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"The dual city character of Halle offers a pretty unique opportunity"

When it comes to urban planning, there is hardly anyone in Germany who can provide information as competently as the Munich city planning officer Elisabeth Merk.

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"The dual city character of Halle offers a pretty unique opportunity"

When it comes to urban planning, there is hardly anyone in Germany who can provide information as competently as the Munich city planning officer Elisabeth Merk. She has been President of the German Academy for Urban and Regional Planning (DASL) since 2015, is also a member of the Advisory Board for Spatial Development of the Federal Ministry of the Interior, a member of the Construction and Transport Committee of the German Association of Cities and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Federal Foundation of Baukultur. After reunification, she was also responsible for urban planning in Halle. A conversation about the planned future center for German unity and European transformation.

WORLD: On May 19, 2022, the federal government decided to found a future center for German unity and European transformation. What do we need something like that for?

Elisabeth Merk: I'm not one of those who brought this proposal to the Bundestag, but I've had my own thoughts on it. I see it strongly from the perspective of urban development. In the 30 years since reunification, a great deal of transformation has been achieved in the new federal states, but also in the Eastern European countries. On the one hand, the federal states had the opportunity to reposition themselves, but on the other hand they were also confronted with considerable difficulties and a wide variety of contaminated sites. I find it very good to make this experience available in the form of a knowledge transfer. Europe and western Germany can learn a lot there.

WORLD: You helped shape this transformation yourself in a crucial phase.

Merk: I was responsible for urban planning and development in Halle an der Saale from 2000-2006. The big topic of urban redevelopment came up at that time. But also the challenge of urban redevelopment. What really impressed me in Halle was this juxtaposition of the classic European city with all its history, its great past from the Middle Ages to the High Renaissance, the Martin Luther University, which is over 500 years old, to Handel City.

WORLD: A city that had remained largely undestroyed!

Merk: Fortunately, there is also the fact that everything in Halle was not bombed out like in Munich, Stuttgart, Nuremberg or Dresden, but is still there. And then on the other side the city of modernity.

WORLD: Halle-Neustadt.

Merk: One of the largest modern urban projects, not only in East Germany, but internationally in general in the second half of the 20th century. A juxtaposition that is reflected not only in the built structure, but also in social processes.

WORLD: What was "transforming" about it?

Note: Of course both! In this double city, as in a laboratory, you had both in front of you: the industrial workers' city with its very own identity and mental location, which in turn was in a process of transformation; and next to it the classic European city of culture, which in turn is connected to the Werkbund via the Burg Giebichenstein school of applied arts, but also to the Bauhaus Dessau. The dual city character was and is Halle's rather unique opportunity to develop both lines of tradition and to positively link them together. The lesson is: you have to and can reinvent your identity, but at the same time you stand by your traditions.

WORLD: Now, in this transformation center planned by the federal government, not only the past is to be "transformed", but a "future center of German unity" is to be created. What is to be transformed in the reunified Germany? And where should it be transformed?

Merk: Here, too, I speak first and foremost as an urban developer. The 21st century is all about the much-mentioned “turnarounds”: the climate turnaround, the mobility turnaround, the digital turnaround. And these processes must be cushioned by social justice. These are enormous future challenges. A look at the ideas of modernism in the 20th century teaches that one is not well advised to combine the departure for the future with a hard break with the past. This mistake was not made in the new federal states and the Eastern European states after the fall of the wall when it was a matter of coping with far-reaching processes of change. I understand the program of the future and transformation center in such a way that it is important to take a very close look at it.

WORLD: Does the task description for the center only speak of transformation processes in Germany, Central and Eastern Europe, but not in Western Europe?

Note: I did not write the assignment. I can only say how I interpret it. Of course, we also have major transformation processes in the old federal states. At the technical level of urban development planning, however, we do not distinguish between East and West problems. We always sit together at the table when it comes to the New Leipzig Charter, the Memorandum on Resilient Cities or when it comes to building culture.

WORLD: As a city planning officer in Munich, you know first-hand what the West German cities are expecting of this “centre of the future”.

Merk: I have experienced in my own biography that it can be absolutely liberating when things are not already predetermined but are still open, because then you can design them much more specifically and freely.

WORLD: A competition for which the cities should submit their documents by the end of September will decide on the location for the future center. But why is the planning concentrated on a single city at all, when it is ultimately about topics that affect the whole of Germany, even Europe?

Merk: The city is a focus of the challenges we face. New numbers are coming out every few weeks. In Germany, 70 percent of people already live in cities. 50 or 60 percent worldwide. And one expects an even greater influx into the cities. The cities must - and can - be part of the solution to the major issues, above all the climate change and CO2 neutrality. Something like that can of course be made more visible on site, on a smaller scale. You're looking for a city where you can see that too.

WORLD: You spoke of your experiences in Halle. Could this city be such a visual example of successful and future transformation processes?

Merk: In Halle an der Saale, in 2000, it was possible to benefit from the methods of classic urban development planning, but many questions were asked in a completely different way on site. For example the urban redevelopment, the Silberhöhe as a large settlement.

WORLD: Which has been demolished.

Merk: Or Halle-Neustadt, where you quickly realized that you couldn't simply dismantle the city and pretend that Halle was just the small European city with the old town and the Gründerzeit quarters. The two prefabricated building areas called for very different concepts. We decided to risk demolition in the area of ​​the Saale meadows at Silberhöhe, which was extremely polluted, and to create new open and green spaces there, to install a water management system, etc. With preconceived ideas of city repairs according to the motto, we are now building on Riebeckplatz the Gründerzeit started again if it hadn't been brought under control.

WORLD: Do the transformation tasks in urban planning tempt us to only see urban development in purely technical solutions?

Merk: The technical issues of climate justice are one thing. But not all. Here in particular one can learn from the new federal states. At the same time, there was great pressure from the building culture in Halle. And with the Burg Giebichenstein Art Academy, its students and the Bauhaus traditions, you had great prerequisites for including cultural issues in these change processes.

WORLD: Halle is one of the candidate cities for the transformation and future center. – what chances do you give the city?

Notice: Very good! I know that Frankfurt an der Oder is also applying as a city in a Central and Eastern European border situation, as is Leipzig and a whole series of other cities. Only Halle is applying for Saxony-Anhalt.

WORLD: Magdeburg and Wittenberg have withdrawn.

Merk: The special thing about Halle is that not so much is predefined there. In addition, Halle is now a young city with a disproportionately large number of young people – an incredible reservoir for such experiments and discussions. And in Halle there is a tradition of civic engagement that goes back to the time before reunification, when citizens' initiatives called for ecological urban redevelopment.

WORLD: With regard to Leuna!

Merk: Yes, with regard to Leuna, but also citizens' initiatives for the preservation of the old town, such as the inner city working group, which is still active and advocates that locations such as the old breweries or the elevated road that still exists, the am Passing by the Franckesche Foundation World Heritage Site. In Halle, contrasts that certainly also exist in other cities become visible as if through a magnifying glass.

WORLD: To stay with the example of Halle: Should the people of Halle speak for all Germans, even for all of Europe, in this transformation process?

Merk: I understand the range of tasks of the planned Future Center in such a way that it should not be borne solely by the citizens of a single city, that, for example, citizens' initiatives from other Eastern and Central European countries should also be invited with the aim of strengthening European civil society activate. I imagine the transformation center as a dialogue and meeting center with exchange programs, town partnerships, etc. in the middle of Germany, with cross-connections of course to scientific institutions, to the Leopoldina and the University of Halle, but also to the Federal Environment Agency in Dessau, to name just a few .

WORLD: According to the Federal Government’s task description, the future center should above all be a research institute itself. What can civic participation, which is often just a token event, contribute constructively to the discourse on European transformation?

Note: We really need this! We can theoretically plan a lot, but if people don't participate, it won't work. It's not enough that I promise, one way or the other we will develop further. I have to work out with the people myself what would make sense if we want to make progress. Halle offers the best conditions for this dialogue.

WORLD: Can ordinary people have a say at all?

Merk: It's not just about the classic fields, how do we generate energy, where do we get the building materials from, what does our mobility look like. All of this reaches very deeply into the questions of living together. It used to be thought that growth and good economic development would do the trick. In the last 20 years, however, we have learned that this is not enough. Only prosperous growth is no guarantee that we have democratic conditions and CO2 neutrality. And therefore a second aspect must be considered: social justice. If these transformation processes are to succeed, they must be socially cushioned. The participation of the whole society is important. You can't decree that politically or regulate it through any laws, but dialogue is needed. And that's what really impressed me about Halle: art and culture can be very good catalysts for this participation. A transformation and future center that is limited to technical questions of upheaval would have failed in its task.

WORLD: Do you need a new building for this? Isn't it a basic idea of ​​the transformation to further develop existing buildings instead of building new ones? After reunification, Halle in particular had huge vacancies in some magnificent old buildings - shouldn't a transformation and future center explicitly look for such a location?

Note: I could very well imagine that. But perhaps the last word has not yet been spoken. I think that with such an application, it is important to prove a location that is well developed and would be suitable. The ambitious goal is to complete the future center by 2028.

WORLD: Shouldn't you include the whole region anyway when looking for suitable buildings, neighboring towns like Merseburg, Bitterfeld?

Merk: In any case, I assume that, as I know Halle and as was the case with previous applications from the city, one thinks beyond the city limits and enters into cooperations. But first, of course, you have to be awarded the contract. What I find exciting about the location on Riebeckplatz offered by Halle is that you may not be able to offer a large existing building there, but you can offer a piece of European urban landscape of the 20th century -

WORLD: One of the most monstrous traffic circles in Europe!

Merk: Which is facing a comprehensive infrastructure conversion. How to deal with the street spaces, the connections to the old town and the transition to the new town is a challenging task for urban planners. The place is now excellently developed. You can get to Leipzig and other cities quickly with the S-Bahn, you can also get to the airport quickly, and the railway junction is well developed. In addition, right by the station there is a site that even belongs to the federal government, with beautiful brick buildings on it, large warehouses from the late 19th/early 20th centuries. I can't judge which areas are available there and which contaminated sites are on them. But if that is compatible with the budget and the time frame, this building stock definitely offers itself.

WORLD: If the location is faced with such major challenges: are there new opportunities?

Note: Absolutely. In Halle I saw how a city can benefit from transformation processes. What was created there, what new added value was created, what new “green” business settlements are taking place are textbook examples of successful transformation. I would like to send all my colleagues from old West Germany there to see what can be achieved.

WORLD: To Halle?

Merk: Yes, to Halle, or to cities in Eastern Europe, to Poland or Bulgaria, also a post-socialist country, to see how similar transformation processes took place there, how structures can be rebuilt, how the future can be won.

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