Sustainability governance in Berlin Germany

A sustainable city by who and for who?

One of the key points in the history of urban governance, is the shift from urban managerialism to entrepreneurialism in the 1970s ‘western world’ (Harvey, 1989). Although this theory applied mostly to cities in the United States at the time, the trend of increasing municipal power started spreading in European cities as well. The effect of neo-liberalisation on governing authorities was one of greater blurring between the public/private sector and a decentralisation of power from the state to a more local scale (ibid, 1989). As of the early 1990s we observe the emergence of a particular type of urban governance related to climate change and the environment (Bulkeley, 2010). Municipal engagement in transnational networks that aimed to reduce urban greenhouse gas emissions, such as the ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability and the Climate Alliance, was among the first approaches that challenged the traditional development of sustainability regimes as the exclusive site of state and supranational politics (ibid, 2010).

These city networks represent a form of collaboration aiming to make our societies more sustainable and to mitigate the effects of climate change. However, in view of urban entrepreneurialism, cities also competed with each other to attract talent and wealth. One of the ways for cities to appear successful is their ranking in indexes such as the Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index which ranks cities based on their ability to “generate strong financial returns, being an attractive place for people to live and work in, whilst also limiting their damage to the environment” (CEBR, 2015) In the sub-index that measures environmental performance, Berlin stands out with the second highest score performing very strongly in areas such as: Energy use and renewables mix, Natural catastrophe exposure, Air pollution, Greenhouse gas emissions, Solid waste management, Drinking water and sanitation (CEBR, 2015). From the above, we notice that there is a strong emphasis on how Berlin performs in terms of sustainability at an administrative level that predominantly focuses on government actions and bluntly excludes citizens and their involvement in making their city more sustainable. Indeed, the intertwining of public and corporate bodies in delivering change to and developing urban environments is important but civil society collectively has more power to drive sustainable growth. As Mulligan et al (2015) suggest, the individual should be at the centre of sustainability because individuals have the power to create reflective dialogue on cultural practises and create mass-scale societal change over time, whereas policy making and technological innovations do not necessarily address the fundamental unsustainability of the modern human being (Ehrenfeld, 2008).

Drawing on Foucault’s idea of governance as not being limited to the political system but including the ‘totality of procedures, techniques, methods that constitute the way people rule one another’ (2005), I am going to explore sustainability governance from an ontologically flat point of view with a central focus on citizen action towards sustainability in Berlin, Germany. Using sustainability as an umbrella theme I am specifically going to argue that participation in urban environmental politics can be seen as a form of contestation to normative politics, rather than the two being in a dualistic relationship. To support my argument, I will use the case studies of community gardening and of the energy democratisation group BürgerEnergie Berlin.

Sustain(able) Berlin: a brief overview of the political spheres governing the city

Berlin is one of the three city-states in Germany, making its Senate an incredibly powerful institution and its boroughs able to carry out functions which are usually part of the municipal government, allowing for significant local autonomy but also many channels of citizen access (Strom, 2001 p.21). As shown in Figure 1, Berlin’s government is responsible for both urban development and issues surrounding the city-state’s environment. Despite not being featured in the diagram; citizens have had a significant amount of influence on past policies regarding redevelopment of Berlin which directly link to how sustainable the city is.

Screen Shot 2017-01-08 at 16.35.27.pngFigure 1: Diagram showing the structure of the German and the Berlin government system.[1]

For instance, the Berlin-Templehof airport which was built in 1936-9 (Hatherley, 2014), has in the past decade been a contested case of redevelopment and is a perfect example of how participatory processes can affect neoliberal urban planning (Hilbrandt, 2016). The airport building is one of the most popular Nazi-era buildings that have survived in time and after it was shut down people started using it the area as a public park (Hatherley, 2014). When a referendum was held in 2014 on Berlin Mayor’s redevelopments plans of the site (to convert it from a park into a residential area with a library and a science park), around 65% of voters spoke against those plans and chose to keep the site as an open public park (Hilbrandt, 2016). The park is now flourishing in terms of flora and fauna with around 80% of its fields being valuable habitat for plants, insects and a wide range of rare birds (Günther, 2010) while it is also a space used for events and recreational purposes catering to a large amount of the capital’s population (Figure 2).

Screen Shot 2017-01-08 at 16.35.19.pngFigure 2: Site map of Templehofer Field with a detailed legend explaining the variety of uses of the space[2]

As the mayor of Berlin Klaus Wowereit said in his inaugural speech of the ‘Be Berlin’ campaign in 2008 “he calls on all of Berlin’s residents — explicitly including recent arrivals — to show civic engagement as ‘people who think not just of themselves but of the greater good of the city’ and to ‘pull together’ to help realize the city’s full potential” (Lanz, 2013).  In the following sections I explain what I call “participestation” of civil society in sustainable development of the city.

Participestation: civil society challenging global environmental politics, authorities and structures

Traditionally governing was seen as a ‘one-way traffic’ from those governing to those governed” – Kooiman (2002).

The above is the main reason why in the past, several conflicts and revolutions have marked the histories of our cities. In David Harvey’s “The Right to the City” (2008), the author suggests that it is a vital human right to be able to change ourselves by changing our cities. Our cities determine the nature of our social ties, relationship to the environment and our lifestyles. To reduce contestation due to the inability of governments to meet their citizens’ needs, some participatory processes have been adopted such as participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre in Brazil where citizens shaped the distribution priorities of public budgets to favor socially marginalized groups (Novy and Leubolt, 2005). Participestation is a term that breaks the dichotomy between participation/contestation, eliciting a wider range of citizen actions that shape the future of their cities and in this case culturally evolve their societies to be more sustainable. It does not necessarily revolve around policy making and urban redevelopment but includes a wider range of subtler everyday mundane actions as simple as using a bicycle for commuting, using your own mug at coffee shops and cutting down on meet consumption, which address a sphere of society which is not as easily accessible and affected by government policies. These actions are participatory but simultaneously contest the inability of governments to take truly effective measures to improve society i.e. in this case, in terms of creating sustainable cities. Despite not always being concerned with government policies such actions can potentially affect government decision making, thus rendering them institutionally and politically powerful. Participestation can be seen as a cultural revolution which defies normative socio-political structures, focusing on the pivotal role that everyday citizen actions can have on the way cities and states are governed. A change of culture would inevitably lead to the political system adapting to it in order to avoid future conflicts and contestation. To further explain this concept, I will use the case studies of two grassroots movements that aim to make Berlin a more sustainable city through citizen participestation.

Community gardening

Collective gardening in the form of community gardens is still not a very common way to create and use public space in Germany as Marit Rosol (2012) suggests. However, in the last decade the number of urban gardening projects in the city of Berlin has reached more than a 100 making the capital of Germany an international hot spot of urban gardens (Wunder, 2013). Considering that there is usually no economic/monetary output in such projects (Rosol, 2012), it is interesting to look at what incentives lead to the input of voluntary labor and time in creating and sustaining community gardens. A strong aspect of community gardens is that through participation and involvement they empower local members to control certain aspects of their living environment against the inequitable agenda of neoliberalising cities (Holland, 2004). Other research has suggested that community gardening and community volunteering in general compensates for the retreat of welfarist functions of states (Amin, 2005; Mayer, 2003).

Community gardens bring people closer to nature and ameliorate both their mental and physical wellbeing (Lind, 2008 p.25-26). Community gardening also encourages reflexivity with regards to the unsustainability of the global industrialized agribusiness (Turner, 2011). Despite not really producing food that sustains local communities (Rosol, 2012), I believe that Berlin community gardens have the potential to develop into a large-scale independent and sustainable food production system in the future that will challenge industrialized farming and global consumerist culture. An example of the above is one of the pioneering projects in Templehofer Fields called “Allmende Kontor” which started in 2011 (Wunder, 2013). Currently the site hosts 280 self-constructed raised beds (Figure 3) and 900 active volunteers (ibid, 2013).

Screen Shot 2017-01-08 at 16.35.36.pngFigure 3: Raised beds in “Allmende Kontor” gardening project in Templehofer Fields[3]

There are no joining fees and anyone is welcome to participate as a gardener as long as there is a free bed that they can use. The garden is governed by a board of 13 volunteer citizens and meets regularly alongside representatives of the different “neighborhoods” (the garden is divided into ten smaller subgroups) of the garden, to plan workshops and seminars or manage the logistics of running such a big participatory project (ibid, 2013). Because of its success in engaging people in a green project, “Allmende Kontor” has been recognized and certified as an excellent sustainability initiative by the German Council for Sustainable Development (ibid, 2013). Even though the environmental impacts of urban community gardens have not yet been measured, it is clear that they have sparked a discussion on the use and development of unutilized spaces in Germany (Wunder, 2013).

Overall, community gardens are creating new forms of eco-citizens while promoting a sustainable lifestyle and creating a more cohesive urban fabric by brining communities together and allowing for the exchange of knowledge. Through their participation in urban gardening, Berlin citizens are contesting the global neoliberal agenda and the industrialized agricultural system and paving the way towards a more sustainable and independent city.

BürgerEnergie Berlin

Even though Germany as a whole, is one of the most famous examples of a successful energy transition scheme (Energiewende) that commits to a full scale shift from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy (Hager, 2016), Berlin was ranked last from the German Institute for Economics in terms of its development of renewable energies (Blanchet, 2015). Berlin’s citizens are discontent with the fact that decision making with regards to the city’s electricity grid lies within the government and other private shareholders such as Swedish state-owned energy company Vattenfall which owns the electricity grid of the city (ibid, 2015).

Aylett (2013) suggests that where civil society is a central actor in terms of urban energy transition, it is usually neglected in favour of emphasizing municipal authorities’ actions. This is why I would like to draw attention to BürgerEnergie Berlin; a citizen led group which goes against this normative discourse of elite driven energy transition processes, aiming to increase power of civil society with regards to urban energy generation and provision through collective ownership of Berlin’s electricity grid. Such initiatives have been analyzed in the past, under the concept of ‘collective and politically motivated renewable energy projects’ (CPE) (Kunze and Becker, 2015). CPE emphasizes on participation through collective ownership and decision making, as the means for societal sustainable degrowth (ibid, 2015). Under the concept of participestation I emphasize equally on both the aspects and the balance between participation and contestation of such initiatives, which is what intrigues and engages citizens in such community projects. Studies of grassroots initiatives (or bottom-up transitions) show that success lies within local networks of mobilized and engaged citizens (who act as moral agents, in the sense that they lead ethical and sustainable growth despite the barriers imposed by cultural-political traditions and dominant infrastructures (Kirkman, 2009; Painuly, 2011). Such local civil society groups are stronger when they are open, participatory and collaborative which are traits that create an atmosphere of trust and support towards the goal of their initiatives (Van Der Schoor and Scholtens, 2015). Supporters of BürgerEnergie Berlin I believe, have shown their trust to the initiative not only by signing the petition and peacefully protesting (Figure 4) but also through raising 12 million euros to collectively buy a share of the electricity grid.


Screen Shot 2017-01-08 at 16.35.43.pngFigure 4: Citizens protesting for the democratization of the city’s electricity grid in front of the Red Town Hall, during the party coalition meeting on Monday 10th October 2016.[4]

Overall by participating in the ownership of the electricity grid, citizens are contesting the undemocratic nature of energy generation and distribution, aiming to have power in decision making and through that try and support and accelerate sustainable and socially equitable growth of Berlin.

Conclusion: Why does this matter 

Overall there has been a growing trend of democratization of urban governance especially when it comes to environmental issues in Berlin. Community movements have gained institutionalized legitimacy and citizens are located in the center of sustainable growth of urban environments due to their ability to change unsustainable cultures through their everyday actions. My analysis of Berlin and my introduction of the term “participestation” offers a new theorization of urban socio-environmental movements that can apply to a range of different contexts around the world. I believe that should we be able to reach the target of the Paris COP 2015, citizens need to get mobilized and engage in urban environmental politics following the example of Berliners who have claimed the power in their hands to make their city a leader in sustainability culture.  


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[1] LSE CITIES (2008) “GOVERNANCE STRUCTURES: BERLIN” Retrieved December 07, 2016, from

[2] G., Tecklenburg. (2016). Tempelhofer Feld – Bestandskarte [Digital image]. Retrieved from

[3] Wunder, S (2013) Learning for Sustainable Agriculture: Urban Gardening in Berlin, Berlin, from

[4] Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg (2016). Initiative kämpft um Berliner Stromnetz. Retrieved December 16, 2016, from


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