08 May, 2023

It’s showtime—talking about development, planning and housing, and Royal issues as well

I visited the RTL-building on Plateau Kirchberg, Luxembourg, for the very first time on Friday 5th May. I was invited to talk to the “Lisa Burke-Show”, a combined radio-TV-web event which will be posted on the Internet soon (link to follow). Radio Télevision Luxembourg is iconic for the whole ‘relational’ business model of Luxembourg: making the most out of smallness, by building strong economic linkages with actors abroad. Founded by a couple who applied for a private broadcasting license roughly a century ago, this was the starting point of what would become an internationally known trademark, both content wise and by making the tiny country’s name familiar to a wider audience. Effective nation branding long before that term and concept had been invented. While RTL can be considered a cornerstone of relationality, as were decades later the satellite operations established by the quasi state-led SES, the RTL-building demonstrates the fragility of being relational. This is probably due to the lack of critical mass, given that the country’s home market for radio and TV-services is fairly limited. In recent years, Thomas Rabe as CEO of the mother company Bertelsmann, a native Luxembourger by the way, has decided to move all HQ-functions of RTL to the Media-Park Cologne, Germany. This happened despite the Grand Duchy’s government subsidizing Bertelsmann for keeping HQ-related jobs and functions here for quite a while.

Relational places can make a fortune as cleverly as quickly, but they can also lose their competitive advantage likewise, when markets or framework conditions change. Now the two massive towers at the north-eastern edge of Plateau Kirchberg, with their emblematic mosaic-like façade, are occupied by fewer staff than before, and the owner has begun subletting office space to third parties. For example, the European Investment Bank (EIB) uses parts of one of the two towers and has a separate entrance. “Green-fuel” shuttle buses connect the site with the EIB’s main premises at the lower end of Kirchberg. (Also surprised to see that these vehicles have diplomatic license plates—something which apparently also applies to the fleet of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt/Main, Germany, as I learned the same day). 

The Lisa-Burke-Show, my actual reason for coming to RTL, was a great endeavour in terms of addressing some key issues of the country’s planning, building and housing mess to a broader public. Eloquently moderated by the chair, we spoke about the historical context and political-economic framework conditions of Luxembourg’s development trajectory (complex), what that means for spatial development and planning (enduring pressure), and whether or not planning can perform as the desired “technology of hope”, a term which I gratefully borrow from Andy Inch, UofSheffield.

The chair conceded that she got almost desperate when trying to get some positive signs from my perspective as to the key question: how to resolve these problems? I declared myself guilty of being unable to do so, given their complexity and ‘wicked’ nature, as well as the many vested interests underlying these conflicts. Moreover, if it is utterly unpopular to speak about conflict (as it is definitely the case in the Grand Duchy), one may never even get close to a strategy. Having open conversations about this peculiar character of the problem would be much better than constantly spreading illusions as to how the mess could be managed: 1) a growth-illusion (in rather functional terms, taking into account current demographic and labour-market predictions), 2) a steering illusion (in terms of providing spatial order in a quite difficult setting), and 3) a sustainability illusion (given that adding thousands of wealthy residents and well-paid workers to the region’s imbalanced territory every year can hardly be brought in line with the Paris and other agreements).

As a nice coincidence, my participation in the show was preceded by the appearance of her Excellency Fleur Thomas, British Ambassador to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, who talked about the related preparations for the coronation ceremony of His Majesty King Charles III on the following day. In the Studio, the British-Luxembourgish community was also presented by Louise Benjamin, the outgoing president of the British-Luxembourgish Society, and Dr Christian Barkel, the Principal of St. George’s School, the British international school in the Grand Duchy. They have prepared for a major gathering in honour of the King’s coronation, with about 700 people having signed up for the event at the school’s premises in Luxembourg-Hamm (“fish & chips, beans, no parking provided”). The Grand Duchy is officially represented by the Grand Duke’s couple, who attended the ceremony in London. The Society is a key pillar in the strong relationships between the two countries, despite Brexit, or possibly because of it. In topical terms, there were also some nice overlaps between the two slots in the Show and the preceding weekly news overview—housing, taxation, safety of public space and the like are relevant issues not only for geographers and planners, but for the huge expat community in the country as well. 

Special kudos to Lisa for taking me to the second-highest floor of the building (the Gym actually) where I could take pictures of that particular area. The green space that can be seen below, in the western direction, belongs to the last open land reserve on Plateau Kirchberg, certain parts of which are now subject to development. The view from above was a perfect round-up of a rather insightful visit, and the building will hopefully remain in focus of our ongoing FINCITY-research project, which studies global financial centres’ development through the lens of commercial property markets. More on that research coming soon.

Markus Hesse