personalities from the various specialist associations of architects, urban planners, landscape planners and transport planners. Some „lateral thinkers“ are also represented: Artists and outsiders from other disciplines and locations, who should help to break through thought patterns. 

The meetings were prepared and analysed by a steering group consisting of a number of experts with very different areas of experience and very different views, so that a certain proportionality also came into play in steering the work of the forum. In addition, a so-called workbench was available, a number of independent experts who, if necessary, had to analyse questions that could not be sufficiently clarified in the course of the forum meetings, so that they could be dealt with in more detail at a later meeting. This structure also made sense in principle, but in practice in the specific case it was fraught with all kinds of handicaps. The organisational heart consisted of an office, which was essential for the functioning of the forum. We were lucky that this office was staffed by a group of very qualified and highly committed people who were prepared to sacrifice their working hours or a weekend if necessary. After all, with their expertise, organisational talent and reliability, all kinds of things had to be arranged, often at very short notice, from the drafting and compilation of preparatory texts and programmes, the preparation of minutes, the drafting of texts for press work to invitations to speakers and the precise preparation of questions for them and the ‚regular‘ participants of the forum. And last but not least, things as trivial as they were important had to be well organised, such as coffee, tea and sandwiches for the break and the functioning of the speakers. 

The meetings were long and intensive and the rhythm of the meetings was rapid: fortnightly meetings on Friday afternoons and long Saturday mornings in the first two years, and then monthly meetings later on. This was something very unusual at the time (after all, they saw such a committee as more of a superfluous sidecar to the official bodies), but the high frequency of meetings was probably a key factor in bringing this experiment in active civic responsibility to life. This intensive joint work created a basis of trust between the participants, whose attitudes and backgrounds were so different, which is a prerequisite for an unbiased and solution-orientated discussion at a high level. You always have to bear in mind that in the planning world at the time, a discussion with such a wide range of participants was not common, especially not in Berlin, which had developed a tradition of hermetically sealed administrative behaviour.

The first attempts at this type of forum were certainly difficult to organise in terms of content. What should be put on the agenda from the wealth of open and controversial planning issues? In Berlin, the agenda was largely determined by the needs of day-to-day politics: Priority on the programme was given to issues that were due for decision. This had the advantage that what was discussed was very topical and, all in all, there was also a skilful oscillation between large and small-scale issues, from the regional and urban development dimension to the project dimension, which I still see as very fruitful in retrospect. In terms of content, the Urban Forum dealt with practically all urgent issues of urban planning and urban development at different scales and in different sectors. For example, the question of the guiding principle of Berlin’s urban development, the relationship between Berlin and its surrounding areas and the development perspectives that the new land use plan must outline were repeatedly discussed, as were issues such as the renewal of the inner city areas in the eastern part of the city, how to deal with the prefabricated housing estates, the capital city planning projects and their effects, commercial investor projects, traffic management, principles of public space design, questions of urban renewal in the eastern districts, etc. 

The Stadtforum Berlin was, of course, initially a hit with the media. The meetings were open to the press and the media, at least in the first two years, made great use of the opportunity to report on positions on urban development in statu nascendi. But the press gallery was also regularly occupied by visitors who had a particular interest in the specific topic on the agenda. There were no admission barriers, and that was a good thing. But it wasn’t supposed to be a football stadium with a small group of spectators on the pitch, cheered on by a huge number of supporters and opponents.

The City Forum’s declared aim was to use the discussions to make recommendations to the Senator for Urban Development, recommendations that were widely supported by the City Forum and which would then be incorporated into the political decision. This was of course a weak point. There was often too little time to reach a common denominator. It was also not uncommon for the senator to no longer see himself as a listener, but rather to reign in the tendency to find the truth with sharp argumentation. The process of learning a new style also began for politicians at that time. Nor did the „success control“ work. What was actually done with the recommendations? Several times, the political decisions were spectacularly different. After all, the forum was only linked to one of the senators. Transport, Building+Housing, Economics, Social Affairs, Culture: none of the departments closely involved in urban development were involved. And to what extent did this one senator really feel involved? The decisive votes and harmonisations undoubtedly took place outside the forum. Even if this cannot be prevented in any construction today, and a forum can only counter this with the transparency of its own deliberations, a greater breadth of political sponsorship (if it has to be political) would have been a significant improvement in terms of effectiveness in Berlin at the time. 

A critical point in the early years was certainly the relationship between the City Forum and the administration. Due to the then still prevailing administrative tradition of obedience, the administration found it difficult not to see such a forum as unwelcome competition that would interfere with its work. Nevertheless, over time, a certain degree of co-operation was achieved. But at the same time – and this was a balancing act at a time when the administration did not yet see itself as a citizen service – the forum had to protect itself from becoming dependent on the combined expertise of the administration. Once a peaceful coexistence between the forum and the administration had finally been established, the administration began to appreciate the advantages of this organisation: Competent opinions from various specialist disciplines were brought to the table here in a concentrated and rapid manner, as well as the most important positions of the public representatives, which could otherwise only be collected in the time-consuming procedures that were still common at the time. As a result, the guiding principles and objectives of urban development and sectoral planning were compared and concretised in dialogue and the first approaches to integral planning came into view. 

Over the course of time, it also became clear that it was not enough for the city forum to think about problems at a city-wide level. Ultimately, all issues had to be translated into concrete terms in the districts. An urban forum for the city as a whole therefore definitely needed its complementary forums at the small-town level if the process of public discussion, opinion-forming and voting was to be effective and comprehensive. District forums, neighbourhood forums, neighbourhood committees, as we know them today, were needed in which the big decisions could be discussed and reviewed from the perspective of people’s tangible everyday world.(16) We were also aware that the city forum would only really come into its own as part of such a network of local public consultation in the sense of a new planning culture, which we all dreamed of at the time and on the threshold of which we were also standing at the time. A new planning culture „that might one day be able to displace the legal and bureaucratic excesses of today’s formalised planning – not in the sense of formally unhinging it, but by replacing it in the real, practical process with a different approach that is geared towards public discussion and consensus-oriented reconciliation between the naturally divergent starting positions“, I wrote cautiously at the time(17). 

In this first version, the Berlin Urban Forum worked for one legislative period. Did it fulfil the expectations of contributing to the democratisation of planning in a period of hectic planning activities? For the first time, we saw: In a climate of broad public debate, specialist fashions or purely particular interests can no longer hold their own, in many cases they almost take care of themselves. Even in these early days, the participants showed more capacity for compromise and consensus than even I, who was convinced of this style, had expected. The City Forum also contributed decisively to a broad interest in the city and in urban development planning. In a sense, it spread the spirit of civic responsibility for the good of the community that had led to its creation. At least in its best days, when it was widely reported in the media, it was not a remote affair. The cause was well known. It had become something of an institution. 

The importance of the Stadtforum also extended beyond Berlin. The need for planning in Berlin at that time only emphasised in a very pronounced way a situation of upheaval that other cities were also facing. It was no coincidence that the Stadtforum was followed with great interest elsewhere and in the following years led to various cities also beginning to experiment with forums. At city-wide and even regional level, these forums helped to prepare important planning decisions – which had previously been the prerogative of the administration – and thus exerted influence on planning in the sense of co-operative development of recommended solutions. 

Urban planning as co-production

At that time, the first approaches to constructions of co-production in urban planning were already developing, as we find them everywhere today. The term first appeared in the context of urban planning in the Netherlands – forgive my vanity as an old lady if I remember that I organised the first congress on this newly born term, which, like the book on the subject published in the same year, undoubtedly accelerated the development towards co-production(18).

The ’stedelijk-beheer-groepen‘, which became established in the Netherlands in the second half of the 1980s, are certainly among the early precursors of co-production in our field.

Their task was – and still is, since they still exist in principle – the constant planning and care of a neighbourhood with all ongoing tasks, from maintenance and renovation of buildings and public spaces to waste disposal, street cleaning and police monitoring of public safety. Accordingly, it also brings together representatives of all those who have a connection to the neighbourhood as users, residents or service providers: from the various departments of the city administration, housing associations and other property owners, residents‘ organisations to teachers, priests and social workers. These ‚Beheer‘ groups emerged from the Rotterdam-style urban regeneration project groups, which had planning competence within a fixed framework and were made up of a broad range of civil servants from various administrative departments, architects, building contractors, residents and tradespeople.

Another root certainly lies in the large-scale projects that were carried out from the 1980s onwards under the heading of public-private partnerships.(19) In continuation of this basic concept, projects were tackled in which not only private-sector projects, but also urban planning tasks with all their socio-political implications were worked on in close cooperation with the investors involved, but also with representatives of non-profit organisations and citizens‘ initiatives. A good example of this was the development of the ‚Kop van Zuid‘ in Rotterdam, a collaboration between the municipality, various investors and representatives of various residents‘ organisations in Feijenoord, the adjacent multicultural urban renewal area, which attracted a great deal of attention at the time. Here, the objectives, programme, plans and procedures were negotiated in the sense of negotiation planning and agreed in mutual contracts. This involved compensating for the anticipated burdens of the planning project as a whole (by means of specific components of the planning through to employment policy agreements) in such a way that an overall package acceptable to the city, the neighbourhood and the investors was achieved. The constructions of urban development companies under private law that emerged around the same time in some German cities in the context of urban development on the periphery had a similar basic structure, even if citizen representation in this circle of urban actors was certainly less satisfactorily regulated in the initial phase.

The essential thing about these forms of planning as co-production between various private, semi-public and public urban actors is that they introduced a target perspective that combined the trend towards individual initiative that had developed in the 1980s with the consideration of overall urban development objectives. For the first time, it was no longer a question of mere participation in a planning project conceived and elaborated by the municipality, but of a process in which, from the very beginning, all issues from setting objectives and preparing decisions to implementation were jointly managed. And it was not about the dead end of purely private-sector, complex urban development projects, the problematic consequences of which converted even their most vehement advocates at the turn of the millennium.

These new approaches could only be summarised provisionally with the term planning participation. They signified a qualitative development and were important steps towards the idea of civil society self-management taking shape. Their organisational structure alone meant that they ran far less risk of becoming retrospectively oriented. With the broad composition of the participants, namely all relevant urban actors, including many with a city-wide field of action, the participants were involved in urban problems that went beyond the horizon of each individual actor. But they were – and still are, we still have this form in principle – also able to develop solutions to problems that exceed the imagination of any individual actor – including the municipality. This is because they are both close to reality and its financial, physical and idealistic potential and far enough away to embed them in a larger temporal and spatial framework. 

As it turned out, this path also offered the prospect of tackling the thorny issues of our urban future, both in terms of planning and politics, in such a way that social tensions were not exacerbated but, in the most favourable cases, gradually reduced. The fact that the latter, ’social management‘, should be the main task in overcoming the problems of the big city was only just beginning to be recognised at the time: Immigration from poorer southern and eastern countries, which can only be stopped to a limited extent if we do not want to end up in a police state, distributive justice with dwindling public funds and a simultaneously growing circle of clients, or the need to lower our level of aspiration in the consumption of space by each individual and other demands that are difficult to harmonise with sustainable development. Self-restriction in the consumption of energy and raw materials must be translated into corresponding planning concepts and utilisation concepts and the associated reduction of standards for spatial dimensions and furnishings that were previously taken for granted – this would not be possible without the co-operative forms of planning that began at that time.

Postscript anno 2020: 

The topicality of foresight – and the urgency of its realisation

From a twenty-twenty perspective, one might be surprised that these self-evident facts brought with them such birth pangs. Today we realise that the city can only be preserved as a biotope for people if all those who live and work in and with it are involved and consider responsibility for the city as a whole to be their top priority. At that time, such ideas were still new, because people were used to a kind of division of labour in the representation of interests between private actors, administration and politics, which placed all supra-individual concerns with the latter two. And people were used to the slow pace of development in the past, which usually allowed the damaging effects of such a non-integrative approach to be corrected just in time. It was in the field of environmental protection that it was first discovered that individual and group egoism must take a back seat to the common goal of preserving the environment, on pain of our demise. Only a few realised at the time that this also applied to our cities as a whole, such as Richard Rogers, who told his students back in the mid-1990s: „We are gradually becoming accustomed to seeing nature as the highest good, now we must see the urban sphere in a similar way. The terms that ecologists use to describe our relationship to the environment – the idea that we are not its owners but trustees with duties to future generations – apply equally to the public life of a city.“(16) Twenty-five years ago, many did not think it possible that a community-based sense of responsibility for our urban societies would re-emerge in a different form than the model of the civic public sphere had designed. And perhaps this would not have been possible if the two had not worked together: the existential necessity of sustainable development and the escalating social question. Without the forms of planning based on shared responsibility that our civil society has developed over the past two and a half decades, it would in any case not have been possible to preserve the large cities as human biotopes. 


1 See Bernhard Peters, Die Integration moderner Gesellschaften. Frankfurt 1993.

2 Edward Shils, What is a Civil Society? in: Krystof Michalski (ed.), Europe and the Civil Society. Castelgandolfo Talks 1989, Stuttgart 1991.

3 Axel Honneth, Disintegration. Fragments of a sociological diagnosis of the times. Frankfurt 1994, p.84.

4 Incidentally, at the end of the 1980s, the Dutch beer magnate Heineken had already presented a concept for the division of Europe into 76 culturally and historically based regions as the basis for a political division of Europe, which was highly regarded in management circles at the time. The American bestselling author John Naisbitt then drew the attention of a wide audience to this in his book „Global Paradox“, published in 1995. For him, the organisation of smaller units was generally the key to tackling social and political issues.

5 The urban planner who most emphatically and repeatedly referred to this was Rem Koolhaas. See, for example, his interview in ARCH+ No.117/93 or his lecture Singapore Songlines (Berlage Institute Amsterdam, Video 1995). 

6 Helga Fassbinder, Die Produktion der Zukunft: Wiener Stadtplanung in der Zivilgesellschaft, in: H. Heinelt/ K.M. Schmals (eds.), Zivilgesellschaftliche Planung – Planung in der Zivilgesellschaft. Berlin 1995, p….(here after the lay out the page number must be inserted)

7 Hannes Swoboda, Wir beginnen wieder Stadt zu bauen, in: Stadtbauwelt 126/1995, p. 1337.

8 Rudolf Edlinger, Hugo Potyka, Bürgerbeteiligung und Planungsrealität. Experiences, methods and perspectives. Vienna 1989.

9 See Barbara Rosenberg (ed.), Vom Zuschauer zum Aktivbürger, Renner Institut, Vienna 1994.

10 Helga Fassbinder, Die Produktion der Zukunft. op. cit. S… (insert the correct page number after lay out)

11 Helga Fassbinder, Planning Strategies and Planning Forums. Das Stadtforum Berlin als Lehrstück, in: Dirk Schubert (ed.), Städte von morgen. Kassel 1995, also in: Wohnbund (ed.), Wohnpolitische Innovationen, Darmstadt 1994, p. 16f. 

12 H. Heinelt/K.M. Schmals (eds.), Zivilgesellschaftliche Planung – Planung in der Zivilgesellschaft. Berlin 1995. 

13 For a detailed description of the Dutch procedures that inspired the concept, see H. Fassbinder, Demokratisch Planen – Aufgaben und Erfahrung. Contribution to ‚Berlin – a European metropolis‘ seminar on urban development and urban planning. In: Hanseatenweg 10. journal of the Academy of Arts. No.2/91, p.84 ff.

14 Helga Fassbinder, Planning Forums and Planning Strategies. The Stadtforum Berlin as a lesson. In: Dirk Schubert (ed.), Cities of tomorrow. Kassel (series of publications Gesamthochschule) 1995. ditto in: Wohnbund (ed.). Yearbook for Housing Policy Innovations. Darmstadt 1994.

15. 15 Such a problem arose with the formalised Inspraak bodies in the Netherlands. Delegates were sent to these bodies who usually felt so strongly attached to their group position and felt the need for feedback on every modification of the declared association position that open negotiations on a possible compromise were blocked. The simple advisory commissions, on the other hand, which were usually set up to prepare decisions in all areas of society and at all levels of scale, were composed according to the co-optation procedure in such a way that all relevant positions on the respective issues under discussion were represented at the table, but no outside influence interfered with the freedom of reflection, deliberation and compromise-oriented consensus-building. The decision pre-formulated in this way then naturally went through the decision-making process of the elected bodies.

16. 16 Incidentally, a number of such forums were already established in the 1990s in various Berlin districts, often as further developments of older initiatives or local committees. Examples include the Luisenstadt and Tiergarten neighbourhood committees, the Marzahn platform, the Wedding forum and the planned Charlottenburg neighbourhood forum. 

17. 17 H. Fassbinder, Planungsforen und Planungsstrategien. op. cit. 

18. 18 Helga Fassbinder (ed.), Stedelijke Planvorming als Co-productie. TUE Bouwstenen. Eindhoven 1995.

19. 19 Werner Heinz (ed.), Public-private-partnership. A new approach to urban development? Schriften des Deutschen Instituts für Urbanistik 87, Stuttgart 1993.