Migration meets the city. Against hysteria – for a different urban planning

10 theses against the current emergency urbanism and a planned referendum against refugee housing.

1. A referendum about housing for refugees in which they can’t take part? No way.

Asylum seekers are not entitled to vote and can’t take part in a referendum. Inhabitants organized in the „Initiatives for Integration“ IFI have declared that they would act „in the interest of refugees“ when opposing big housing complexes. De facto, however, the refugees are locked out. Such a referendum is an assault on basic rights of refugees – and on the right to the city.

2. The misery in the refugee camps admits no delay.

The miserable situation in containers, warehouses, ex-DIY-markets and other mass shelters has to be stopped as fast as possible. Even if we criticize the concrete planning of the Hamburg senate: Its decision to react quickly is right. Hamburg needs 79000 accomodations until the end of 2016. And this is only the official number. The misery in the camps has to be eliminated by conversion of existing houses as well as by building new housing. As fast, as much, as central, as high as necessary and possible.

3. The counterproposals can’t replace the emergency measures.

To achieve that it may be appropriate to realize new housing by law enforcement. It would take years to finish the needed accomodations through the usual planning law. Of course there’s good reason to be sceptical about the new housing complexes. They are mostly situated on the outskirts, feature unimaginative architecture, and little has been done to involve the communities affected, not to speak of the refugees themselves that will have to live there. But yet: the counterproposals of the protesting inhabitants and the initiatives organized in IFI are not enough to supply the much needed housing for the refugees. A „quarter mix“ (that is: a quarter of newly built flats for refugees) or the „offers of real estate owners“ that are allegedly rejected by the city are a mere complement to the necessary construction measures. As such they have to be discussed, like the areas that are proposed by the initiatives. However, from an „anywhere but here“ position a referendum is nothing but a discussion about local limits to migration.

4. A referendum will not prevent the accomodations.

An optimistic guess is that the referendum will take place in spring 2017 at the earliest, more probably around the federal election in autumn 2017. By then people will hopefully have moved into the new accomodations which won’t be contestable by planning law. That means: a campaign for a referendum won’t prevent the planned housing complexes – but it will arouse lots of negative sentiments against them.

5. Campaigns against refugee housing attracts right-wingers and racists.

The initiatives against the big housing complexes stress time and again that they are not against refugees, that on the contrary they advocate „measures for refugee accomodation that are sustainable and reasonable for integration policies“. They say they don’t wont to talk to the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, „Alternative for Germany“, the latest right-wing party). We appreciate that – and we also think it is inappropriate to stigmatize the initiatives as racist or right-wing in the first place. However, we see in all the quarters where the new citizens movement forms how racist resentments expressed in hearings and gatherings go unchallenged and therefore influence the climate of discussions. To distance oneself from the AfD and right-wing radicalism but at the same time to provide space for their positions: This is not okay.

6. The talk of ghettos is careless and hysterical.

For years Hamburg has seen a massive compaction that displaces courtyards and natural areas. There have been protests against this development from time to time also in the quarters that now protest against refugee housing. However, the current protests are way more massive than any others before. „Parallel socities in urban ghettos have to be prevented“, the initiatives write. No matter if housing for 700 or 2000 refugees is planned like in Klein Borstel, Ottensen or Eppendorf or a huge complex for 4000 people in Neugraben-Fischbek, a quarter that doesn’t belong to the well-off: the protesting initiatives always talk of „ghettos“ and demand an even distribution of accomodations throughout the city. In doing so whole communities are defamed. We plead for less hysteria. A few hundred or thousand people don’t turn a housing complex into a ghetto. We know that it’s obviously difficult to put through refugee accomodations in well-off quarters where there’s money for better lawyers and estate prices are astronomically high. However, the fact that wealthy and not so wealthy quarters now join forces does not make the distribution fairer. We worry that whereever the city plans housing for refugees it will always encounter people who think these plans are unacceptable.

7. Neither ghetto panic nor emergency planning: We need a different urbanism.

It gets back to all of us now that politicians, planners, and architects have not developed concepts of affordable, sustainable and good housing, that public housing in Germany has been more or less nothing but a funding programme for investors (no other European country did it like that). There has to be an alternative. A new urban strategy that is effective needs a new attitude. Instead of ghetto panic it’s about possibilities for the new neighbourhoods. Small sewing shops for refugees and local inhabitants, self-established kiosks, shops offering arabic delicacies, neighbourhood cafés, start-ups, local clothing chambers or workshops: all the houses that will hastily be built need free spaces in their groundfloors for such usage. We need flexibility to allow informal structures in order to get vivid quarters that offer not only housing but meeting points, space for experiments and new establishments to the communities and neighbourhoods.

8. No participation is no solution either.

In spite of warnings and forecasts by migration researchers and aid organizations the cities have not been prepared for the refugees that now arrive in Germany. The urban emergency management has been scandalous at times, and often the authorities did not react sensitively to civil society. Many volunteers who in the summer of 2015 prevented the worst through self-organized help could experience that – either at the Lageso in Berlin or in the Central Initial Reception in Hamburg-Harburg or in the emergency shelters in warehouses. People who saved the authorities‘ ass with their tireless efforts were treated like annoying petitioners. It’s not without reason that the neighbours of the planned housing complexes complain about an arrogance of power. A policy that rejects participation exacerbates the conflict and is inappropriate in the face of the authorities‘ omissions. Of course refugees have to be included instead of degrading them to inferior aid recipients. There’s need of dedicated planning processes with artists, urban designers, students, social workers, caregivers, volunteers and neighbourhood initiatives. Projects conceived out of Hamburg’s Right to the City movement like the PlanBude (planning booth), the once squatted and now self-managed Gängeviertel or the Fux cooperative show how collective planning leads to better results. Projects like the Grandhotel Cosmopolis Augsburg, the Haus der Statistik Berlin or the New Neighbourhood Moabit are models that have to be considered seriously. In Hamburg Refugees Welcome Karoviertel, the Clothing Chamber or the Helfergruppe Hauptbahnhof (aid group at the main station) have shown that self-organized structures can work better than the authorities machine – they have to be included.

9. Do we have a „refugee problem“? We have a housing problem!

Current plans concerning urban and social space are far behind of what’s possible technically and physically, far behind the richness of society. Hamburg’s application for the Olympics disguised its visionary void with hope for a mega-event but could not fill the void. For decades politics has ignored the housing emergency, sometimes even promoted it. To find affordable housing becomes more and more difficult even for middle class households. The market failure is obvious, and it affects especially the poor. For Refugees and Sans-papiers the situation is dramatic and often unbearable and miserable. The new programme is not yet a turning point in housing politics. With 20 billion Euro from the federal government tax money will be fed once more into the real-estate game – and be lost there. This investment should create housing that secures low rents in the long run. Housing for refugees must develop into a housing programme for all in need and with little money. Cooperatives, foundations, alternative investors like the Housing Syndicate have to be included. There have to be new concepts for public property. Pragmatism in setting up new housing is alright. But beside fast constructions there’s need for a pragmatic use of existing buildings. The demolition of the City-Hof can’t have priority now. The Axel Springer Haus could become a centrally located accomodation for refugees – the same is true for the empty Post-pyramid in the City Nord. We need a brave, determined policy for how to convert and use vacancies and existing buildings quickly and unconventionally.

10. Refugees have a right to the city.

A referendum against big housing complexes for refugees is no solution. We say: stop it! Hamburg needs neither local Seehofers in the disguise of being pro-integration nor right-wing radicals sailing on the lee side. Dissociate yourselves! The referendum boosts the wrong debate – one that frames refugees only as burden. Instead we need construction projects that have a surplus value for a quarter, that provide space for informal appropriation by the neighbourhood, that offer places for contact and platforms for exchange. Let’s develop innovative solutions together, with pragmatism and brave visions for a housing that’s socially secured indefinitely, in a city that must and will change. A great number of refugees will stay and become part of our city. They have a right to the city. Let’s push politics towards an urban planning that allows for new spaces, participation and development for us and our new neighbours. Let’s defy the brutalized self-pity of the AfD supporters.

Can we do it? No, we want it. We want a city that wants it.

Plenum of the Right to the City Network Hamburg, 9 February 2016