In the middle of Freiburg, Ricarda Huch wrote in 1926, is “the most beautiful treasure of the urban landscape: the cathedral. It is not a place of isolated tranquility, as is otherwise given to the main church, but from the daily bustle of the market; the splendid department store and the worthy granary, seat of the city administration, border it. In the midst of the joyous bustle of everyday life, the honorary house of the Mother of God expands, surrounded by the shimmering of its stones like a hedge of roses. What historian Huch described in her “Images of German City Life” using the example of Freiburg im Breisgau was a salute to one of the country’s most traditional institutions: the city as a center of society. Baden’s boomtown may have saved a lot of them over time, which makes it so charming, but it is already part of a minority. The city centers, which for centuries were the city itself, protected by walls, gates and freedoms, are in crisis.
The loss of attraction can be painfully felt in many places. A visit to the pedestrian zone reveals empty stores or the usual chain stores, where long-established stores once stood, even to casual onlookers. Diversity is lost, after 8 p.m. their streets with calmed traffic are there as if confinement had just been declared. The number of visitors is on the decline: the time is obviously over when “Long Saturday En D’r City”, a song by Cologne dialect rocker Bläck Fööss, was the highlight of a fun weekend.
Make no mistake about it, better times will return on their own. The corona pandemic only accelerated the downward trend, but did not cause it. Today, an error which dates back to the economic boom, but which has never been corrected in a decisive enough way, is taking its revenge: the reduction of city centers into consumption spaces. For a long time, the economy and the municipalities themselves profited from it to such an extent that they forgot the soft factors that made the attractiveness of the old town: the diversity, the colorful, the town as a place of residence and center and point of meet companies. The constantly renewed shopping centers and the displacement of the inhabitants by the businesses guaranteed good incomes as well to the retail trade as to the treasury of the city – of which the communes did not always know what to do. Countless structural horrors, with which they intended to enrich the site, bear witness to this in their spooky, concrete-gray testimony. Experiments like the new old town of Frankfurt, which want to regain lost charm, are therefore by no means as reprehensible as some architecture critics, driven by their luxury problems, like to claim.
Restart and store
The notion of “city equals sales area” is a thing of the past, at the latest thanks to online commerce, which continues to grow. City centers need both a new start and a return to their old role, or even their values. They need financial support from federal and state governments to be able to buy or rent vacant space, which can then be flexibly transferred to start-ups and founders or sports and culture, which increases the attractiveness of the city. There should also be more rights and less bureaucracy that steals energy and time like the little gray men in the children’s tale “Momo”. And the city must make life in the city easier. The German Association of Cities has just called for a lot in a smart strategic document.
In addition, there is something the association did not comment on as a precaution: the uncontrolled growth in commercial rents. Nothing but a new stock market crash or the introduction of a Leninist planned economy could be more unpopular in economic circles than the call to limit this also by law. But a drag on commercial rents may be necessary if the much-cited market forces in the downtown area continue to have so little curative effect. Maybe then the times will come again, about which the Bläck Fööss sang: “En d’r Stadt es Remmi Demmi / All the parking lots are full / All in all just Minschemasse / And they buy like crazy . “