30 November 2012
by Alastair Donald
Cities make us ‘richer, smarter, greener, healthier and happier’ argued Edward Glaeser in his best-seller ‘The Triumph of the City’. But many people remain unconvinced. Whether the ‘megarisks’ said to result from expanding Asian megacities, or the large infrastructure projects such as Stuttgart railway station and Frankfurt airport, growth and urban development are often viewed suspiciously. In Berlin, immigration, mass tourism and ‘gentrification’ are commonly criticised as a drain on scarce resources, while fears abound that development threatens ‘urban memory’.
Sponsored by the British Council, this ‘international satellite’ debate in Berlin was part of the annual Battle of Ideas festival, which in addition to the main festival weekend at the Barbican in London, this year hosted stand alone debates in 15 European cities. In Berlin, the Deutsche Bank proved an excellent host for a discussion that explored topics as wide ranging as the role of urban agriculture, public space and the fragmentation of community, and the extent to which innovation and preservation could and should play in creating a better future.
Given the contentious nature of issues such as gentrification, entrenched positions are rarely subjected to open discussion through the medium of public debate. In that sense, as the debate chair Sabine Beppler-Spahl of session partner Novo Argumente noted, the evening proved useful on a number of levels, not least because it offered a chance to discuss questions that are rarely posed, never mind answered. A youthful and often vociferous audience seemed to agree, and in a sure sign of an engaged discussion, even as the speakers summed up, they were confronted with new questions and demands for further clarification and more answers.