"Citizens want to produce urban space themselves"

We talked to Dr. Cordelia Polinna about why it works so well there, what Germany still has to learn and understand about the traffic situation in cities and what role modern mobility offers play in this.

As an expert on strategic urban development, Dr. Cordelia Polinna is also impressed by Copenhagen as a model city in terms of transport. We talked to her about why it works so well there, what Germany still has to learn and understand about the traffic situation in cities and what role modern mobility offers play in this.


You have already got to know many cities in your work. Which city is particularly interesting from an urban planner’s perspective?

If I base my judgement on mobility only, then it may seem banal, but I am still most impressed by Copenhagen. The city has managed to combine low traffic with high quality of life, even with a good offer for sustainable mobility. Pedestrian and bicycle traffic, as well as the subway system are very attractive and will be further expanded. Also, the city is set in a beautiful landscape and has beautiful architecture. That makes up a very good cityscape.


What made it possible in Copenhagen to do what does not seem possible in so many cities? 

On the one hand, the Danish mentality helps a lot, which is characterized by a certain sense of cohesion. Also, the “Scandinavian rationality” has certainly contributed to this. As a result, people may sometimes get on their bikes and be less selfish. And then there was simply the will in Copenhagen to create a mobility offer that, for example, will make cycling easier even in adverse weather conditions, allowing for public space and walking.


Despite so many role models: Why did urban and more sustainable mobility not have a breakthrough in Germany yet?

On the one hand, Germany is a car nation. Many people like to drive a car and for a long time, politicians have done a lot to make driving as comfortable as possible. Moreover, our economy depends heavily on the auto industry. On the other hand, many cities offer only few alternatives to convince people that other forms of mobility can also be attractive and safe. When choosing a mode of transport, it is simply important to have very good alternatives available that make it easy for people to choose a more sustainable option. Let's take Berlin as an example: In public transport, the BVG has achieved quite a lot in the past century, such as the underground network. But the development does not keep up with today’s demands and the growth of the city. There is then a danger that public transport will become unattractive, because it becomes too crowded, or because new areas of the city aren’t well connected. This prevents people from using public transport.


What effects does a more sustainable mobility system have on urban development?

I think it is very important that urban development and urban mobility are always thought together. It has been a problem for decades that mobility and traffic haven’t been planned alongside urban development. That holds also true for universities. Think about the growth of Berlin: There are so many different intersections between urban development and the development of mobility. If new city quarters at the outskirts of Berlin are now being built, then the question of mobility must be considered immediately. If you don’t connect new areas with high-performing public transport, it is not surprising that families will have one to three private cars to be able to move around the city. This in turn leads to negative effects for the neighborhood, because the open spaces and streets are dominated by cars, because you need expensive underground garages, because parking makes public spaces unattractive. Such places are unsafe for children. It quickly becomes clear that traffic development and urban development have to work together at both micro and macro levels. Given the increasing competition for space in growing cities, it will seem increasingly absurd to use large inner-city areas for parking lots, intersections, roundabouts, and not for other things we need much more in the central downtown areas.


Which urban development measures could change the situation so that an urban traffic turnaround can succeed?

Public spaces must be designed in such a way that the car is pushed back, has less space and driving is simply unattractive. All in all, it must be more difficult: Especially in residential areas curbside traffic and through traffic should be reduced by traffic-calming measures. At the same time, cycling must be designed in such a way that cycling is not only attractive and possible for “middle-aged men in lycra”, but also safe for all population groups, including children and the elderly. This requires certain structural measures, such as sheltered bike paths or a well-developed network of bicycle lanes that do not run on cobblestones or have zig-zag routes and are easy to master for everyone.


Can regulations such as The New Mobility Act in Berlin help?

The idea of the law is correct and it is a first step. However, I believe what mostly causes it to fail are the way of implementation and the lack of personnel. The market for traffic planners who can plan good bicycle infrastructures is now empty. Cities like Copenhagen, London or Amsterdam have gathered a lot of knowledge over the past 20 years and are now able to implement measures much more quickly. We lack a lot of experience here.


The rededications and conversions of areas, for example, from motorways to bicycle roads, illustrate once again the competition for space in a city. The term “fairness of land use” is often used in this context. What is fair when it comes to the distribution of land?

Fairness has many facets and many questions are linked to it: How much space do people need in their means of transport and how far do they move? Who can afford which means of transport e.g. a car? Who could afford an electric car? Who is dependent on public transport or cycling? How expensive is public transport and how fair is that? But also: Who emits how much carbon dioxide through their mobility and what would be fair? We need to have a debate about these questions to come to an answer regarding fairness in mobility. I would argue that people who aren’t sitting alone in their own car should be preferred, for example, cyclists, people who share a ride, or users of public transport, because currently too little space is devoted to them. Moreover, many other obstacles are put in their way: It starts with the traffic lights, but goes on to the lack of protection areas and missing own traffic routes.


Especially for commuters coming from outside, the car still seems necessary to move around in a city. How fair is it to discriminate between commuters and city dwellers, for example via a city toll?

Commuters are a huge challenge for many cities. I don’t know any quick fixes for this issue. One approach may be to cooperate with companies and see how to improve the mobility of their employees. For example, for co-workers, you could set up buses to nearby public transport stations or offer alternatives such as e-bikes to reduce individual traffic. Financial incentives can also motivate people to switch to public transport. New work and commercial structures, e.g. home office, can help to avoid mobility. This will become more important in the future.

And with regards to the city toll: The experiences from London show, that it favors wealthier people and sometimes had negative effects for small businesses. On the other hand, it remains an instrument that makes it clear to people that moving around in a city by car is not a matter of course. After all, you pay a train ticket to use railway infrastructure. Why aren’t we paying to use road infrastructure when we are driving our cars?


The city toll is hotly debated. This brings me to the next question: How much societal participation does the mobility debate need and how can we avoid the potentials for conflict?

That is very difficult. Only yesterday I was at a citizen participation event to calm traffic in the neighborhood in which I live. The event was inspired by a local initiative: It consists of young, educated, presumably German people who massively and radically demand that traffic calming be implemented. However, this neighborhood is in Neukölln and has a high proportion of people with an Arab or Turkish migrant background. Hardly anyone of this community was at the event. Whether they didn’t know about the event, or felt uncomfortable talking at such an event, and what their interests are, remained unclear. But in such cases, in which lots of people haven’t been involved in the decision making process, conflicts can arise after implementation.


What would be a remedy here?

We have noticed that debates on traffic calming or parking reduction can be moderated very well via 1:1 tests.

An example: We accompanied such a test on a square in Bern, in front of the main station. Currently, it is only used as a parking lot. We started with freeing the space of car traffic and parking for periods of a few days to several months during summer. Then we continued with neighborhood projects, like a big joint picnic and an idea pavilion. Finally, restaurants and cafés were able to open small stands on the area and citizens and initiatives could "rent" parking spots to realize their visions for the area. Ideas ranged from tango classes to small swimming pools for kids. This new experience of space has changed people's minds. The city and the citizens have now decided not to completely redesign the space in public space, but only to two-thirds. One third will continue to be used as a parking space, the rest will be dedicated to new uses. What I found remarkable about this is that they have reached a consensus. But this takes and needs the commitment of the city and civil society. Brutal methods without the possibility for participation do not work, or at least they hold the risk of creating a larger conflict.


Iterative processes like the one in Bern seem new in urban planning. What has changed?

Yes, that's definitely true. In the past, one spoke of the "god father model" of planning: the planner knows what citizens have to want. Or he had numbers figures and calculations that dictated uses and needs, but often had little to do with reality. Planning does not work that way. There never is a final state. Thus, the development of spaces needs to follow an iterative approach. And it needs to be flexible, because conditions change very quickly today.

In the past, the image that the users of a city are consumers also prevailed in planning.  Today, people in the city want to become actors in urban development and produce their own space through their own ideas and initiatives.

Of course, this also brings new challenges for city administrations, because the in-depth and long planning processes they were used to are no longer working. City administrations need to learn to give up some control.


Shared space brings a certain culture of sharing. In this respect, the concept of sharing and parts of the city are inherently interwoven. However, certain things are not naturally and easily shared, because there are psychological barriers. How can you encourage people to share more?

Personally, the ownership of a car has always been extremely stressful and we feel a lot more relaxed as a family, since we can fall back on car sharing. Other people, in turn, use their car a lot more often, they have personal belongings in it, etc. For those kinds of people it is certainly more difficult to imagine giving up their car.

It is important to try out sharing a car for yourself and see what advantages it brings. With cars in particular, however, it is necessary to change the status from car ownership, which is still very high, to new status needs, i.e. it will be cool to resort to shared mobility or just ride a bike.


If we really recover urban space for the people, what should we do with it? And who should determine that?

Not all areas that are currently intended for cars will have to become open spaces, green areas or cycle paths in the future - that would be exaggerated. No city has the money to maintain so many parks. But I think we should create enough space for all forms of mobility in the future. And we can also think about ways to market these areas, including the right regulatory framework, you also have a source to finance this transformation. In any case, the planning process should be shared with all those who have an interest in the area and related needs, such as residents or entrepreneurs.


One final question: What does the perfect city look like?

A city of short distances and a small-scale mixed use, which makes it possible for elderly people or families with children to do many things on foot or by bike - that would already be a reasonably perfect city for me.