Commons History of Berlin

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Discussion: A Commons History of Berlin

By Jens Kimmel, Sophie Bloemen and Till Gentsch:

"The squatter movement has also played a very important role in Berlin of the sixties and seventies, especially in the Kreuzberg area which remains one of the most vibrant and politically engaged neighbourhoods today. The squatter or Hausbsetzungs movement challenged central urban planning, which had led to the structural and large scale disuse of empty buildings while many young people needed housing. Their actions in the early eighties enjoyed wide support throughout Berlin society and beyond. The culture of Selbstverwaltung (self government) and collectivity was very influential and still echo in the Freie Szene (free scene) of Berlin today.

During the late 1980s and 1990s a great deal of the land in Berlin lay vacant too. After the fall of the Berlin wall, especially many buildings in the East were not in use and ownership often remained unclear. The squatter movement, the techno scene and many other defining traits that led to the fascination so many people feel towards Berlin, would not have been possible without this great vacancy and the city’s political situation at the time.22 Indeed, the then still generous welfare system, which allowed people to dedicate their time to unpaid work, also contributed greatly to the development of communities and cultural and political initiative at the time.

The city of Berlin, however, was heavily indebted and started to sell off public property – buildings as well as land – to the highest bidder in 2002, a habit that intensified over the years. At the same time, privately owned companies started to manage public property without much eye for potential community-based use.

As of 2008, right after the global financial crisis, interest in buying real estate was low for several years, which, much like the situation in Amsterdam, presented a window of opportunity for commons in the urban environment. In Berlin it allowed, for example, for the start of the well-known and greatly successful urban agriculture initiative Prinzessinnengarten (Garden of the Princesses), which took on a political role and challenged dominant ideas about who owns the city and what purposes city space can serve.

As the banking sector was ‘secured’ and the economy picked up steam a few years later, the interest in buying Berlin estate re-emerged and grew fiercely to eventually escalate into heavy speculation on housing and land. As a consequence, a great deal of public property accommodating social and cultural initiative has been sold off while tenants in Berlin are increasingly spending major parts of their income - around fifty percent - on rents.23 Over the years, many urban commons initiatives have been evicted, not being able to secure ownership of the spaces they were using. The phase of so-called Zwischennutzung (in-between use) of buildings and public spaces seems more or less over with only very few vacant spaces left." (

Recent developments regarding urban commons

Several key events took place in the 2010s, setting the tone for the political debate and shaping the expectations of Berlin citizens with respect to affordable housing and the collective stewardship of city spaces. The initiatives below vary in the way they reflect the commons, but all seem to have developed a community-based perspective on the right to city spaces.

One of these events has been the activist citizen initiative 100% Tempelhofer Feld, which was founded in 2011 and demanded to secure the open space of the former Tempelhof airfield for the public. The group worked tirelessly to prevent the senate’s largescale development plan for the area from being implemented. By the time the development plan was introduced, the 380 hectare space had been standing vacant for a long time in which many different individuals and communities had already been using the place for various activities – from urban gardening to sport activities – and now were being threatened to lose it. A city-wide referendum was held on 25 May 2014 in which 63,3% of the participants said yes to Tempelhofer Feld’s proposal.

Another prominent example is the 40-year battle of neighbours and activists for participation in the development of the contested Gleisdreieck territory in the borough Kreuzberg/ Schöneberg. After an extensive period of meetings, protests and lawsuits, the action group eventually succeeded to prevent the construction of a highway, an exhibition and an amusement park. In 2005 the initiative Aktionsgemeinschaft Gleisdreieck (Action Community Gleisdreck) was finally invited to take part in the planning process of the park and present its vision, which generally deviated strongly from what the architects, the senate and Grün Berlin GmbH, the project management company, had in mind. Although the result was a compromise, the heterogeneous initiative was able to directly participate in the planning of their neighbourhood through which they were able to protect the area’s social value.

A group of tenants renting from Berlin’s social housing corporations organized themselves in 2012 as Kotti and Co to protest the increasing rents. Right in front of their homes, they occupied parts of the Kottbusser Tor public square and built a protest house on it, the Gecekondu (Turkish for informal city/slum), which served as a place of assembly for everyone taking part in the protest and became the symbol of the ongoing conflict.

As recent as April 2018 a demonstration protesting the high rents brought together 20.000 people to the streets and received major attention. In May this year, Berlin saw a revival of political squatting as two houses in Kreuzberg and Neukölln were occupied while 5 others were announced to be occupied in a political gesture. Increasing housing needs, speculation and steep rent increases are leading to radical responses that enjoy broad support from citizen and parts of the political establishment, as did the squatter movement in the 80s.

The initiative Stadt von Unten (City from Below) is promoting communally owned and self-governed housing as well as “100% affordable rents” at the Dragonerareal, a building complex consisting of, among others, a former military base. The people involved in Stadt von Unten are campaigning against the planned privatization of space in the city and develop concrete alternative models that allow for and ensure sustainable housing.

In 2012 200 refugees and helping activists occupied the buildings of the Gerhardt-Hauptmann school in Kreuzberg as a response to both unaffordable housing and asylum policies. The building provided a home to up to 200 people. Several big theaters in Berlin also took part in the alliance, referred to as My right is your right, which helped to politicize the struggle for a right to the city and questioned the inclusiveness of national citizenship.

Despite these examples of people actively claiming their right to the city, the senate’s top down style of governing has not significantly changed." (


* Report: Urban Commons Shared Spaces. By Jens Kimmel, Sophie Bloemen and Till Gentsch. Commons Network and Raumlaborberlin, 2018