Is your city selling off land? Case study: Free Space Berlin

How would you feel if you knew that your city was selling off land that belonged to you, and you didn’t even have the right to know where that land was, let alone have a say in what happened with it?

The views and opinions in this blog are NOT mine.  This blog by Christine Mclaren has been cross-posted from the BMW Guggenheim Lab Log  

How would you feel if you knew that your city was selling off land that belonged to you, and you didn’t even have the right to know where that land was, let alone have a say in what happened with it?

In Berlin, that scenario is a reality. And as Lab Team member Corinne Rose has learned through recent experience, it’s not an easy one to change.

Berlin is a city full of holes—thousands of empty lots or buildings that, through the city’s complex development history, have wound up belonging to the city government. In 2001, however, the government decided to found the Liegendschaftsfond, a subsidiary to which they gave one very specific directive: to manage those pieces of land and sell them for the highest profit. Since then, the Liegenschaftsfond has sold nearly six thousand of those pieces of land—which, technically, are publically owned—covering a total area of nearly fourteen million square meters.

Many people I’ve spoken to in Berlin long for a different directive for those spaces, something beyond just making a quick profit. Some see in the spaces potential to further develop old models or test new models of affordable housing. Others see them as spaces to experiment with new forms of environmentally, culturally and socially sustainable development in the city. Others told me that they didn’t have a specific agenda for the spaces themselves, but thought it wise to first discuss what Berliners actually want their city to look like in the future before selling off the remaining space that those future plans could fill.

A few weeks ago, Berlin-based Lab Team member Corinne Rose set out with an elephantine goal: to create a map of every piece of property formerly or currently held by the Liegendschaftsfond. She envisioned a Google map filled with three symbols: an x for those spaces that have already been sold, an exclamation point for those currently up for grabs on the market, and a question mark for those under the Liegendschaftsfond’s control, but not yet for sale. The goal? First, to make Berliners aware of how many of these spaces have already disappeared. Second: to empower them to try to change the course of the remaining spaces’ futures by enabling them to simply know where those spaces are. At the very least, she hoped to begin a discussion between politicians and citizens about how and by whom the fate of these spaces should be decided.

But after weeks and weeks of e-mails upon e-mails, the map she’s so far managed to create still looks like this:

Why is that? Where are those explosions of xs, exclamation points, and question marks she had envisioned?

Well, when she wrote to the Senate and asked for the data, the answer was short, and not so sweet: that data is not available.

The other aspect of Corinne’s project was to collect visions for the Liegendschaftsfond spaces that are still up for grabs. Once people knew where the spaces were, she imagined the community filling in their dreams of what they would like to see happen there. But for the time being, they won’t be able to do that. As it stands right now, if they’re living next to a public space that may be about to become private, they don’t have the ability or the right to know it.

You can read more about the Free Space Berlin project and see the interactive (albeit mostly empty) map here.

If you’re from Berlin, I’m curious to hear your thoughts. Do you want to see this data made available to you? If you had it, what would you do with it?

And if you’re not from Berlin, I’m equally curious to know how things work in your city. If you wanted to know which pieces of public land were going to be sold off by your government, would you be able to find out?