21 September, 2020

Gold mine with green roofs: The latest vision for Luxembourg City’s ‘Place de l’Etoile’

Figure 1, taken by 'Zinneke' on 16 September 2017, CC 3.0

Luxembourg City is still struggling with the consequences of its rapid growth, as a range of large-scale urban projects are currently in planning, being built or finalised, while major pieces of infrastructure renovation (road, water, sewage) and hundreds of cases of micro-construction are going on simultaneously. The Capital City actually looks like a huge construction site, and the outcomes of some recent projects are disputed to say the least. There is disillusion about what has evolved recently in the shape of the 1980s urban design and motor-car dominated street layout of the district called ‘Cloche d’Or’. There are also high hopes as to flagship projects such as the light rail ‘Tram’ that will not only produce a smooth connection between the main central train station 'Gare' with the banking district on Kirchberg in due course, but will also turn the city centre quite visibly into a site of urban regeneration.

Moreover, after more than a decade of silence, rumor and speculation, one of the biggest fillets of urban development and property exploitation gets back to life: Place de l’Etoile, or Stäreplatz in Luxembourgish.(1) Having been a mere urban brownfield or empty spot for a long time (see Figure 1), this western entry point to the city centre already got some attention in the media a few years ago, when the lot was purchased by the state-led Abu Dhabi Investment Authority in 2016. For some time, it was supposed to host another large-scale urban project fit for commerce and office, following Hamilius and Cloche d’Or that were completed in the 2010s and the massive Porte de Hollerich that still looms on the planning stage. Given the peculiar mechanisms of the real estate economy, the new owners have obviously been waiting for a good moment to get market transaction and development unleashed, which seems to have arrived now.

Last Monday, city and government officials presented their plans for the Place de l’Etoile(2): a massive mixed-use development project comprising housing, office and retail, complemented by smart and clean public spaces. While its appeal seems to be in line with the projects mentioned above, a couple of interesting innovations could be noted on this occasion, also compared with earlier planning practices of the Capital City. First, the focus is switching from the once most lucrative office and commerce sectors towards increasing housing supply. Obviously, a significant market change makes luxury apartments and condominiums a promising addition to the city’s real-estate portfolio; due to humble policy goals, only a ten per cent-share of housing floor space is required by regulation to be devoted to housing at “moderate” cost (moderate by the country’s measure). By increasing focus on luxury housing by elevating the share of housing from 12 to 47 per cent of the total floor space provided, the existing building plan needs to be adapted to changing demands from the developer. (To apply such amendments after plans are politically agreed upon is actually a rather common pattern in the city’s planning practice).

Second, a green transport package is applied with which this project is sold to the public, which also explains the pro-active role taken over by the Minister for public works and transport who is from the Green Party. The package includes an additional leg of the tram system, connecting the city centre with the western suburbs. This is considered a smart move, as it legally ensures a major part of the infrastructure to be financed by the state, not the city or the developer. In addition, a sort of underground bus terminal will transform the Place de l’Etoile into a mobility hub, where major bus lines will feed into the tram system as long as this is serving the inner city only. Tram, trees and green roofs give the whole project an environmental appeal, without knowing how seriously this can be taken.(3) Third, it happened for the first time that we observed the developer in charge joining the press conference of Mayor and Minister. Usually this actor group remains as discrete as possible or invisible, even though there is some indication that they play a central role in the planning and building circuit of the country. It is not totally clear what this means, but it is of course pretty unusual and not often seen before, if at all.

Two questions remain as a consequence of this observation. One concerns the negative externalities of the project. Actually, the government’s official rhetoric deems a politics of ‘decentralised concentration’ necessary, in order to re-balance the overheated spatial economy of the country, with the Capital City being the sponge in the middle.(4) However, in fact Mayor and Ministers work exactly on the opposite: to shift an increasing amount of investment to Luxembourg City. While land is scarce and building high-rises is not considered appropriate, this also means that much of the construction goes to the underground: basement levels, parking garages, delivery zones and the like. “Urban fracking” was the term the former planning director of the city of Munich, Germany, used for this phenomenon.(5) As to the project as such, there are further questions: Who needs another polished, posh shopping district in the Capital? Who needs more of the same – office space, luxury lofts – while the real crisis is the dramatic lack of housing for both middle and working class? In case one is concerned about issues of affordability or social inequality, this is simply the wrong perspective: It’s the economy, stupid – particularly in an environment where the market rules, supported by the facilitating hands of the public sector.

This judgement leads to the second question that calls for making sense of the particular policy, or governance arrangement, that is at play here. Among the many frames academic debates have provided in the past for proper interpretation, feel free to choose what fits. Of course, one might be reminded of the “growth machine” approach from the 1980s, observing coalitions of public admin and politics, business and the media joining in their interest to foster economic development. This approach became outdated for a while but has been re-discovered more recently.(6) One of the currents that might particularly fit here is “entrepreneurial municipalism”,(7) backed by the enduring power of financialization.(8) While the former includes a rather pro-active role taken over by public actors, the latter emphasizes the influx of foreign capital into cities, simply for the purpose of creating revenue: Buying in and selling the city out for profit. As the new loft owners may rarely touch base in the city (which is often the case), this also means that housing construction for this target group won’t solve any related problem, but perhaps even increase scarcity.

Entrepreneurial municipalism represents a public administration composed of small state and capital city, being pro-business but only partly operating like an entrepreneur. Our take here was to merge the two in the concept of the ‘city-state formation’.(9) Luxembourg is a perfect example of this. At both levels of policy making, the undisputed goal is to create and maintain the definitive place for attracting businesses of all kinds (the triple-AAA rating being the holy grail of national identity); this desire is only poorly buffered by a re-dressing of public space and measures to make the city beautiful. Yes, the market rules, but it unfolds in real life only through the facilitating hands of city and state. This is a central framework condition for any practice in planning, building and urban terms. Therefore, it should not be neglected when present and future challenges are being discussed, such as climate change, social equity, or COVID-19.

Last but not least, the way the plans for Place de l’Etoile are brought to us like a revelation also poses key political questions.(10) One may wonder about the City’s promise to have citizens involved in major issues of urban development: It is not so long ago that the public realm was flooded with participation on the new land use plan (PAG) – highlighting thousands of details without discussing the general direction to take. Now, when plans are getting concrete and binding, citizens are not asked at all whether this would be appreciated or not. The new outline of Place de l’Etoile comes as tailor-made in the light of what development demands for. Hence the public will most likely miss the chance to intervene. Or is this wrong? One may ask whether this is better or worse compared to the projected new neighbourhood at Route d’Arlon, which is close by. For that development, one might recall that citizens were asked for their opinion on selected plans; however, the specific outcome of their involvement hasn’t been revealed to the public yet.(11)

Overall, this practice appears quite specific, as many other things going on in this country in urban terms. Sometimes it looks as if the urban process is driven by the controlled environment of a gold mining town, which is reluctant to become a city for all, not to speak of a real metropolis. Mir wëlle bleiwen …, yes or no?

Markus Hesse

1) See our related entry on this Blog from June 2018.
2) Details on the project can be obtained from the City’s webpage .
3) Suspiciously, the green tone in which the roofs appear has already been used for many other projects’ design brochures.
4) The scenario favoured by the government is termed ‘Organisé et harmonieux’, that is, a development of the country’s territory that is organic/evolutionary and harmonic. In fact, it doesn't really conform to that.
5) I am indebted to Stephan Reiß-Schmidt for framing this issue so nicely.
6) Lambelet, S. (2019). Filling in the resource gap of urban regime analysis to make it travel in time and space. Urban Affairs Review, 55(5), 1402-1432.
7) Thompson, M., Nowak, V., Southern, A., Davies, J. & Furmedge, P. (2020). Re-grounding the city with Polanyi: From urban entrepreneurialism to entrepreneurial municipalism. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 52(6), 1171-1194.
8) Aalbers, M. B. (2020). Financial geography III: The financialization of the city. Progress in Human Geography, 44(3), 595-607.
9) Hesse, M. & Wong, C. (2020). Cities seen through a relational lens. Exploring niche-economic strategies and related urban development trajectories of Geneva (Switzerland), Luxembourg & Singapore. Geographische Zeitschrift (GZ), 105, 78-92.
10) Hesse, M. (2017). Herausforderung partizipative Stadtplanung. Ons Stad Nr. 115, 16-18.
11) See the establishment of a new NGO on participation exactly evolving from this case, also the press coverage in the Luxemburger Wort, 21 September 2020, 18.

01 September, 2020

Six Months of FFPT in Luxembourg

Don't forget to check out a survey on FFPT in Luxembourg, here


September 1st marks the sixth month anniversary of fare free public transit (FFPT) in Luxembourg. Compared to the fuss and PR-action that accompanied its introduction, there hasn't been much fanfare about this now. This happens probably for good reason: back in March, no one would have predicted that COVID-19 would have substantially quieted mobility in general, and public transit in particular, in the Grand Duchy.

COVID-19 was a wrench in the plans. Just days after FFPT in Luxembourg began, the lockdown kicked in and suddenly there were too many buses on the road and trains on the tracks. Luxembourg public transit service was thus set on quasi perma-Sunday schedule, which has in fact since been relaxed. However, summer vacation is also the time when railroads are worked on, so service is rarely smooth during this time.

The Rentrée will surely add further unpredictability as some workforces continue to stay at home. The geography of comfort and safety in travel will also likely change, as some routes will be empty while others— most likely the cross-border routes – will be overcrowded (and unsafe).

While other cities such as Paris or Brussels took the chance prompted by the COVID-19 outbreak and lockdown policies to improvise with pop-up bike lanes and green street layouts soon to be introduced, the government of the Capital City was quoted in the media that there “wouldn’t be sufficient space available” to do so. Further questions?

In the meantime, the central government is promoting Luxembourg's European transport leadership in terms of per-capita investment in railway infrastructure. While these temporary numbers are actually correct, this is not an overly strong argument, given decades of neglect and the fact that systemwide impact is still lacking. Further, the government still seems to be afraid of SUV-voters, so one does little to domesticate excessive car travel and related mobility habits, for example around schools. These observations actually don’t fit with Luxembourg’s self-assigned role as a forerunner that the country’s officials claim.

In a fast-growing urban environment, the most striking issue is the absence of any sort of planning that would convincingly aim to ‘integrate’ urban development and transport as a server, not master. The yet unquestioned practice of development that prioritizes growth by automobility can be best studied in the case of large-scale developments, most visibly those projects that were set up in recent times (Belval, Cloche d'Or), but effectively follow the 1960s blueprint of Plateau Kirchberg. While they are connected by the tram, now or in the near (and not so near) future, they ways are paved with 6 to 8 lane motorways still today, and provide on-site parking in the thousands. These serve a consumer and labour that are, for various reasons, car-oriented.

How Luxembourg’s developments are temporally out of step with modes of pedestrian and cycling transport is illustrated by two stories:

1) The recent construction of a foot and cycle bridge over the highways connecting Cloche d'Or to Hesperange. The speed of construction favoured office buildings, condominiums and road traffic. While better late than never, the danger that pedestrians and cyclists faced was only recognized as an after-thought. It also looks good. 
2) Large scale developments are developer led, private property led, where the interest is nothing more private profit. Check out Flavio Becca's views on Cloche d'Or development on 'his terrain' . Here, too, is a random real estate developer’s view of Luxembourg (it hits all the large-scale developments and is full of unverified 'facts') 

Six months later, we are also still being contacted for interviews, for PhD supervision. For us, it has been interesting observing the various levels of background research that interviewers do, or the expectations that researchers have on learning outcomes of this phenomenon. Of them all, we still like the ones from Der Tagesspiegel and Tom Scott the best. It has also been a lesson in how research fame works: popular subjects, big journals, circulate faster and further.

28 August, 2020

Research Survey on Fare Free Public Transit in Luxembourg

Murray Phillips, a student at the School of Geographical and Earth Science, University of Glasgow, is researching Luxembourg's system of fare free public transit for his honours degree thesis. In addition to conversational interviews that he is currently conducting, he has devised a survey that he would like to circulate to people living in and around Luxembourg.

Feel free to fill out the survey and pass it on to others who might be interested.

The questionnaire (in English, German and French) can be found HERE:

If you have comments or questions to Murray, you either leave them in the comments below or you can contact him directly by email: 2305189P@student.gla.ac.uk

13 July, 2020

Wohnungspolitik und Urbanismus in Luxemburg: Im Dickicht der Paragrafen und am ausgestreckten Arm der ‚longue durée‘

Ein Drama in mehreren Akten und eine vorläufige Zwischenbilanz. Vielleicht lohnt der Blick darauf, dass die merkwürdige Regulierung von Wohngemeinschaften nicht das zentrale Problem ist (nicht für Esch, nicht allgemein), sondern der spezifische Kontext und wie damit umgegangen wird.

Das Thema Wohnungspolitik in Esch-sur-Alzette schlägt weiterhin Wellen im öffentlichen Diskurs, ausgelöst durch eine eher als Petitesse fungierende Vorschrift im neuen Flächennutzungsplan (PAG), die Wohngemeinschaften nicht verheirateter oder verpartnerter Personen untersagt (siehe den Eintrag vom 21. Juni hier). In Reaktion auf die Resonanz in den sozialen Medien wurde das Thema auch in der Tagespresse behandelt. Tom Haas widmete am 6. Juli zwei Seiten im Tageblatt einem kritischen Essay, mit Argumenten, die auch die universitäre Forschung umtreiben ("Meine Stadt ..."). Im Zentrum seines Beitrags stehen Fragen der sozialen Ungleichheit, Segregation und Gentrifizierung, die im amtlichen Diskurs kaum vorkommen. Unausgesprochener (sic!) Konsens ist, dass man diese Fragen vermeidet, geschmückt mit eher halbherzigen Bekenntnissen zu „mixité“ (soziale Mischung).
 Am 9. Juli wurde Luc Everling, der Stadtarchitekt von Esch, von Tom Haas und Melody Hansen im Tageblatt zum Thema PAG und Wohngemeinschaften interviewt ("Diese Diskussion..."). Das Problem der Mikroregulierung von Mietverhältnissen und Mietparteien wird in allen juristischen Facetten der Praxis vorgestellt. Wahrscheinlich ist jede Antwort richtig, die der oberste Planer der Stadt auf die Fragen der Zeitung gibt; das Routinehandeln der Verwaltung ist gut nachvollziehbar. Erkennbar wird aber auch, dass diesem Gespräch die Perspektive fehlt; stattdessen dominiert über weite Strecken die Praxis der Feinsteuerung. Dies mag mit dem aktuellen Thema zu tun haben. Und doch illustriert diese Art der Auseinandersetzung in vollendeter Form das Dilemma, in dem sich die Akteure von Stadtplanung und Wohnungspolitik befinden: Extreme Detailorientierung in einem hochgradig verrechtlichten Umfeld einerseits, und andererseits Unklarheiten in der Richtung, die man ansteuert. Die manifesten Interessenkonflikte muss man an dieser Stelle noch gar nicht aufrufen.
Denn die (Fehl-)Steuerung von Wohngemeinschaften, hier hat der Stadtarchitekt recht, ist nicht der zentrale Punkt des PAG, auch nicht das zentrale Problem Wohnungsmarktes in Esch, wie in den meisten Gemeinden des Landes. Das Wohnungsproblem bettet sich ein in einen größeren Kontext von Wirtschafts-, Gesellschafts- und Raumentwicklung. Und da kommt man wohl kaum an der Einschätzung vorbei, dass die Petitesse von Esch nur ein Indiz dafür ist, wozu der liberalistische Zug aller Regierungen der letzten Dekaden geführt hat: soziale und räumliche Kohäsion nahezu bedingungslos der wirtschaftlichen Wettbewerbsfähigkeit zu opfern. Nirgendwo sind robuste, rechtssichere Konzepte erkennbar, mit denen überörtliche Entwicklungen konsistent gesteuert werden könnten (dieses Schicksal teilt das Großherzogtum mit vielen anderen Ländern); das Problem scheint sich aber auch auf der örtlichen Ebene fortzusetzen, wo man theoretisch wissen kann, wie gesteuert werden müsste. Der Mangel an Wohnraum ist indes nicht einfach ein Problem von Nachfrage und Angebot, dem man mit etwas beschleunigtem Zubau hier und dort begegnen kann. Er wird effektiv stark durch strukturelle Determinanten geprägt, die auf alle Handlungsebenen durchschlagen (Staat, Gemeinden, PlanerInnen, Investoren und Entwickler, Grundbesitzer).
Diskussionen wie die um Esch-sur-Alzette haben jedoch den Mehrwert, dass sie diese, dem Problem vorgelagerten oder zugrunde liegenden Dimensionen gut sichtbar machen – nicht zuletzt durch die Art und Weise, wie diskutiert und argumentiert wird. Abstrahiert man von dem skurrilen Tatbestand, wer mit wem „geht“, mithin zusammenwohnen darf, in Richtung der wirklich relevanten Dinge, dann lassen sich in einer kleinen Zwischenbilanz drei Beobachtungen teilen. Sie tragen vielleicht zum Verständnis des Planungs- und Entwicklungsproblems hierzulande bei. Erstens die hochkomplexe, komplizierte und zugleich (es geht um viel Geld) sensible Rechtslage; zweitens die Rolle, die der Faktor Zeit vor diesem Hintergrund im Planungsprozess spielt; drittens schließlich die oft erratische, reaktive und intransparente Debatte, die weitgehend durch taktische Motive bestimmt ist. Fragen der strategischen Orientierung haben in diesem Kontext fast zwangsläufig keine Chance.
Das Dickicht der Paragrafen, in dem sich alle Entscheidungen über Grund und Boden, Flächen- und Stadtentwicklung wiederfinden und bewegen müssen, gehört zu den großen Mysterien in der Planungsgeschichte dieses Landes. Es kontrastiert auf extreme Weise mit dem Image Luxemburgs als liberaler, agiler Wirtschaftsstandort, der geprägt ist durch kurze Wege zu den Entscheidungsträgern und schnelle Reaktion derselben. In der Stadt- und Raumplanung, diesen Eindruck muss man haben, herrscht das komplette Gegenteil: das Regime der Gesetze, Verordnungen und Paragrafen, das viele Akteure selbst kaum durchdringen; Planwerke, die auf scheinbar endlose Prozeduren geschickt werden, bis ihre Voraussetzungen fast wieder obsolet sind; Planänderungen, die nach Beschluss der Plangrundlagen implementiert werden, weil Investoren dies wünschen, etc. Recht anzuwenden wird einerseits komplizierter, weil externe Vorgaben im Laufe der Zeit zunehmend anspruchsvoller geworden sind, etwa das Umwelt- und Naturschutzrecht der EU. Andererseits werden wesentliche Entscheidungen über Bauvorhaben oft in einer Art Dunkelfeld vorbereitet und getroffen. Damit werden sorgfältige und transparente Abwägungsprozesse – der Kern des Planungsauftrags – schwierig. Hintergrund ist die Werthaltigkeit von Grund und Boden, die den weit überwiegenden Teil der Grundstücksgeschäfte im Wortsinn zu Millionendeals machen kann. Womöglich ist es diese delikate Situation, die konkrete Planungsfälle zum Gegenstand schwer nachvollziehbarer juristischer Prüfungen macht, deren wahrer Ursprung aber in vorauseilenden Gewinn- und Verlustrechnungen der Beteiligten liegt.
Dieses Problem ist ebenso hausgemacht wie die Eigenheiten des politisch-administrativen Systems. Vielleicht konnte man noch den Wachstumsdruck der 1980er Jahre auffangen. Heute ist das System nicht mehr der Geschwindigkeit gewachsen, in der Flächen bereitgestellt, entwickelt und vermarktet werden sollen. Eine Zweistufenverwaltung, die die Kernkompetenz der Bauleitplanung den Kommunen überlässt, muss diese angemessen mit Planungskapazität ausstatten. Ist dies nicht der Fall, sind private Akteure dankbare Partner, sei es im Management von überregulierten Planwerken, sei es als Entwickler und Investor; das Nachsehen hat die öffentliche Sache, die die Gemeinde vertreten muss. Unklare Arbeitsteilung sowohl zwischen Staat und Gemeinden als auch zwischen privat und öffentlich runden das Bild ab.
Mit dem Faktor Zeit sind nahezu alle Gemeinden im Entwicklungsprozess konfrontiert, vielleicht diejenigen ausgenommen, die primär ihre Bestände pflegen. Nehmen wir als Beispiel die Gemeinde Dudelange. Es handelt sich hier um die nach der Wohnbevölkerung viertgrößte Kommune des Landes, quasi Mittelstadt und Wachstumspol im Land der Kleinstädte. Dudelange profiliert sich durch neue Angebote als attraktiver Wohn- und Arbeitsstandort im Süden Luxemburgs und an der Grenze zu Lothringen (FR). Schwerpunkte der Stadtplanung liegen in der Modernisierung des Stadtzentrums (Wohn- und Geschäftsentwicklung, Verkehrsberuhigung) sowie der Auffüllung von weniger dicht genutzten Stadträumen im Bestand. Schließlich steht seit Jahren die Umnutzung einer großen Altindustriefläche im Süden des Stadtgebiets auf der Agenda; 2005 wurde das Stahlwerk der ARBED geschlossen, das wesentlich zum Wachstum und zur Migrationsgeschichte von Dudelange beigetragen hat. Es ist nun Ausgangspunkt einer Neuplanung unter dem Label „Néi Schmelz“.
Die Bevölkerungsentwicklung der Gemeinde blieb ungeachtet der Schließung dieses großen Arbeitgebers durchweg positiv, was sowohl an der Politik der Kommune wie auch an den Randbedingungen des Großherzogtums insgesamt liegt, wo keine Gemeinde in den letzten Jahren Einwohnerverluste vorzuweisen hat. Hatte Dudelange Anfang der 1980er Jahre gut 14.000 Einwohner, waren es im Jahr 2001 bereits 17.320. Als die Planungen für die Entwicklung des ehemaligen ARBED-Geländes konkret waren (2011), wurden 18.781 Einwohner notiert; am 1. Januar 2020 hat die Stadtbevölkerung den Stand von 21.291 erreicht (Daten nach STATEC). Allein in der letzten Dekade ist die Bevölkerung also um ca. 2.500 Personen gewachsen, die jeweils irgendwo auf dem Gemeindegebiet wohnen wollen und sollen.
Das Projekt Nei Schmelz soll auf einem ca. 40 ha großen Gelände ein neues Stadtviertel entstehen lassen, in dem ca. 1.000 Wohnungen für ca. 2.300 Nutzer gebaut werden sollen. Aus wohnungspolitischen Gründen wurde der staatliche Fonds du Logement Träger dieser Entwicklung. Seit Schließung der Usine sind nun 15 Jahre vergangen, just im Juli 2020 wurden die vier Teilbebauungspläne für das Areal im Gemeinderat beschlossen. Noch ist keine Wohnung gebaut. Die komplette Realisierung des Projekts wird für die nächsten 15 (!) Jahre erwartet. Als Mitglied der Jury, die 2009 einen internationalen städtebaulichen Wettbewerb zu beurteilen hatte, erinnere ich mich an die Aufbruchstimmung, die das neue Stadtquartier seinerzeit ausgelöst hat. Den Nimbus als potenzielles Vorzeigeprojekt hat Nei Schmelz behalten. Die reinen Zahlen (Bevölkerungswachstum vs. Planungszeitraum Nei Schmelz) sind aber auch klar: selbst die erfolgreiche Konversion einer Industriefläche vollzieht sich nur in sehr großen Zeitspannen, Wunder auf dem Wohnungsmarkt sind davon realistisch nicht zu erwarten.
Großer Zeitbedarf und -verzug in der Planung sind immanent in einem schnell wachsenden Umfeld. Darüber hinaus spielen weitere Faktoren eine Rolle. Die Konversion von Altindustrieflächen ist mit anderenorts wohl bekannten Problemen konfrontiert, insbesondere hohem Sanierungsbedarf und Interessenkonflikten zwischen öffentlichen und privaten Trägern (vor allem Eigentümern). Der Minette geht es hier ähnlich wie dem Ruhrgebiet, wo die Revitalisierung der Industrieflächen mit dem Verwertungsinteresse der Stahlbarone kollidierte und Entwicklungsoptionen auf Jahre hinaus blockiert hat. Natürlich spielen komplexe Rechtsfragen eine Rolle, und hinter diesen sachlichen Barrieren schimmert das spekulative Verzögern auf Seiten der Grundbesitzer, die unter Wachstumsbedingungen wenig Interesse an der kurzfristigen Mobilisierung ihrer Flächen haben.
            Schließlich lehrt die Aufregung um die verhinderten Wohngemeinschaften viel darüber, wie öffentliche Debatten zum Urbanismus geführt werden und wo sie enden. Dass sie sich vielleicht an einem zweitrangigen Detail aufhängen, mag Zufall sein oder ist der besonderen Absurdität dieser Regelung geschuldet. Es macht die Debatte aber noch nicht zwingend zum „Quatsch“, wie der Escher Stadtarchitekt im Tageblatt-Gespräch meint. Denn sie sind Teil eines größeren, zunehmend gravierenden Problems: der massiven Preissteigerung für Immobilien und Wohnraum, die bei weitem nicht nur gering verdienende Haushalte trifft. Das Land weist, hierauf hat auch das Tageblatt hingewiesen, nicht nur die höchste pro-Kopf Wohnungsbauintensität in Europa auf, sondern ist jetzt auch an der Spitze der Skala von Wohnkosten bzw. Kaufpreisen angelangt: “Luxembourg took the position of the most expensive country in terms of new apartment prices in 2019.” (Deloitte Property Index 2020, S. 3). Dieses Problem hat alle Aufmerksamkeit verdient, erscheint unter gleich bleibenden Bedingungen aber nicht wirklich lösbar. Wenn auch die statistischen Daten keine andere Schlussfolgerung nahelegen: Sollte man nicht verstärkt diese Bedingungen zum Thema machen? Urbanistische Diskurse sind jedoch ebenso wie partizipative Prozesse Spiegelbild der professionellen Praxis: Wir sehen eine große Hingabe zur Auseinandersetzung im Detail, dagegen stehen Struktur- und Richtungsfragen nicht zur Debatte.
            Kann die Universität, können Forschung und Lehre dazu beitragen, diese Situation zum Positiven zu verändern, über eine Kommentierung von der Seitenlinie hinaus? Vielleicht hilft hier ein konkretes Beispiel, und damit gehen wir nochmal nach Dudelange: die Weiterbildung Formation Continue Aménagement du Territoire (FCAT), die wir als einjähriges interdisziplinäres Programm für Planungspraktiker anbieten. In der letzten Woche hat der aktuelle Jahrgang seine Abschlussarbeiten präsentiert. In vier verschiedenen Gruppen wurden Entwicklungsperspektiven für ein unbebautes Gebiet in innerer Randlage der Gemeinde Dudelange bearbeitet („Rëllent“, siehe als Beispiel die Abbildung von B. Geisen, E. Rosin, M. Elter). Die Aufgabe war, entlang verschiedener Skalenniveaus die Planungsinstrumente Schéma Directeur (strategischer Richtplan), PAG und PAP anzuwenden und konkrete Vorschläge zur Umnutzung dieses Areals zu machen. Der Schwerpunkt lag auf Wohn- und Freizeitnutzung, unter Beachtung von Erschließung, grüner Infrastruktur und Einbindung in das Quartier bzw. bestehende Randbebauung. Die vier Gruppen haben dazu in sich unterschiedliche, aber insgesamt absolut praxistaugliche Entwürfe vorgelegt.
Die Gruppenarbeiten der Weiterbildungsstudierenden haben ein wichtiges Thema in den Fokus genommen: die eher kleinteilige, behutsame Stadtreparatur, Bestandsentwicklung und -ergänzung. Sie setzt nicht auf großkalibrige Projekte mit ihrer massiven Dominanz und Eigendynamik, sondern eine Planung, die sensibel gegenüber den bestehenden Kontexten und damit besser integrierbar ist. Sie löst mit den (im untersten dreistelligen Bereich angesiedelten) neu geschaffenen Wohneinheiten nicht das Wohnungsproblem (das – siehe oben – ceteris paribus ohnehin nicht lösbar ist). Aufgabenstellungen und Antworten wie diejenigen der FCAT können Planerinnen und Planer besser auf die Komplexität des Problems vorbereiten und dazu anregen, in Alternativen zu denken. Sie könnten auch dazu führen, mehr Experiment in Bestand und Neubau zu wagen, bzw. dies überhaupt zu ermöglichen. Eine praktische Konsequenz wäre, die oft formalen Inhalte von Bebauungsplänen und ihren vorbereitenden Studien stärker mit strategischen Inhalten zu füllen – also nicht nur vorgegebene Anforderungen einzuhalten (Listen abzuhaken …), sondern tatsächlich Ziele zu formulieren, Konflikte und Widersprüche aufzuzeigen und Abwägungsvorschläge zu machen.
Die Regulierung von Wohngemeinschaften ist, wie Esch-sur-Alzette zeigt, ärgerlich und überflüssig. Aber es ist bei weitem nicht das zentrale Problem der Stadtentwicklung und -planung; nicht für Esch, nicht für die anderen Gemeinden im Land. Die große Herausforderung ist der spezifische Kontext und der praktische Umgang damit. Dafür gibt es, Wiederholung macht diese Aussage nicht falsch, keine Rezepturen oder Patente. Große Projekte und entsprechende Erzählungen, mit denen hierzulande alles auf einmal grün und nachhaltig werden soll, sind zwar sehr beliebt. Doch sie dauern lange, sind nicht per se grün und schaffen oft eher neue Probleme als Auswege. So paradox es klingt: Luxemburg braucht sowohl Deregulierung als auch Behutsamkeit im Umgang mit urbanistischen Herausforderungen, und wenn der Fall von Esch auch ein Fall von rundherum missglückter Kommunikation ist, wäre der erste Schritt auf dem Weg zur Besserung eine offene, transparente Auseinandersetzung über das, was Stadt heute und künftig sein soll.

Markus Hesse

21 June, 2020

Eschauffiert. Der lange Weg zur Universitätsstadt

Der 1. Preis für die treffendste Schlagzeile der vergangenen Woche in der Luxemburger Medienlandschaft gebührt ohne Zweifel Pol Schock vom Lëtzbuerger Land.[1] Sein Beitrag brachte eine Merkwürdigkeit der Stadt- und Wohnungspolitik von Esch-sur-Alzette ins Licht einer größeren Öffentlichkeit, über die zuvor bereits Benoît Majerus von der Universität getwittert hatte. Esch-sur-Alzette, zweitgrößte Gemeinde des Landes und seit 2015 dabei, Universitäts- und Wissensstadt zu werden, hat 2019 einen neuen allgemeinen Bebauungsplan (PAG, dem deutschen Flächennutzungsplan vergleichbar) beschlossen. Dieser Plan enthält für Teile des Stadtgebietes eine Festsetzung, die das Zusammenleben von Personen in Einfamilienhäusern untersagt, wenn diese nicht miteinander verwandt, verschwägert oder verpartnert sind. Dies schließt beispielsweise die unter jungen Leuten oder Studierenden beliebten Wohngemeinschaften aus – solange die Zimmergenossen nicht, wie es hierzulande auch heißt, miteinander „gehen“. Unabhängig von der Frage, wer dies kontrolliert (und wie!), löste die Nachricht ein lebhaftes Unverständnis in Öffentlichkeit und Medien aus.
Nach Angaben des Bürgermeisters der Gemeinde soll mit dieser Maßnahme das Vordringen ausbeuterischer Mietverhältnisse (sogenannte Cafézimmer) verhindert werden. Im Übrigen verstünde er die Aufregung nicht, da Wohngemeinschaften in Apartments (vulgo Mehrfamilienhäusern, Geschossbauten) ja erlaubt seien. Es bleibt abzuwarten, ob diese Regelung – als Teil des gesamten PAG mit der Mehrheit des Gemeinderates beschlossen – einer juristischen Überprüfung standhält; (eine solche hätte man natürlich auch vor der Abstimmung des PAG einholen können). Die Maßnahme bringt einen massiven Eingriff in die Privatsphäre der Bevölkerung mit, der nicht nur rechtlich fragwürdig erscheint, sondern auch als politische Norm kaum akzeptabel sein kann. Darüber hinaus gibt die nur scheinbare Petitesse Einiges über Stadtentwicklung und Stadtpolitik im Großherzogtum im Großen und Ganzen preis.
Mindestens drei Problemkomplexe verdienen eine kurze Würdigung:
Erstens das Wohnungsproblem an sich. Esch-sur-Alzette ist wie alle anderen Gemeinden im Land auch sowohl Nutznießer wie Opfer des zumindest bis dato anhaltenden wirtschaftlichen Erfolgs durch ökonomisches und demographisches Wachstum. Die Nachfrage nach Wohnraum allgemein wie auch mit Blick auf bezahlbares Wohnen übersteigt das Angebot bei weitem. Die schwankende Neubautätigkeit der vergangenen Jahre kommt dieser Nachfrage nicht nur kaum hinterher, sondern verliert sich auch in einem Dickicht aus rechtlicher Regulierung, Eigentumsinteressen und vitalem Geschäftsmodell von Projektentwicklern und Immobilienwirtschaft. Offizielle Bekenntnisse künden seit mindestens 10 Jahren von politischer Entschlossenheit zur ‚Lösung‘ des Problems. Doch gibt es im Detail Hinweise darauf, dass die Praxis eher aus dem Gegenteil besteht: einer Art Kultivierung von Knappheit.[2] Bodenpolitik ist Vehikel für private Wertzuwächse, in deren Genuss primär diejenigen kommen, die über Grundbesitz verfügen oder diesen erben.
Die Petitesse von Esch spielt in diesem großen Konzert eine Nebenrolle, die aber nicht unbedeutend ist. Denn hinter der Regelung steht vermutlich nicht der Schutz vor ausbeuterischen Mietverhältnissen, sondern der Wunsch nach stabilen Nachbarschaften in EFH-Gebieten, und darin wiederum spielt der Besitzstand der ansässigen Bevölkerung sicher eine Rolle. Man heißt ja den positiven Mehrwert des laufenden Wachstumstrajekts sehr willkommen, würde sich die damit unvermeidliche (Auf-)Mischung der Gesellschaft und von lokalen Gemeinschaften aber wenn eben möglich lieber auf Distanz halten. It’s all about politics, stupid, könnte man meinen. Logisch ist auch, dass solche Regelungen keinen Beitrag zur Dämpfung des Wohnungsproblems leisten können, sondern Knappheit aufrecht erhalten. Alleiniger Maßstab gegen den Mangel scheint Neubau zu sein, der jedoch aus vielen Gründen sehr träge verläuft und im langjährigen Durchschnitt ca. nur die Hälfte des notwendigen zusätzlichen Angebots erreicht. Die Frage der Bestandsentwicklung erfährt dagegen in dieser Diskussion kaum Beachtung. Doch würde es sich lohnen, verstärkt über Umnutzungen, Wohnungstausch, Dachgeschossausbau etc. nachzudenken, sinnvoller Weise im Rahmen ausgeprägter kommunaler boden- und wohnungspolitischer Strategien. Wohngemeinschaften könnten helfen, Wohnraum beschleunigt bereitzustellen.
Zweitens ist Esch-sur-Alzette, man muss daran erinnern, seit fünf bis zehn Jahren auf dem Weg zur Universitätsstadt. Seit 2015 wird der Campus Belval von der Universität sowie den öffentlichen Forschungseinrichtungen sukzessive bezogen. Allerdings leidet der Campus daran, dass er außerhalb des zusammenhängenden Siedlungsraums errichtet wurde und keine direkte Anbindung an die Stadt hat; hier besteht Nachholbedarf, der heute durchaus anerkannt wird.[3] Zugleich sind städtebauliche Struktur und Gestaltung des Gebiets (manchem Beamten zufolge kein ‚Campus‘ im eigentlichen Sinne), so angelegt, dass wenig Raum für Improvisation oder studentische Selbstorganisation bleibt. Viele Studierende zirkulieren aus dem Land und über die Staatsgrenzen nach Belval und wieder zurück, ohne dass sie vor Ort Bodenhaftung annehmen. So kann aus der noch etwas unwilligen Universitätsstadt natürlich nie eine Studentenstadt werden. Der Charme der Stadt als alte Industriemetropole würde hierfür jedoch große Potenziale bieten. Regelungen wie der de facto-Ausschluss von Wohngemeinschaften aus bestimmten Quartieren vermitteln aber den Eindruck, dass man sich über diese Chancen womöglich nicht bewusst ist.
Drittens sind die in Esch-sur-Alzette beobachtbaren Phänomene durchaus stellvertretend für die Entwicklungspolitik im Land insgesamt. Instrumente wie die hier diskutierte Regelung zeigen ein Grundproblem im planerischen Regulationssystem: eine ausgeklügelte Feinsteuerung soll das Entwicklungsmodell der small-but-global Urbanisierung am Laufen halten und Wohlfahrtsrenditen durch stetiges Wachstum in geordnete Bahnen lenken.[4] Aufgrund der großen Zahl der berührten Interessen, und weil man verstärkt Ziele wie Nachhaltigkeit und Lebensqualität proklamiert, kommt diese Feinsteuerung an ihre Grenzen. Die einzelnen Ziele geraten verstärkt in Widerspruch zueinander. Mikrosteuerung wird jedoch riskant, wenn sie nicht eingebettet ist in übergeordneten Strategien, das heißt einer Erzählung dahin gehend, wo man hinwill oder kann. Stattdessen schimmert hier ein Urbanismus durch, der nah gebaut ist am ‚muddling through‘, dem planvollen Durchwursteln, wie Lindblom (1959) das durchaus respektvoll gemeint hat, kombiniert mit strikter Kontrolle.[5]
Nun ist es gar nicht so, dass die Stadt Esch keine Strategie vorweisen könnte, im Gegenteil. Im PAG-Prozess gab es nicht nur Öffentlichkeitsbeteiligung, sondern auch eine zarte Idee dahin gehend, wie sich die Stadt in ihrem dynamischen, grenzüberschreitenden Siedlungsraum situiert und positioniert. Eine ganze Ausgabe des Stadtmagazins ‚Den Escher‘ wurde dem PAG gewidmet, inklusive einer Skizze über zukünftige Entwicklungspfade.[6] 
Doch was nützt der Plan, die Skizze, wenn die Implementation ganz eigene Wege geht? Esch-sur-Alzette zeichnet ebenso wie die nächstgrößeren Städte Differdange und Dudelange im Süden aus, dass ihre PAG historisch bedingt große Pakete altindustrieller Flächen enthalten, die sukzessive zur Umnutzung kommen. Diese erfolgt primär unter Marktbedingungen, wobei den Entwicklungsgesellschaften die stärkste Stellung in der Wertschöpfungskette zukommt. Große Flächen sind zugleich große Verheißungen: flagship-Architektur, Spektakelurbanismus, große Mitnahmeeffekte für Developer. Auf der MIPIM in Cannes oder der expo-real in München internationales Anlagekapital zu sammeln ist das eine; lokale Probleme in einem sehr sperrigen, sich rasch wandelnden Umfeld zu lösen offenkundig etwas anderes. Unter c.p.-Bedingungen hat das Wohnungsproblem etwas von ‚wicked problems‘: nach Rittel & Webber (1973) sind dies Probleme, die sowohl kompliziert als auch gemein sind.[7] Ihre präzise Formulierung ist schwer, und es gibt keine universelle, für alle Seiten akzeptable Lösung. Sollte die bisherige Praxis weiter Bestand haben, diese Prognose ist sehr robust, dann rückt eine Lösung der Wohnungsfrage in weite Ferne. Nimmt man Staat und Gemeinden beim Wort ihrer - notgedrungen immer häufiger geäußerten - Selbstverpflichtung zu mehr sozialer Kohäsion und zu bezahlbarem Wohnen, dann muss man neue Wege gehen. Einschlägige Berichte der OECD und der Europäischen Kommission haben darauf bereits wiederholt hingewiesen – ohne dass schon klar wäre, wie solche Politiken instrumentiert sein müssten und politisch mehrheitsfähig gemacht werden.[8]
In diese Transformation können die Beteiligten spezifische Kompetenzen einbringen, vor allem das bisher auf allen Seiten offenbar brillant beherrschte ‚negotiative planning‘, also das Kaufen und Verkaufen, Planen und Bauen in einem nur begrenzt offenen Verhandlungssystem.[9] Dagegen gehört eine Einmischung der Gemeinde in die privatesten aller privaten Lebensverhältnisse ihrer Einwohnerinnen und Einwohner wohl nicht zum Repertoire derjenigen Dinge, die eine Stadt attraktiv erscheinen lassen, soziale Mischung ermöglichen und aus der Minettemetropole sukzessive eine Universitätsstadt machen.

Markus Hesse

[1] Schock, P. Echauffiert. Die Universitätsstadt Esch geht gegen Wohngemeinschaften in Einfamilienhäusern vor. Lëtzbuerger Land Nr. 25, 19. Juni 2020, 5
[2] Christmann, N., Hesse, M. & Schulz, C. (2016). Tracing the place of home. The specificities, policies and dilemmas of Luxembourg’s housing sector. LUCA/Ministère de la culture (eds.). Architecture Biennale - Tracing Transitions, 36-50. Luxembourg
[3] Ein aktueller Überblick: Leick, A., Hesse, M., & Becker, T. (2020). Vom „Projekt im Projekt “zur „Stadt in der Stadt “? Probleme der Governance und des Managements großer urbaner Entwicklungsvorhaben am Beispiel der Wissenschaftsstadt Belval, Luxemburg. Raumforschung & Raumordnung Spatial Research & Planning78(3), 1-17
[4] Hesse, M. (2019). Metropolisierung oder die zweite Häutung der Stadt. forum 397, Juli/August 2019, 29-32.
[5] Lindblom, C. E. (1959). The science of "muddling through". Public Administration Review, 79-88.
[6] Ville d’Esch-sur-Alzette (2019). Den Escher – PAG. Edition spéciale Mars 2019. Esch-sur-Alzette.
[7] Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4, 155–169
[8] OECD (2019). OECD Economic Surveys: Luxembourg. Paris: OECD. European Commission: Country Report Luxembourg 2020. Brussels, 26.2.2020, SWD (2020) 515 final.
[9] Zum Beispiel: Healey, P., Purdue, M., & Ennis, F. (1996). Negotiating development: Planning gain and mitigating impacts. Journal of Property Research13(2), 143-160

12 May, 2020

Sidewalk Labs is closing down - Lessons from Toronto's realpolitik

Photo by Carr
Don't forget to also look at Mariana Valverde's 
important addition in the comments section.

So, Alphabet Inc. is pulling its daughter company, Sidewalk Labs (sister to Google) out of Toronto. Alphabet, whose „cash and influence encircles humanity” (Lorinc 2020) claims that it too has fallen victim to the Virus. This is a story that will carry well in times of corona, stirring fears that if giants can fall, we must all be doomed. It also demonstrates what underpins corporate urban development. Covid-19 and the associated shutdown caused financial uncertainty that forced Alphabet to reassess its priorities, and check it out: Toronto was not one of them. Perhaps, then, it’s departure is a blessing in disguise to even its most avid supporters, if Alphabet’s Quayside plans were only ever about money, and especially given that the company has a record of abandoning projects half-way through. Its exit is better sooner than later, before construction starts, before lives move in, and before urban socio-spatial (dis)integration takes over.

For an urban studies perspective, to us what was most striking about this whole saga was the hubris of large digital corporations (LDCs) when it comes to engaging with people, cities and real life. Lorinc (2020) was right when he said that not enough attention had been given to the differences between Toronto and New York City politics: Alphabet apparently believed that if you make deals with big government, local politics will just fall in line. Meanwhile, no one warned them of the idiosyncrasies of urban development in general and of the related nitty-gritty details about land-use development and planning in Toronto in particular. Sidewalk Labs set up shop in a city whose politics they barely understood and land use procedures even less. Meanwhile, the Canadian governments at all levels appeared to have no idea what they were getting into, and seem to have spent much of the last two years scrambling for a happy medium where they could both profit and save face. Let’s not forget that land use policy in Toronto for the past three decades (or more) has been about scaling back public institutions and boosting private profit (Bunce, 2017: Desfor & Laidley 2011). The staggering gap—the complete misunderstanding between the two sides—is probably one of the more important lessons for onlookers.

Multi-sided communication deficit
Alphabet’s practice of commodifying data, that is the new logics of accumulation often called surveillance capitalism, was a central critique point. It needed, and still needs, constant attention because remarkably few actually understand it. The GDPR, for example, may protect personal privacy, but it does not protect against surveillance capitalism and platform economics,

“The GDPR’s reach is not exhaustive… Data processing without compliance is still permitted for matters of state security, justice and military matters”
(Aho & Duffield 2019, 18)

These are vague conditions, indeed, easily buried in procurement contracts between governments and businesses. Further, according to EU regulators:

“Companies seem to be treating the GDPR more as a legal puzzle, in order to preserve their own way of doing things… rather than adapting their way of working to better protect the interests of those who use their services”
(EDPS, 2019 p5 quoted in Aho & Duffield, 2019 p.19)

And finally, practices of lethargic enforcement of the GDPR among host country data controllers is raising concerns about regulatory capture and the potential race among EU states to host company headquarters and assume this lucrative role (ibid.). In Toronto, Jim Balsillie, Shoshana Zuboff, Roger McNamee, and a number of residents, scholars, community groups and smaller tech firms (collectively known as Blocksidewalk) loudly slashed the project for its failure to address data protection and public interest. The fight was also taken up by the Canadian Civil Liberties association that filed a law suit against all three levels of Canadian government. The Canadian governments were charged with failing to protect its citizens.

In this context, it is important to note that Alphabet is hardly the only company that can push forward this extractive business model. Further, governments and legal teams are equally capable of generating the necessary jurisdictions and profiting as well.

There is thus (at least) a three-way communication deficit, opening questions that are still not answered: What are, in fact, the arrangements being made between governments and big business? What do these agreements look like and how does each side understand their role? What asymmetries and incongruencies exist alone therein? Also, what modes of communication are happening at the urban planning level? How deep and thorough are these conversations? The saga at Quayside exposed these issues.  And, there is work to do figuring it all out. Bridging this gap, for example, was a recurring topic in a recent post-Sidewalk webinar, entitled, "After Sidewalk, what is the future of smart tech for Canadian cities" hosted by the Canadian Urban Institute. Further path breaking events addressing this topic can be found at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

Sidewalk has left Toronto. Yet, weak, sloppy and patronizing public communications (see Google’s Dan Doctoroff’s swan song, and the empty-signifier good-bye letter from Waterfront Toronto) have left many wondering what the real reason was: Did Alphabet tire of public political campaigning? Or do they have bigger fish to fry in New York? For sure, we will be keeping an eye on the NYC mayor elections in 2021. Meanwhile statements from the City, the Province, and from Ottawa are still outstanding. Surely (!), there are different reasons in each case, but the outcome is the same: silence. As researchers, we sincerely hope that they will open up for comment.

There is also a more general lesson to be learned for other cases where LDCs try entering the field urban development: It is still necessary to seek out the blind spots. It is still largely unclear what needs to be known, or can be expected, when LDCs go for the urban without knowing how cities actually ‘work’ but are committed to their own interests in maximising power and profit. Dick Walker’s (2018) account of the long-term transformation of San Francisco and the Bay Area under the siege of the digital economy has demonstrated what happens when even an informed community of politically sensitive citizens fall victim to what is neatly framed as “cultural-cognitive” capitalism. Maybe New York City can also contribute to this debate, as it was not so long ago that Amazon.com was forced to retreat from its plans for a second headquarter on Long Island. Comparable to the case of Sidewalk, this was also caused by heavy public dispute over a deal that was initially, and rather secretly, made between political elites and the corporation.

In a paper we recently published in Urban Planning (open access), we concluded our critical exploration of the (post-)politics of the supposedly "smart" digital city as follows:

“While Toronto’s waterfront development as a hub in technological innovation is unfolding as an exercise of politics, perhaps there is a glimmer of realpolitik, as [advocacy] groups filled the discursive void by raising pointed concerns that were left unaddressed.”
(Carr & Hesse, 2020, 79)

Perhaps this is the story that Sidewalk’s clash with the mere urban planning reality also tells us: that a battle between big tech and civil society could also mark a return to the political that cannot, and should not, be simply ‘written off’ (ibid.).

Constance Carr, Markus Hesse

Aho, B., Duffield, R. 2020. Beyond surveillance capitalism: Privacy, regulation and big data in Europe and China. Economy and Society, 1-26. DOI:10.1080/03085147.2019.1690275
Bunce, S. 2017. Sustainability Policy, Planning and Gentrification in Cities, Routledge
Carr, C., Hesse, M. (2020). ‘When Alphabet Inc. plans Toronto’s Waterfront: New post-political modes of urban governance’. Urban Planning, 5(1), 69-83. DOI: 10.17645/up.v5i1.2519.
Desfor, G., Laidley, J. 2011. Reshaping Toronto's Waterfront. University of Toronto Press.
Walker, R. A. (2019). Pictures of a gone city. Oakland, CA: PM Press.

Further Readings at Urbanization Unbound
Carr, Hesse. 2020 New publication in a special issue of Urban Planning (open access) on smart cities
Carr, C. 2019. Urban planning and the theatrics of aggressive scooter companies: This time the City sent the Bird flying
Carr, C. 2019. It matters how smart cites are governed
Carr, C., Hesse, M. 2019. Digital Urbanism and the Challenge of Urban Governance (DIG_URBGOV) – Short Research Summary
Carr, C. Hesse, M. New Publication on Smart Cities in Forum für Politik Gesellschaft und Kultur
Carr, C. 2019 Digital and city development and urban governance in Toronto
Carr, C., Hesse, M, 2019. Some notes on smart cities and the corporatization of urban governance
Carr invited to York University's CITY Institute as a Visiting Scholar, 2019
Hesse, M. 2018. 2HQ2 - Two new seats for the new Amazon.com Headquarters, not one

Carr 2018. Wagering the Waterfront? Angling the abc & xyz of Quayside Toronto
Carr, Lutz, Schutz, 2018 There is no one human scale - Reflections on urban development practice in Luxembourg
Carr/Hesse 2017. The Corporate City Looming? Part I
Hesse/Carr 2017. The Corporate City Looming Part II: The “smart” City competes
Carr 2017. Digital Cities - Toronto trying to get ahead
Carr 2017. Hipsterland in Toronto's East Downtown

14 April, 2020

Reflecting upon the fundamentals of COVID-19: Are there alternative geographies for Luxembourg’s relational urbanisation? – PART III

In terms of the impact caused by the Coronavirus, where does Luxembourg stand in comparison with other countries? Infection rate per capita is lower than in Belgium but higher than in France or Germany. The number of infections has risen to 3,292, the death toll has arrived at 69 as of 13 April 2020, which is high given the total population of just above 600,000. Policy responses to the COVID-19 outbreak, which were introduced in the Grand Duchy before mid-March, are in line with the practice of other countries. As elsewhere, Luxembourg’s government announced a lock-down of public life, with schools and higher-education institutions (such as the UL) effectively closed down, retail and commercial activities limited to the essentials (such as grocery or pharmacies for example), and also international travel reduced to a significant extent. People and institutions of the country’s health and safety sectors work hard in order to mitigate the outcomes of the outbreak.
The capital city, which is used to be pretty busy on workdays, has switched to a Sunday morning feeling of calmness and silence. Much of the economic life has come to halt, and neighbouring countries such as France or Germany have introduced border controls precluding cross the border without proper reason (mainly commuting to essential work). As mentioned in a previous entry, the national airline has suspended all passenger travel until early May, while cargo planes are still frequent users of the airport. As elsewhere, it is difficult to estimate how long such measures will last, what sort of exit-strategy would be taken, and when. An early attempt of the OECD to quantify the influence of the shutdown on the Grand Duchy’s GDP has estimated the short-term losses to account for roughly 20 per cent, with which Luxembourg would still be affected rather modestly, compared to other member states.
However, it is likely that highly connected, effectively globalised places such as Luxembourg (capital city, country) will experience a massive impact on their economy in the longer term. The shutdown has also demonstrated the particular, two-fold vulnerability of the small state against shocks like a global pandemic. Firstly, a particular combination of far-reaching connectivity on the one hand, mobilities of all kinds that are essential for its open economy, but that also bring the virus to its territory. Secondly, the rising density of land uses particularly in the booming capital which contribute to exposing higher numbers of people to possible infections. This combination makes such places prone to risk and thus specifically vulnerable (see Parts I and II of this Blog entry).
As a consequence, the question is whether there are any particular adjustments to the spatial pattern of city and country possible that would contribute to minimising risk and vulnerability: Are there alternative geographies that would help to stabilise the country’s society and economy, not to forget its ecosystems, which would thus make it more robust and also more independent from risk posed by viruses and pandemics? As to the first of the two factors causing risk—global connectivity—it seems extremely difficult to get any closer to proper strategies and measures, given that the country’s economy and state’s budget almost entirely depend on the inflow of capital from outside. Of course, it can be questioned to what extent this is an ultimate necessity (“Sachzwang”), or whether things can be operated at more modest levels. Speaking honestly, it is difficult to imagine that the economic dependence on places and sources of wealth abroad, and the continuous inflow of foreign capital, could be reduced in the foreseeable future. All the global services and financial market places are situated in a figurative golden cage, from which it is hard to escape. It is a pity that the imperative of growth and the related determination of the country’s development path have hardly been made subject to a serious, open and constructive debate so far (… more than a footnote here that the government once hired Jeremy Rifkin as an advisor and spiritus rector for change, but didn’t include the question of growth in this debate at all). The economic slowdown experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic may however highlight the sensitivities of the national economy and show that things can actually become rather difficult; developing strategies to adapt to such changes seems more justified than ever.
In concrete terms, more space for manoeuvre is perhaps available with regard to the internal organisation of territory under the conditions of relational urbanisation. What are the specific strategies that may help overcome the second-order problems created by excessive accumulation, most notably spatial inequality across the country, and the over-heated development in and around Luxembourg City? The big question to address here is whether relationality can be achieved, or maintained, at a smaller scale. Even in the light of the primacy of the political economy of the country, it is important to ask whether a certain re-scaling of relationality is possible that allows a rebalancing of the exuberant economy and the private rent-and-profit-making machine against social life of the many, in order to develop a new sense of the commons.
Alternative geographies would seek to develop a new spatial equilibrium in various terms: First and foremost, it seems urgent to plan for a re-balancing of jobs and economic growth compared to housing as a basic social need; it is widely acknowledged that the housing problem in the country is pressing and wicked but hard to accept. Affordability of housing taken seriously would, for example, challenge the dedication of many communes to create even more office real estate (or luxury apartments). Second, a re-balancing of the power of the capital city as against the rest of the country should be considered as well; not a new idea, as it was key to the government’s spatial programmes from the early 2000s. A robust approach to decentralised concentration is needed that takes the pressure away from the capital city, to the benefit of the Southern and Northern regions. However, the rationale of the market still works in the opposite direction, which triggered some critical commentaries recently, when it was announced that after post offices also bank branches will be closed in several rural communities. 
Associated with rebalancing the potentials of capital city and country, one must also be critical of the property-led politics of density that are pursued almost everywhere in the Grand Duchy. The pandemic is only one aspect of the many externalities and vulnerabilities of excessive density in the urban environment, which now deserves a more critical treatment. A resilient Luxembourg would have to be less crowded, even if this would mean a slightly more dispersed development pattern (and an associated ceiling to be placed on recently rocketing real-estate profits). Third, a re-balancing would be required with regard to the role of Luxembourg in the context of the Greater Region. Likewise at the global scale, the Grand Duchy is small but highly interconnected at the regional level, serving as a magnet that attracts an increasing range of commuter flows from its neighbour countries. Spatial mismatch is most obvious here, and it needs a strategy comprising multiple means of implementation, on the housing market, as concerns digitalisation and tele-working, and in terms of common development planning. The time is right for giving the Greater Region more than talks and annual summits, or non-binding strategic schemes as real food for thought and development.
The idea of re-balancing the spatial development and economy of the country touches upon the fundamentals of spatial planning (‘Raumordnung’ or ‘Landesplanung’) – so there is a certain temptation to craft models and plans of a re-balanced small state that develops in harmony rather than polarisation and fragmentation. However, such concepts seem equally attractive in theory, as they have hardly worked out in practice in recent times. One reason for this deficiency is that previous debates had underestimated (if not totally ignored) the power of the political economy, the inherent growth machine and its hunger for more which is deeply entrenched in the country’s development path. Another reason is that the binding power of the state is limited, being constrained by private property and municipal autonomy simultaneously.
A fresh approach to planning is urgently needed in this country, which seems to be both under-strategised and over-regulated in terms of planning and development practice. Alternative geographies would not only have to develop a new sense of realism as to what extent such guidelines and strategies are deemed a) practically possible to implement, and b) effective in steering development. One would also need to sketch some cornerstones of alternative economic pathways for the small state and its spatial development. Ideas that are already under discussion and thus offer some strategic entry points include the diversification of the country’s economic portfolio; a true greening of the financial industry; or the introduction of the circular economy as a principle – not a trendy sector – for future development more generally.
Once asked for the possible questions and issues to be covered by any ad-hoc research on the geographical and urban implications of the COVID-19 disease, these issues could mark our priority. It remains to be seen to what extent these ideas could be brought into a consistent set of strategies that are ready to be confronted with practice. However, among all the difficulties, deprivation and loss which the Corona pandemic has brought about, it is notable that the lockdown allows us to raise questions that might have been difficult to ask when everything was running seemingly as normal. Besides dealing with the pandemic, this ‘normal’ is actually what the crisis is casting a spotlight on.
Markus Hesse

29 March, 2020

Reflecting upon the geographical fundamentals of the Corona-issue, and the particular challenges for relational urbanisation – PART II

In this follow-up to Part I of the Blog entry that appeared here last week, we will discuss the possible risks and ramifications for cities that are confronted with the current – and maybe longer lasting – lock-down of social systems and economies. The point here is that those cities will be particularly affected that are based on openness and circulation. Luxembourg, a small but global, economically powerful and thus ‘relational’ place par excellence, has a lot to lose in this respect.

“That is all moot.” These were the words with which a prominent geographer responded to the cancellation of this year’s annual conference of the International Network of Urban Research and Action (INURA) (www.inura.org), that was planned for this June in Luxembourg. We’ve now decided to shift the meeting to next year, including the birthday party and conference part on the occasion of the then 31st anniversary of the Network. We look forward to welcoming an international community of urban researchers & activists who will also inspire and ignite debates around here (inuraluxembourg.blogspot.com).
“Moot” could also suit for interpreting current social and economic life under the siege of the Virus more generally. In Part I of this Blog entry (see below), I presented a quick reading of the Corona outbreak from a geographical perspective, with an emphasis on some essentials such as spatial diffusion and differentiation, temporal evolution, mobilities of all kinds, and the increasing degree of interconnectedness and interrelationships that seem to characterise localities in most general terms. It’s nothing sensational, but sometimes it is useful to stress the trivial-but-not-banal essentials of a subject matter (like geography), particularly when teaching disciplinary foundations for graduate students in light of current events that have been speedily gaining momentum.
A second reason to delve deeper into the geographical ramifications of the Virus and the associated quarantine lockdown is its inherent exposure of risk. The latent standstill of social and economic systems, caused by the constraints to the assembly of people and, even more important, to their spatial mobility, brings some severe challenges to places that are actually grounded on the principle of flow. This applies particularly to cities that we approach as being ‘relational’: (relatively) small but (highly) global places such as Geneva (Switzerland), Singapore or Luxembourg – localities that we studied throughout the course of the FNR-funded research project GLOBAL (Hesse & Wong, 2020). Corona gives a bitter lesson to these places, as it questions their historically specific, highly successful trajectories. These trajectories were already associated with a certain social and environmental cost. Now it looks as if they are in fundamental danger as such.

Liquidity and vulnerability of relational urbanisation
GLOBAL aimed at analyzing the past, present and future global trajectories of these three places, for the reason of providing a nuanced view of small but global urbanisation. The basis of the research was a large corpus of secondary data, which was assessed by content analysis. In a second step, we analysed about 50 research interviews that were conducted between 2017 and 2019. The main research interest was, firstly, to reconstruct the means and measures through which these – relatively small – places were able to gain a top-level position in global urban regards. Secondly, we wanted to identify the related consequences for urban development and policy, given that the high degree of internationality creates multiple tensions at local levels.
Geneva, Luxembourg and Singapore qualified for this research as all three locales experienced strong and rapid growth within a short period of time, more related to network embeddedness – being situated in between – rather than centrality within a given territory. They operate on bounded territories, template cases of borrowed size. Their growth rates are driven by financial and other services and integration in the global economy as well as global migration. The three places are ranked on GaWC as Beta, Alpha- and Alpha+ world cities, respectively (as of 2016). They also share particular governance patterns practiced locally and beyond, successfully set in place as a consequence of niche-making based on (relative) smallness: one is a capital city of a small state, the other the seat of a canton, the third represents a city-state. All three blend scales (Affolderbach & Carr, 2016) through local and state power.
The building blocks of relationality are the management of flows, supported by positionality and governance features, further underpinned by particular historical trajectories. The ability of the three cities to make the “most out of smallness” (Grydehøj, 2011) by “extracting profit from extraterritorial terrain” (Olds & Yeung, 2004) is striking, which is not least bound to specific historical trajectories. All three were able to build on earlier expertise and infrastructures to further establish themselves in particular niche activities. But they also actively seek diversification as a central policy agenda, and are extremely open to change, new activities and new pathways to growth. Each also began shifting towards a services and knowledge-oriented economy at different times, pushed by different external and historical conditions, supported by similar governance arrangements.
Most importantly, our sample areas focus heavily on managing the flows of capital and commodities, material and immaterial flows (conveying money, information, ideas), or political flows, in order to maintain their economic niches. Luxembourg is renown as a financial market place, managing investment funds, wealth, insurance and the like. It also hosts one of the world’s more important airfreight hubs. As an important seat of European politics, Luxembourg generates huge flows of political ideas, legislation and lobbying. Besides its role as a money hub and as a centre of diplomacy, Geneva is specialised in the virtual trade of commodities, of which a huge share is also administered there (see Haller’s 2019 fascinating account of merchanting in Switzerland). Meanwhile, Singapore manages a wide portfolio of capital flows in capital markets, private wealth and insurance, and both the virtual and actual trade of commodities. All three places, even the two landlocked ones, engage in maritime services. All three host ‘Freeports’ – fortified warehouses for collectibles of highest value, a most recent strategy to capitalise on flows. All three lack domestic markets and have a limited pool of local talent – hence they rely on interregional and international pools of highly skilled labour, mobilised due to their cross-border location. Accessibility and infrastructure policy are crucial here.
A unique position–or better, positionality–as key mediators and brokers between regional and international systems helped all three places to better capitalise on particular flows: Luxembourg from within the EU, Geneva from outside the EU, and Singapore within the Southeast Asian and Chinese markets. They are situated at borders: Luxembourg in the Greater Region (including parts of Belgium, France, and Germany), Geneva with Grand Genève stretching into France, and Singapore with Southeast Asia and China. These characteristics compensate for their small size both in regional and global terms. Consequently, all three cities have a multilingual society, which they offer as a unique asset to international businesses that increasingly require linguistic and also cultural translation in their cross-border settings. Openness towards what is situated ‘out there’ (Kevin Cox) is thus required to play out relationality and to capitalise on this. However, openness alone would not suffice, as all three cases demonstrated with their ability to blend scales, that is, to merge state power and local thickness to something that unfolds as a rather strong political power.

Risks to Luxembourg’s niche-economic path/business model
Making the most of smallness by attracting flows of all kinds is only made possible by particular governance conditions, and the somehow extraverted urbanism that has made city and country prosperous is associated with some sort of introverted governance. All three cases that we studied exhibit legislative autonomy to change regulation, create new laws, and administer regulation in a way that it creates a favourable businesses climate. Niche sovereignty enabled them to create a competitive advantage compared to other (larger) cities in federal states. Close links between state and local decision-makers, or even convergence between the two in their much praised ‘ecosystems’ or clusters, have been a defining feature in all three cases and used to their maximum advantage.
However, the Corona shut down demonstrates rather brutally what can happen to open systems and niche-economies like Luxembourg, when they lack their most important asset: flows and the seamless mobilities of people, goods, money and other commodities that make up their fortune. Starting again with the trivial-but-not-banal: If the country’s borders are shut down or are rendered less permeable, it will miss a huge number of workers such as nurses and doctors. The health system of the small country seems just as vulnerable as other branches (restaurants, taxis, retail, programming …) as it relies on the constant input from, and growth of, a foreign workforce. However, unlike taxis, hospitals and doctors’ cabinets can be classified as essential to the system (“systemrelevant”) and the society as a whole.
Indispensable to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is the now 200,000-strong workforce (almost half of the national labour market!) that crosses the national borders every workday in order to keep the whole business model going. (The same applies btw to Geneva situated at the French-Swiss border, and to Singapore with its reliance on Malay and Indonesian workforce). This flow of workers makes relationality possible; that is, these cities remain global but keep things small and under local control. In addition, the Luxembourg-specific division of labour between qualified (foreign) job holders that occupy a variety of relevant positions in basic sectors and the private market economy on the one hand, and nationals who have the privilege of (unusually highly paid) employment in state and municipal sectors on the other hand may not work anymore, if the commuter inflow would be blocked for longer.
Even more critical is the state of the services sector in general and the financial marketplace (“la place”) in particular. Corona probably brings the biggest threat to Luxembourg’s competitive position, which is being built on the concentration of financial resources that were successfully acquired over the last three to four decades. What started with offering half obscure, half legal tax advantages (and thus allowed for the milking of neighbor countries’ public budgets) became a full-fledged global financial centre including investment funds, insurance, legal advice and more recently also fintech services. This machine contributes massively to the country’s budget line. Keeping it going requires a global economy that operates by separating real economy from the financial system, a circuit of earnings and added values that are bundled in tax havens and other specialized domains. Such a business model is highly vulnerable to disruption, and the related ecosystems require face-to-face communication, which is no longer possible now (see the national flagship airline’s announcement on the grounding of its fleet). The serious midterm question is whether and how specialized financial enclaves can develop a sense of resilience at all (see Brunnhuber et al., 2005; Dörry & Schulz, 2018).

In a small country, there is also some concern about the disruption of material supply chains (for example in the food sector), as procurement in such countries heavily depends on imports from elsewhere. These imports can be questioned, as was demonstrated by the BSE food scandal. Yet at the same time, it is unrealistic to expect economic self-sufficiency from a nation state whose area is the same size as the neighbor state of Saarland in Germany, and whose population is only 60 per cent of that. Small units simply lack sufficient demand for creating a reasonable supply on that level of scale. Even more so, the high standard of living that Luxembourg’s consumers are used to enjoying would not be satisfied by any sort of local or regional sourcing.
More importantly, the challenges that Corona brings to interconnected places and economies coincide with the observation of “Slowbalisation”, as coined by the Economist to describe the global economy moving at snail pace on 26th January 2019. As a result of Brexit and Trumpism, a certain temptation of nationalism, or post-national regionalism, has entered the stage of global politics. World trade numbers have plummeted recently, and this was before national governments began blocking cross-border flows in order to keep the Virus out. All this will challenge the niche-economies of flows quite heavily: As one logistics executive from Luxembourg mentioned to us in a research interview: “When globalization comes to a halt, we’re done”. Trade blocks and diseases have the potential not only to disrupt, but also to actually dismantle the system of world trade and global exchange as we know it. Re-regulation in the regional or national interest – something that was difficult to imagine for decades – could now offer a possible pathway for the near future. Globalization marching onwards in the same direction as before is only one possible direction, but no longer the unquestioned truth forever. There could also be a multipolar world emerging with different patterns of trade, and the same applies to a possible renationalization of economic policies (Credit Suisse Research Institute, 2016).

However accidental the Virus came to us as societies (keeping in mind the various meanings that the term ‘accidental’ has to offer), the crisis brings indeed some good reason to reflect upon its systemwide impacts. It looks as if the Virus and the subsequent lockdown could erase some of the seemingly undisputed beliefs that research and practice communities have been dealing with for a while now, most notably the imperative of global economic competition, the exaggerations of consumerist techno-capitalism, and its hunger for more. While “pushing the limits for the sake of pushing the limits” seemed sacrosanct until recently, one could now take the freedom to rethink the issue further: Is there choice after the Virus, in order to escape from the iron cage of growth?
Are there alternative geographies of, or for, Luxembourg that could be distilled from rethinking capital city and country in the light of the current lockdown? In Part III of this Blog entry, I will soon discuss some elements of these alternative pathways. While this rethinking came up entirely involuntarily (accidentally, if you want), it could provide some essential inspiration for the time after the crisis, whenever that will be.

(Special thanks to my post-doc project collaborator Dr Catherine Wong in GLOBAL, and as always to my co-editor of this Blog).

Selected bibliography
Affolderbach, Julia & Carr, Constance (2016). Blending scales of governance: Land‐use policies and practices in the small state of Luxembourg. Regional Studies, 50(6), 944-955.
Brunnhuber, Stefan, Fink, Alexander & Kuhle, Jens- Peter (2005). The financial system matters: future perspectives and scenarios for a sustainable future. Futures, 37(4), 317-332.
Credit Suisse Research Institute (2016). Getting over Globalization. Zurich: Credit Suisse AG.
Dörry, Sabine & Schulz, Christian (2018). Green financing, interrupted. Potential directions for sustainable finance in Luxembourg. Local Environment, 23(7), 717-733.
Grydehøj, Adam (2011). Making the most of smallness: economic policy in microstates and sub-national island jurisdictions. Space and Polity, 15(3), 183-196.
Haller, Lea (2019). Transithandel. Geld- und Warenströme im globalen Kapitalismus. Berlin: Suhrkamp.
Hesse, Markus & Wong, Catherine (2020). Cities seen through a relational lens. Niche economic strategies and related urban development trajectories in Geneva (Switzerland), Luxembourg (Luxembourg) and Singapore. Geographische Zeitschrift, DOI 10.25162/gz-2019-0020.
Olds, Kris & Yeung, Henry (2004). Pathways to global city formation: a view from the developmental city-state of Singapore. Review of International Political Economy, 11(3), 489-521.

Markus Hesse