How has society improved since the Roman times

City and society

Monica Rüthers

Monica Rüthers is Professor of Eastern European History at the University of Hamburg. She studied history and German in Basel with a focus on Jewish history. Her research areas include the history of socialist cities, the “festivalization” of Jews and Roma in urban spaces, the visual culture of the Soviet Union and the politics of food and memory between nostalgia, kitsch and irony.

Cities as a scheme of society and a store of history

A look back helps to understand current problems in urban development. Monika Rüthers describes important stages in the city's history in Western and Eastern Europe.

(@ Meike Fischer)

Cities are social organisms that are constantly changing. In doing so, they pile up built-up layers of time and become stores in which remains of their own history are materially deposited. You don't have to dig to do urban archeology. Much remains visible. Older buildings stand next to newer ones, higher ones stand next to lower ones, building lines jump back and forth. Some cities are rugged, have wounds and scars from previous destruction, are marked by the intervention of changing models or modernization pushes; others present themselves more uniformly. Large-scale fires or bombings usually triggered homogenization [1], and urban expansions also followed models that were typical of the time. Monuments are erected and overturned, names of streets and squares are exchanged. The surface of the cities can be read like a multidimensional text.

The actual visual surfaces of the cities are juxtaposed with the images of the city, which create identity. Medieval cities were chaotic, foul-smelling structures. It was only when town planning began that Italian architects of the late Middle Ages began to design aesthetic images of the “beautiful city”. The cityscape became a symbol of local pride, the power and influence of ambitious cities should show themselves in their appearance. This led to an often idealizing method of representation, which established itself as a communication medium and propaganda tool. Today cities advertise with iconic skylines or panoramas.

The cities of the industrial age

Modern cities have their roots in the age of industrialization. As a colonial power, England contributed significantly to the development of raw material deposits. In the late 18th century, the first cities related to the mass production of goods emerged here. In Europe, cities such as Manchester, St. Petersburg and Barcelona have developed into modern logistics, service and industrial locations. In Germany, industrialization took place relatively late and was all the more stormy. This became particularly clear after the unification of the empire in 1871 in the development of the new capital Berlin. The city changed from the boring Prussian barracks town to a pulsating metropolis, surrounded by industrial areas with smoking chimneys. At the end of the 19th century, 1.5 million people lived here. Berlin liked its role as the youngest and most modern European metropolis, as Chicago on the Spree.



The metropolises embodied the new type of city between 1890 and the First World War. They were the centers of organized capitalism and modern society. The influx of people created slum-like working-class neighborhoods, crime and an informal sector. Business districts with trading houses, banks and insurance companies formed in the centers, while the affluent citizens moved into villas in the green suburbs. Grand hotels and department stores created new urban spaces in which women of the better classes could move unaccompanied. Workers lived in tenements, basement apartments, barracks.

The view of the working-class neighborhoods was ambivalent: on the one hand, the citizens feared revolts, on the other hand, the nocturnal underworld of the poor neighborhoods was an exotic change that was explored and described by artists and writers (cf.Walkowitz 1992; Schlör 1991).

The high density and the uncontrolled growing population confronted the cities with social and hygienic problems. The fight against epidemics, especially cholera, was a central theme in urban planning and the hygiene movement. Actors were on the one hand representatives of social reforms, on the other hand proponents of an efficient technical infrastructure [2]. After a major fire in 1842, Hamburg was the first city on the continent to receive an underground infrastructure for supply and sewage (i.e. a sewer system) based on the British model. After 1871, doctors, engineers and economists dealt with these questions in the German Association for Public Health Care and set standards for apartments, public buildings and infrastructures. From the 1860s onwards, more and more German cities organized a sewer system, a controlled water supply, a gas supply, paved streets and a garbage disposal [3].

Between the 1870s and the 1890s, the German city administrations transformed into service administrations with trained specialists. After the cities gave themselves building zone plans around 1890, urban planning was no longer concerned with districts, but focused on the city as a whole [4]. The introduction of new, high-tech networks such as water or electricity supply should also combat socio-political grievances such as poverty. From the 1890s onwards, public transport such as trams ensured that living conditions were evened out for workers and small salaried employees. At the turn of the century, the cities took over parts of the previously privately operated supply networks.

In 1903 the German Association of Cities was founded in Dresden on the occasion of the first German city exhibition. The focus was on the services of the local self-government in the areas of urban planning, infrastructure and social issues. The fears of the modernization critics were proudly refuted: The feared chaos due to the population density had been dealt with through targeted measures, and life expectancy was higher than in rural areas [5].

Rationalization and modernization in the interwar period

In the interwar period, measures for rationalization and modernization were implemented that had already been initiated before the First World War. The competition for Greater Berlin was announced in 1907, in 1920 surrounding villages and towns were incorporated and the population rose from 1.9 to 3.1 million. Polycentric urban regions such as the Ruhr area also modernized: in 1904, the affected municipalities joined together in the Emschergenossenschaft for joint wastewater management. The first proposals for regional planning followed around 1914, and the Ruhr coal district association was founded in 1920 [6]. Social housing programs could only be implemented after inflation. Between 1924 and 1931, cooperatives and municipal housing associations built large housing estates according to reforming principles in the countryside. These large settlements included the “Römerstadt” in Frankfurt or the “Hufeisensiedlung” in Berlin. The block structure gave way to open rows of houses, which let more air and sun into the apartments. Architects developed models for standardized, prefabricated housing and designed ideal cities and settlements in a radical new design language.

At the international level, the planners organized themselves in the CIAM in 1928 (Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne). In 1929 they dealt with “the apartment for the subsistence level”, with rational construction methods and from 1931 with the “functional city”. The separation of the functions of work, living, transport and recreation became the ideology of CIAM [7]. Adopted in 1933 Athens Charter social, political and urban issues came together. However, the National Socialists preferred traditionalist forms in residential construction and a monumental classicism for the representative new centers.

Reconstruction in divided Germany

In 1945 the German cities were in ruins. Reconstruction should not only resolve the housing shortage, but also contribute to the re-education and ideological renewal of society. In all occupation zones, the planners initially followed up on the functionalist ideas of the interwar period. The war experience of the wildfires with numerous fatalities promoted the concept of the articulated, relaxed and green city. The cities were rebuilt on the old floor plans because the underground infrastructure was largely intact. The 1950s saw bomb craters, debris fields, housing shortages and poor conditions. Many people lived to sublet.

While the European Recovery Plan (Marshall Plan) stimulated the economy in the western zones, the Soviet Union insisted on reparations and dismantled industrial plants. When rebuilding or renovating destroyed buildings, the standard in the Soviet Zone / GDR initially corresponded to that of the workers' houses of the pre-war period with shared toilets, showers in the basement and corridor apartments. After the founding of the two German states, the FRG decidedly followed the path of international modernity. In the GDR, the planners Heinrich Henselmann and Hans Scharoun also followed up on the principles of New Building after 1945. But in 1950, the Soviet Union conveyed 16 points [8] to the GDR, stating the Stalinist principles of socialist urban development and monumental deployment axes, and demanded the creation of central spaces as backdrops for demonstrations and parades [9].

The best-known result was the construction of Stalin-Allee in Berlin "by the people for the people": volunteers, women from rubble and schoolchildren, knocked the bricks clean. As promised, some of those involved actually got one of the new apartments on the boulevard. This became a social space for building together, for affirming the regime on socialist holidays, but also for protest: from here on June 17, 1953, the unrest against the increase in labor standards spread. In 1958, the section between Strausberger Platz and Alexanderplatz was continued in the modern style with prefabricated buildings in the open-plan method, after the end of Stalinist urban development, which the First Secretary of the CPSU, Nikita Chruščev, had announced at the Moscow Architects' Congress in 1954, until the reluctant State Council chairman of the GDR , Walter Ulbricht. It was not until the second high point of de-Stalinization in 1961 that Stalin-Allee was renamed Karl-Marx-Allee.

How the German city system based on the division of labor came about

After 1945, Germany was to be rebuilt on a decentralized basis. Before the Second World War, Berlin had a central control function in metropolitan economic sectors such as banks, media and business and social associations, but stood alongside regional metropolises such as Hamburg, Leipzig and Düsseldorf as centers of the wholesale trade. After 1945 Berlin had a special position as a divided city and capital of the GDR, regional centers of the GDR were Leipzig and Dresden [10].

In 1970 the government authorities and the lobby were concentrated in Bonn, trade in Hamburg and Düsseldorf, insurance companies in Cologne and Munich, and journalism and culture in Munich, while Frankfurt had developed into a financial metropolis. Frankfurt was also able to expand its specialization during the West German economic boom because the bizonal Economic Council sat here, which made it possible to establish contacts with American companies. As an international airport, the Rhine-Main Airbase of the American occupying power made a significant contribution to economic development. The close connection to the USA was clearly reflected in Frankfurt in the decision for a high-rise plan that would shape the skyline.

The planning euphoria of the 1960s

In the 1960s, the worst war damage had been repaired, displaced persons and prisoners of war had arrived in everyday life, the economy had recovered and the space age had dawned. Now began a process that was later described by critics as the “second destruction” of German cities. The new center plans were intended to give the rapidly growing cities a contemporary expression. This was also true in the GDR: the new socialist center included striking buildings for culture, leisure and consumption, cafes, cinemas, hotels and department stores. Examples of this are Prager Strasse in Dresden and Alexanderplatz in Berlin. But also the city center of Karl-Marx-Stadt (today Chemnitz again), initially built on the old floor plan after the war, was redesigned in the 1960s with a completely new road network and new infrastructure systems in modern large-panel construction.

The mood during the Cold War was ambivalent: the scientific and technical revolution and cybernetics promised to solve all material problems through enormous increases in efficiency. The Soviet Union scored with Sputnik and Gagarin, the USA with prefabricated houses, fitted kitchens, automobiles and the American way of life. Above everything was the danger of nuclear war. GDR and FRG were front-line states in this systematic competition, and until the building of the Wall in 1961, a guerrilla war between East and West between consumer goods and public exhibitions raged, which was about prosperity, but also about the question of good taste and the right preservation of cultural heritage went [11].

From inhospitable to liveable city

Between the 1950s and the 1970s, the “car-friendly city” was the model in West and East. Although only a few owned a car in the GDR, unhindered mobility and traffic flow were signals of modernity. At the same time as the expansion of the centers to meet consumer needs, typified large settlements on the outskirts of the cities in the west and east promoted deliberate decentralization, combated the housing shortage and created demand for consumer goods. In the GDR, the construction site stood for progress and experimentation in the socialist future, for which new plastics were being tinkered with. In everyday life, the large panel construction meant a leap in comfort from poorly refurbished old buildings to the remote-heated modern with its own bathroom and fitted kitchen. The new settlements were provided with generous green spaces for recreation and a tiered infrastructure that, in addition to playgrounds, kindergartens and schools, also included supplies of daily necessities such as consumer goods, pharmacies and doctors. Young families with children in particular benefited from this, while poorly educated, marginalized and pensioners remained in the neglected old building districts [12].

In the Federal Republic of Germany, the middle classes preferred to move into their own home in the country and leave the large estates to the lower income groups. At the same time, the densification and commercialization of the inner cities in the 1960s put the old building districts under pressure. Low-earning workers, guest workers and students lived in the old buildings threatened by "area renovations". Intellectual criticism of the “inhospitable cities” (Alexander Mitscherlich, 1965), also in the GDR: in her novel “Franziska Linkerhand” (1974), Brigitte Reimann tells of the desperation of a young architect when faced with the task of creating monotonous prefabricated buildings pull up. However, the majority of the former GDR citizens fondly remember their childhood in the new residential areas.

The worldwide journey to the moon in 1969 made it possible for people to look from space to the perceived fragile earth, the blue planet. In 1972 the report of the Club of Romee about the finiteness of resources, in 1973 the first oil crisis led to a recession and the experience of car-free weekends. Everything together promoted a new ecological awareness and a shift towards traditional values. In the Federal Republic of Germany this was expressed, among other things, in sharp criticism of the large housing estates of the 1960s, in addition to the "European Year of Monument Protection" and also in the fact that young people valued old apartments again. Here resistance formed against the promotion of car traffic, the associated demolition orgies and the city highways of the 1970s. West German urban development policy changed fundamentally. Road projects have been put on hold and inner cities have been freed from car traffic. It was the hour of birth of the pedestrian zone, later cycle paths and modernized public transport were added, promoted by a generation change in the leading city and traffic planners [13].

The traffic-calmed inner cities have been stages for a new event culture since the late 1980s [14]. Spectacular cultural buildings by international star architects ushered in the competition for city tourism and the “revitalization” of the centers. Work, living and leisure should no longer take place in separate zones, as the Athens Charter called for, but should be integrated into city districts.The relocation of industry to emerging countries, the growing service sector and the development of information and communication technologies promoted this process. The downside of traffic calming was the construction of shopping centers on the outskirts of the city, which are more easily accessible for deliveries. But living in the center has become attractive again. The downside of this were displacement processes that led to the so-called gentrification of old building districts, in which the rents were higher earners due to the influx of people urban professionals climb.

Urbanization paths in west and east

Pedestrian zones were also created in the GDR and, in the 1980s, small-scale reconstructions of old building districts such as the Nikolaiviertel in Berlin or in the old town of Rostock. Despite such similarities, the urban development paths of the FRG and the GDR showed profound system-related differences. De-industrialization began in West Germany in the 1970s and led to the perception of a “city crisis”. Paradigmatic was the decline of the coal and steel industry in the Ruhr area, which was countered with the establishment of new industries and with creative and cultural policy measures. The socialist countries, on the other hand, clung to the primacy of production and large settlements. Although only a few cities such as Eisenhüttenstadt were newly founded in the GDR, numerous cities had been industrially reformed. The chemistry program of the 1960s led to the construction of chemical cities such as Halle-Neustadt and Schwedt in the 1960s and 1970s. In terms of urban space, the areas of work and living remained more closely intertwined than in German cities [15]. In the GDR, the company was the center of life. The state-owned companies took on extensive tasks of social welfare for their employees. They were therefore also central to urban life. The companies provided and managed part of the living space, offered childcare and medical care, and ran holiday homes and shops [16].

The differences between the cities in East and West Germany could be experienced with all the senses in the concrete urban space. The cities of the GDR smelled sulphurous of lignite smoke in winter and had a specific color that was found in West German cities, especially in the Ruhr area. The background noise in West German cities was dominated by the noise of the traffic, while in East German cities it was quiet and a two-stroke chugged by every now and then. While West German cities in the centers were brightly lit in the evenings, the cities of the GDR sank into darkness. Places for civil society encounters were rare; social life took place in private or at company parties and in youth clubs. Staying and behavior in public space were more strictly regulated and controlled in the GDR than in the FRG.

Shrinking cities and swarm cities in the mobile society of the 21st century

After the decline of the planned economy system, the emigration of young, well-educated people and the catching-up de-industrialization hit the cities of the GDR with double the force. After all, around a million apartments were empty. In many cities, as part of the federally funded “Urban Redevelopment East” program between 2002 and 2009, the large housing estates of the 1960s and 1970s were selectively renovated and entire blocks demolished. A catching-up suburbanization, which did not happen due to the housing policy and the low level of motorization in the GDR, was cushioned by the trend towards living in the city, especially since the neglected old buildings in the inner cities have been renovated since the 1990s and 2000s. In the meantime, however, there is a lack of apartments in some places, because some cities in the new federal states have become popular places to live for young and qualified people.

Cities like Leipzig or Jena have developed into so-called swarm cities, similar to Freiburg and Münster. When choosing a place of residence, demographic factors such as the pill kink make those born around 1975 look for places where people of the same age with similar interests live. They measure the attractiveness of cities in terms of leisure activities (pubs, cinema, cabaret), location, lifestyle and the concentration of like-minded people. When jobs are added and more people are provided with a steady income, the demand for living space and, with it, the rent increases rapidly [17]. In medium-sized cities, however, the quality of life is also measured by the infrastructure of daycare centers, cycle paths and affordable apartments.

The lack of affordable housing in many German cities has become politically explosive since 2015 due to the wave of refugees. The comparatively strong regulation of tenancy law and a broad spectrum of municipal measures should promote social justice and a mix and stimulate the development of city districts. Critics point out that the regulation also hinders development dynamics in cities with potential, because overregulation and low returns discourage investors and prevent new construction. In 2016, the demand is estimated at 800,000 and more apartments. As in the 1990s, the federal government would like to promote private housing construction through tax write-offs. In the area of ​​housing subsidies and rental, extremely complex mechanisms and measures are at work that have far-reaching implications for urban development.

Globalization, Growth and Segregation

(@ Meike Fischer)

Since the late 1980s, there has been a growing awareness that German cities are integrated into European and global urban systems. Cities are in political, economic, cultural and social relationships, between them flows of capital and goods, data and people. Urban researchers refer to the division of labor in Germany as a whole as a polycentric metropolis / global city. The German urban system is considered to be decentralized, efficient and not very hierarchical. Its preservation is a political goal. As a result of the upheavals and globalization spurt of the 1990s, the federal government's spatial planning policy recognized the metropolitan regions as a field of action and in 2006 defined the “growth and innovation” model, which is intended to promote the regional development of agglomerations (metropolitan areas) and their centers.

The metropolises of the 21st century are organized around services for global companies: Companies like Google, for example, rely on IT services, law firms and advertising agencies. They look for attractive cities with a high quality of life and good offers in the areas of education and culture, because here they find a reservoir of well-trained and creative workers. The economic sectors of the cities are shifting accordingly. The sector geared towards international corporations with its well-paid employees, luxury restaurants and hotels is growing. It exists parallel to and in competition with the local economies of small and medium-sized enterprises. A displacement process sets in. Certain services such as late shopping or cleaning are carried out by migrants who work for extremely low wages and are organized informally, i.e. in families or groups of compatriots. This so-called informal sector is becoming an integral part of the economic structure of world cities.

The apparent “split” into formal and informal economic areas merely reflects the two sides of a coherent economic system [18]. In a sense, it is the rule that growth initially increases social segregation because, in addition to well-educated workers, poorly educated poor migrants also immigrate, who, if not for themselves, hope for a better future for their children. Economic and political control functions, but also social hot spots, are therefore concentrated in large cities.

Liveable cities as places of open society

The question of what makes cities liveable has been answered differently throughout history. Contemporary debates point to current problems and factors such as cheap housing and sufficient jobs, but they also call for integration in order to prevent social segregation and the formation of parallel societies. Social issues such as housing shortages, undersupply and inequality of opportunity have already preoccupied the CIAM architects mentioned above [19]. Today, leisure activities and the quality of public spaces receive a lot of attention. Targeted urban planning and architectural interventions can trigger social processes and promote integration. What people can do freely and for free in city centers makes a city worth living in. Therefore, public spaces, parks and recreational areas have a redistributive function, they correct social inequalities [20]. Participation improves the quality of life: Cities need low-threshold meeting places that are accessible and easily accessible to everyone. It is precisely these meeting places in the “open society” that have become targets of terror in recent years. If, however, high security measures hinder urban life over the long term, the free flow of people, goods and ideas comes to a standstill and “the city threatens to abolish itself” [21]. Returning to the fortress city is not an option.