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AIR, WATER, PIXELS -
GLOBAL REAL ESTATE AND THE PLUNDER OF NATURAL COMMONS

by Julius Grambow

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Woodberry Wetlands Developments. Courtesy of Julius Grambow (2022)

Two of the cities which Berlin aspires to compare to, London and New York City, have perfected the commercialisation of man-made nature in order to excel virtual assets.

London’s Hyde Park, the developments along the Thames, New York City’s Central Park, and the renewal projects along the Hudson River, have testified the most immanent influence of contemporary capitalism on Berlin’s spatial administration which may have been home-grown:

“For the German ordoliberal tradition […], the relationship between economy and state is an innate one. […] The economy has no independent existence; rather, its independence amounts to a political event. […] Ordoliberalism thus develops the necessity of the state as the authoritative force binding the process of social reproduction at the system-wide level”.

To some extent, it can be argued that German economic theory had founded the basis for today’s planetary condition: “[…] It was actually Alexander Rüstow - one of the central theoreticians of ordoliberalism - who coined the term neoliberalism in 1938 to distinguish the “new liberalism” from the tradition of laissez-faire liberalism” (Arbeloda, Planetary Mine).

Two of the cities which Berlin aspires to compare to, London and New York City, have perfected the commercialisation of man-made nature in order to excel virtual assets.

London’s Hyde Park, the developments along the Thames, New York City’s Central Park, and the renewal projects along the Hudson River, have testified the most immanent influence of contemporary capitalism on Berlin’s spatial administration which may have been home-grown:

“For the German ordoliberal tradition […], the relationship between economy and state is an innate one. […] The economy has no independent existence; rather, its independence amounts to a political event. […] Ordoliberalism thus develops the necessity of the state as the authoritative force binding the process of social reproduction at the system-wide level”.

To some extent, it can be argued that German economic theory had founded the basis for today’s planetary condition: “[…] It was actually Alexander Rüstow - one of the central theoreticians of ordoliberalism - who coined the term neoliberalism in 1938 to distinguish the “new liberalism” from the tradition of laissez-faire liberalism” (Arbeloda, Planetary Mine).

Two of the cities which Berlin aspires to compare to, London and New York City, have perfected the commercialisation of man-made nature in order to excel virtual assets.

London’s Hyde Park, the developments along the Thames, New York City’s Central Park, and the renewal projects along the Hudson River, have testified the most immanent influence of contemporary capitalism on Berlin’s spatial administration which may have been home-grown:

“For the German ordoliberal tradition […], the relationship between economy and state is an innate one. […] The economy has no independent existence; rather, its independence amounts to a political event. […] Ordoliberalism thus develops the necessity of the state as the authoritative force binding the process of social reproduction at the system-wide level”.

To some extent, it can be argued that German economic theory had founded the basis for today’s planetary condition: “[…] It was actually Alexander Rüstow - one of the central theoreticians of ordoliberalism - who coined the term neoliberalism in 1938 to distinguish the “new liberalism” from the tradition of laissez-faire liberalism” (Arbeloda, Planetary Mine).

Since the collapse of the great communist antagonist in the early 1990s, the administration of public property in Berlin rapidly transformed into a strategy in which "privatization resulting in homogenous corporate landscapes abounds, securitization takes command, mass tourism demands increase and consumption, while crowd management and access control dominate public space in global cities” (Fitz and Kasny, Critical Care: Architecture and Urbanism for a Broken Planet).

It did so by primarily focussing on the voids and ecological conditions which the capital has had to offer, i.e., its vacant lots, parks, canals, and most importantly the river Spree.

Planned zoning and volumes at Mediaspree.
The successful referendum by citizens of Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain voting against the complete privatisation of land has been ignored by the ruling parties for more than a decade. Eventually, planning proposals were secretly put through to become physical matters of fact.
Courtesy of Anschutz Group (2018).

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And overview of London's 47 "Opportunity Areas" (red) with conservation areas (green on grey) and the Green Belt (green on blue) in the background.
Note how areas connected to inner-city green spaces, the Lea River valley, industrial sites and council estates in Zone 1 and Zone 2 near the Thames, and the former industrial wastelands along the eastern course of the river
have come to particular interest of developers after neglecting them for decades.
Courtesy of Yorgos Garofalakis, Alexander Alexiou and Daphne Delfaki (2020)

“Second only to water, concrete is the most consumed product in the world” (Harvey, Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference).

Since the 1980s, the triangle of extraction for the built environment is completed by the global trade of sand in reciprocal value chains. Its inertia had originated in the neoliberal turn, where governments left housing to free-market economics, and “increasingly opted for non-architectural solutions to raising people out of poverty, such as social welfare programmes. […] With the demise of social housing as government priority, architects […] lost their social purpose. The housing blocks that had accompanied industrialisation gave way to the office towers that heralded the service economy”.

Architecture had thus “invoked a culture of ¥€$, in which the architect and the client mutually fulfilled each others’ wildest fantasies.” Such tendencies are embodied in both the volumes and names commissioned at Mediaspree, where “young acolytes [like] Bjarke Ingels” adulated the governments of cities with slogans like ‘Yes Is More’.

Amidst the global financial crisis of 2008, which had escalated through mortgage speculations between banks in New York City and London, Berlin’s Senator of Urban Development, Ingeborg Junge-Reyer (Social Democrats), guaranteed planning security for investors seeking to accelerate the Mediaspree developments. At the same time, her colleague Claudia Hämmerling (The Greens), stated that “especially plots near water bodies have been attracting investors”, whereas the overall process of Mediaspree would “depend on the current real estate crisis in the USA”.

 

Similar to other real estate assets which are situated near commons in ‘global’ cities, the portfolio architecture along the Spree has been accompanied by service sector industries. Former commons like water bodies, public parks, sites of cultural heritage, landscapes, and global mineral resources are commodified to act as double agents for architecture as means to reproduce surplus value (a.o. Boltanski and Esqerre, Enrichment: A Critique of Commodities).

Here, “climate change reconfigures the circulations of the city in ways that allow both the state and capital to reach further into the home. It does so by transforming who is governing housing, how housing is being governed, and whose housing stands to benefit”.

Secondly, metropolitan administrations continue to justify this individualisation of climate responsibility by equating the expansion of global finance with the outdated rhetoric of endless growth. According to Martin Lindner (Free Democrats), it is “in the interest of the common good [for] the senate [to] engage with the investors to maximise the realisation of all developments at Mediaspree”.

When governance protects the neoliberal cycles of generating value from public property as ‘Too Big to Fail’, it willingly externalises the effects of “environmental transformation [on] class, gender, ethnic, or other power struggles”.

 

In this regard, the urgent need for “re-naturing urban theory” means to grant access to all concerned groups for sustaining cohabitational pluralism: “Moreover – and more importantly – groups, classes or fractions of classes cannot constitute themselves, or recognise one another, as ‘subjects’ unless they generate (or produce) a space” (Lefebvre, The Production of Space).

Now, the momentum which citizens and specialists might create depends on where they are able to grab the leverage of power. Their struggles must be supplemented by the political will for economic incentives, to which opportunities are manifold; e.g., hereditary lease models, vacancy tax, transparency for shadow costs, Life Cycle Assessments, excluding foreign investors from portfolio projects, and legally binding land near urban commons to maintain or enhance biodiversity.

Brief reflection we did for School of Commons in Spring 2022 after visiting Woodberry Wetlands and its surroundings.
Courtesy of PRC (2022)

©️ 2022 Panta Rhei Collaborative