The right to the city: experiences in Germany


So far, the slogan „The Right to the City” has mainly been used by movements and intellectuals in large, economically “dynamic” cities. And the slogan mainly responded to urban transformations connected with those “dynamics”: gentrification, the consequences of urban mega projects etc.

During the past months and weeks, new alliances came up in “shrinking” towns in financial and economic crisis within the Rhine-Ruhr-Region in Germany. They offensively relate to “the right to the city” as the right of citizens to defend their towns, public spaces and services against the consequences of municipal bankrupt, sell-out of public property, the shortage of social services and disinvestments in infrastructures.

The first – and more developed –example is the movements against municipal shortage in Wuppertal. The birthplace of Friedrich Engels, in former times based on textile industries, is suffering heavily from the loss of jobs in the automotive industries in the 90ies. Public-private investments into urban entertainment and commercial projects in the city centers have not stopped but amplified the process of impoverishing popular neighborhoods, some of them built around 1900, others constructed as social housing satellites during the early 70ies. Generally the population is rapidly shrinking and aging. Under these conditions elements of a “creative class”, which mainly can be identified in one of these neighborhoods, did not lead to forms of gentrification as we know them from other cities.

The municipality of Wuppertal – like all other municipalities in industrial towns in the region – since long is suffering from a structural deficit in its budget. While the income from local taxes decreased also state subsidies do not cover the permanently increasing
needs for financing social transfer income, repair of aging transport systems and public buildings, education and social services for the poor. Many years of shortage of public employment, privatization of housing and public services, cross border leasing and so on, did not stop the increasing deficit and municipal debt. Meanwhile the city – with many others – is nearly bankrupt. Soon the debt will be higher than the equity. The financial effects of any further shortage or privatization soon gets lost for the interest rates on short term credits. Any local “saving” is helpless. It makes absolutely no sense to i.e. sell public property if the income is only used to pay for the interest of a few months.

Because of the deficit in its budget plan the municipality since long is controlled be state agencies, which can disallow any expenditure for so called “voluntary services”, which are all measurements beyond a defined legal obligation. For example support on culture, public libraries, and sport facilities. They also disallow education within the municipality.

At the end of 2008 the regional state agency disallowed to spend 10 % municipal grants for neighborhood projects which by 90 % were sponsored by the state and the EU. A well established existing project in a poor neighborhood was in danger. Affected people working in those projects started protests and mobilizations against the regional government. Soon later this became a platform ”Wuppertal is resisting”, a broad alliance of social and cultural institutions, including also the conservative major of Wuppertal, who thus protested against his own government.

The protest intensified when during the year 2010 new plans for municipal shortage became public. Planned shortages included the closing of many public swimming pools, shortages for assistances for homeless, shortages for a women’s emergency call and heavy shortages for the public theater. As a fully developed city with long traditions Wuppertal has an opera, the famous Pina Bausch ensemble, a symphony orchestra and a theater. The theater now will be closed first, if the shortage will be realized.

The workers and actors of the theater started very visible protest actions. Among them a 24 hour theater event earlier this year and an action day with support from many citizens and theaters throughout the country at World Theater Day end of March. The national media reported intensively.

However, within the past months many people in Wuppertal became unsatisfied with an alliance which is protesting against central policies but at the same time does not criticize the execution of these policies at the local level. In fact, all the shortages get decided by the city council which feels forced to act this way because of the deficits and debt. The schizophrenic result is that officials and majors at the city council always start their speeches with attacks against the government, proof in detail that any further shortage is without sense. And then they start the “homework” as they say: the negotiations about the next shortage plan.

In March, the more radical wing of the movement at a larger assembly decided to build a new protest campaign, which is called “Basta! For the right to the city. Stop the saving-to death”. We are demanding a stop of any further shortage and privatization. At the same time, we also criticize the lack of transparency and the expensive urban development projects.

The Basta-alliance so far has celebrated a manifestation in front of the city council, which after that corrected its shortage plan a little.

At 1st May, Basta! participated with own slogans and banners in the marches of the trade unions and the autonomous movement. The alliance includes consequent trade unionists, leftists and also activists from the autonomous movement, which traditionally is strong in Wuppertal. Also the autonomous manifestation yesterday had the slogan “right to the city”.

Since two weeks we also have a Basta!-initiative in Witten. The financial situation of this town is even worse than Wuppertal, with the difference that there are no theaters to close. But also in Witten the council is reducing the social services and actually it plans to sell some public spaces, especially a central market square and parts of the central public park. Some people came together and decided to resist these plans, but also link action to other demands. First action was related to information about “secret” privatization plans.

We are preparing a petition to the council demanding a stop of further “savings” and instead of that a public budget plan which – in participation with the citizens – show the real needs in our town and thus express the need for better finance from the state.
We have started a blog

On May 7th, we call for a manifestation.                   

At the moment the whole issue is politically "hot" because of the regional elections next Sunday, where the liberal-conservative government may lose its majority. Even the budget at regional level has heavy restrictions. But chances for effective protests may rise if the social democrats, greens or maybe even the Left will be in the government.

Anyway, the struggle will continue.

Knut Unger

Additional links

Basta! Wuppertal :

Important is the Right to the City movement in Hamburg, but Hamburg is a metropolis with typical gentrification, not shrinking