ULI Germany Urban Leader Summit 2016: Conference Summary

  • Key representatives from the property sector, architecture, urban planning, politics and administration discussed the towns and cities of the future
  • OECD: metropolitan areas must coordinate urban planning policies better
  • Experts highlighted considerable shortcomings in housing provision
  • Farewell to car parks and parking spaces: driverless cars and new mobility concepts will soon be liberating these spaces for other uses

The shock still resonated profoundly amongst more than 300 participants at the ULI Germany Urban Leader Summit 2016: barely one week after the unexpected British EU referendum result, this was a meeting of the key players from the property sector, politics, urban planning and administration. Participants included Burkhard Jung (Lord Mayor of Leipzig), Klaus Mohrs (Lord Mayor of Wolfsburg), Olaf Cunitz (Mayor of Frankfurt am Main) and Susanne Ritter (head of municipal planning for the regional capital Munich).

In his introductory remarks, ULI Germany Chairman and board member at Landesbank Hessen-Thüringen noted the impact of the Brexit decision: “The property sector is subject to strong influences and these rarely originate from deep within the sector,” he said. Fenk also maintained that vision and capital are necessary to give towns and cities their own identity, thereby making them both resilient and competitive.

OECD: metropolitan areas must coordinate urban planning policies better

Abel Schumann, economist at the department for Public Governance and Territorial Development Directorate at the OECD, made it clear that sustainable population growth in Germany can only be realised in conjunction with good infrastructure. “Businesses and employees are more productive in metropolitan areas than in rural regions. And that is not simply down to higher levels of education,” said Schumann. While the quality of life in Germany exceeds the OECD average for 10 of 11 indicators, Schumann argued that there is a need for action in some core areas.  He argued that the tax burden, particularly payroll taxes, must be lowered considerably in order to remain competitive. In addition, he noted that policies in metropolitan areas must be better coordinated in order to tackle numerous complex demands.

Creation of affordable housing in Germany is of the highest priority and yet is failing due to several factors

The issue of housing cost was the focus of intense debate at the summit. ULI experts were critical of the profit being made by the state from expensive construction and high rents. They argued that rising land prices and high construction standards will hinder the political goal of providing people with affordable housing, as will the fact that the state benefits from the high prices through value added tax.

Developers are also amongst those who profit from this system and a panel session at the summit concluded that they should be more modest in their own profit margins. OECD expert Schumann made the case for an increase in property taxes. “It would only reduce the developers’ profits slightly, it would have no impact on the purchase price,” he said. Rolf Buch, CEO of the listed company SE Vonovia cited inefficient administrative structures and deficiencies in repeat construction projects as barriers to completion and a source of rising costs. “We have too many one-off construction projects,” said Buch.

The car will only play a minor role in future urban development

Denser cities which are simultaneously sustainable and healthier will need innovative transportation concepts. The car industry is laying the foundations for this with its research and development programmes, as highlighted by Christopher Choa, Vice President and Head of Urban Development at AECOM. Driverless cars will radically alter people’s mobility. Car manufacturers will become mobility providers and car owners will become ad-hoc renters of self-driving hire cars.

For big cities with their chronic space shortages, the end of the individual vehicle in its current form could be a blessing. “In major European cities around 25 to 45 percent of urban space is required for streets and parking,” Choa said. This could be won back for public and private use. Kai-Uwe Bergmann, partner at the international architecture studio BIG, shared some data from the U.S. which relate to this issue: “15% of the space in our current cities is used for roads or paths; autonomous driving could transport the same number of people with just 5% of the space,” Bergmann said. However, he questioned to what extent this technology can prevail in Germany.

Even so, Claudia Gotz, Executive Director of the ULI Germany, remains optimistic: “Thanks to new technologies we will win back urban spaces, something which is urgently needed in conjunction with ‘smart density’ as a catalyst for sustainable urban development,” said Gotz. “This is not only a unique opportunity for us to improve quality of life for all city dwellers; it also gives us a chance to deliver better networked urban areas as we move forward into the digital age.”

CEO of ULI Europe Lisette van Doorn: young generation thinks more sustainably

One thing became clear in this expert discussion: the creation of housing, sustainability and mobility must be linked together more closely in development and planning processes. ULI Europe CEO Lisette van Doorn believes that the next generation of urban planners will be well-positioned to strengthen this link: “Young people think more sustainably. They don’t want to spend hours sitting in a car any more, just to get from A to B. They want to live and work at the same location,” said van Doorn.

ULI research indicates that innovative businesses are usually located in central urban areas – right where their employees want to live. This is a trend that can be observed in many different countries, according to van Doorn. She suggested that for a sustainable return on investment, the measure for future growth decisions should focus on quality of life, not population per square kilometre.

Frankfurt am Main: growth at the edges or in the surrounding area?

The speakers unanimously described global urbanisation as an almost unstoppable force. German cities too are under increasing pressure from migration and streams of refugees. “We are assuming that by 2020 there will be around 840,000 people living in Frankfurt,” said Olaf Cunitz (Green party), Frankfurt’s deputy mayor and head of the planning department. Increased density alone will not suffice in terms of tackling the housing shortage. “We will make use of the agricultural land within Frankfurt,” said Cunitz. If Frankfurt can remain compact, with growth limited to the edges, that will ultimately be less damaging to the environment than continued urban sprawl into the surrounding areas with ever increasing flows of commuters. In addition, demand on space in the surrounding regions is significantly greater: each resident there requires around 1,200 square metres of land, whilst city dwellers only need 100 – 200 square metres of residential space, thanks to multi-storey building designs and efficient street utilisation.

One thing became clear in the conversations about future urban development: an immense contribution to sustainable development can be made through timely dialogue, by exchanging experiences and through cooperation between the public and private sectors. The 2016 ULI Germany Urban Leader Summit provided a strong foundation for this dialogue.

This post was adapted from a conference summary by Miriam Beul-Ramacher.