international analysis and commentary

A tale of two dynamic cities – London and Berlin


Both London and Berlin have undergone major transformations in the past 10 to 15 years, having developed into the two most important cities in Europe. Although Brussels hosts the majority of European institutions, Berlin could indeed be considered as one of the (multiple) political capitals of Europe, since Germany has emerged as such a powerful player in the EU.

Beyond its institutional role as the capital city of Germany itself, Berlin has also been developing into an international city. Until recently, the city – during the Cold War the living symbol of Europe’s division – was known to survive on public subsidies that supported its scraggly economic structure. Now it is home to a diverse population of start-up entrepreneurs, artists and engineers from across the globe.

Meanwhile, London has consolidated its status as financial hub on a global scale, which is reflected, among other things, in the way its skyline has changed over the past 15 years.

Given these two cities’ changes, assessing their roles and outlooks in the 21st century is not only important in financial and political terms, but also with regard to its people and their social interdependence. What kind of city are Londoners and Berliners living in today and what will it look like in the years to come?

After proudly declaring London “the greatest city in the world”, the newly-elected Mayor, Sadiq Khan, is now facing challenging tasks. The city has increased its population by around one and a half million in the last 15 years. This growth can partly be attributed to an influx of workers from the European Union. These workers have largely contributed to the growing economy and the diversity of the metropolis. In fact, the city’s economy has been growing twice as fast as Britain’s. However, this phenomenon has put enormous pressure on the housing market. While there has recently been an increase of 100,000 residents per year, only 25,000 new homes were built in 2015. According to The Economist, this constitutes only half of what is needed.

The rapid increase in population has equally triggered higher demand for public transport. Thus, the most pressing issues Khan has to deal with are housing and infrastructure. Interestingly, his campaign was shaped less by concrete housing policy measures than by his humble background, his Muslim faith as well as by being brought up in a council estate as a son of a Pakistani bus driver and eventually becoming a human rights lawyer. He took over from his Conservative predecessor Boris Johnson, now known as a leading Brexit-campaigner.

Serving in office from 2008 to 2016, Johnson claims to have “rebuilt and regenerated [London] on a scale that has not been achieved for centuries.” Indeed, more than 200 skyscrapers were built or planned during his term as mayor, whilst before leaving office he announced the construction of 200 more for luxury flats. The popular bicycle scheme, nicknamed after him as “Boris bikes”, an expanded network of cycle lanes, the construction of Crossrail, a fast track train network across the capital, as well as the London Olympics 2012 and their legacy have further shaped London’s recent development. Although Johnson may not claim full credit for all of this, it was certainly under his two terms in office that Britain’s capital changed dramatically.

Yet, the newly-elected mayor will now have to cope with severe challenges precisely as a consequence of the enormous boost to the city. During the past eight years, rents have increased by 66% and property prices by 76%, whereas wages have only gone up by 4%. The cost of residential land has tripled in the past 20 years. According to the Centre for London, a think tank, the disposable income of private renters in the inner-city dropped by 28% between 2001 and 2011. As a consequence, homeowners and landlords are benefiting from this situation, which is leading to an alarming inequality crisis and a decline in living conditions.

However, despite these worrisome trends, the capital keeps attracting people from all over the country, as well as from abroad, both for its economic opportunities and for its vibrancy, diversity and uniqueness. In the German media for instance, the British capital is often described as one of the most exciting cities in the world, a trendsetter or even as a Sehnsuchtsort, which would translate into “a place of longing”. Thus, London desperately needs to prepare and care for new arrivals and existing residents in order to take measures against the negative effects of gentrification.

After Germany’s reunification in 1990 and the shift of the country’s political center of gravity from Bonn to Berlin, excavators and cranes shaped the skyline of the new and historical capital of Germany. In fact, in the 1990s, the city was often referred to as the largest construction site in Europe. Not only were government and embassy buildings regenerated and built, but (especially in the 2000s) new infrastructure projects such as the main railway station and a new airport were launched.

Berlin was never a financial hub like Frankfurt, or a posh, expensive city like Hamburg, Düsseldorf or Munich – reflecting thus the polycentricity of the German nation, in comparison to France or Britain. However, it hosts a heavy history, a thriving cultural scene and the most diverse population in Germany, attracting people from all over the world for a variety of reasons.

What might best exemplify the evolution of Berlin is the borough of Neukölln. Its current demographic mix exists throughout the country, but is most visible here. The German journalist Ramon Schack compares it to London’s Brick Lane in the 1980s with its Babylonian blend of languages and exotic diversity. Once a neighborhood of mostly Arab and Turkish immigrants and low-skilled workers living in humble conditions, Neukölln’s close proximity to the former Tempelhof airport and the constant noise made it an unattractive place to live.  After the airport’s closure in 2008 and its conversion into a public park, the borough now attracts more well-off renters and families. This has led to gentrification, similar to that of many areas in London.

The former Tempelhof airport building is a classic example of how idle commercial space can be used in Berlin in many different ways. What used to be the third largest non-residential building in the world has been temporarily transformed for fashion shows, concerts and other artistic purposes.

These recent developments, paired with relatively affordable rent prices due to an abundance of empty rooms and buildings following the population decline after World War II, have significantly contributed to Berlin’s power of attraction. Berlin’s population peaked indeed in 1939 with 4,3 million, then it plummeted to below 3 million, and after 1950 it stayed relatively steady. Moreover, due to the aforementioned economic polycentricity in Germany, nowadays Berlin is not the only option, let alone the most lucrative option – like London is in Britain -, when people move to (or within) Germany seeking economic opportunities.

Similar to London, the German capital seems to be a trendsetter for the rest of the country. The Berliners, known for their grumpiness, are becoming more relaxed and open to diversity, celebrating a “live and let live” culture. London is still in a league of its own, as diversity is enshrined in the city’s identity  – almost four in ten Londoners are born abroad and according to the Office for National Statistics, “White British” inhabitants now represent a minority.  Berlin is still far from such a blend of international backgrounds, yet the notion is becoming ever more present as the capital welcomes more and more global citizens. It is indeed a city worth living in, with public transport running all night, full of vibrancy and an enormous offer of cultural activities. On weekends, it is not uncommon to see the underground more crowded at 3am than on rush hour during the week.

Adding to Berlin’s openness is the fact that it is the city in Europe that has welcomed the most refugees from Syria, with more than 80,000 currently registered. For Berlin, it comes to no surprise that the former Tempelhof airport building has incorporated yet another function: it now serves as a refugee center for 2,000 people, and will possibly expand its capacity to up to 7,000.

All of these traits are what make a global city. Given the aforementioned characteristics and challenges of these two unofficial European capitals, both need to adapt and take action in order to keep up with constantly changing circumstances. They need to combat the negative side effects of gentrification and they especially need to support the powerless. As the sociologist Saskia Sassen puts it, they are the ones enriching the urban tissue of the global cities with their “ethnic” food, music, culture and corner-shops.

Major challenges remain for both cities: Whereas Berlin needs to embrace and integrate the economic migrants of the past ten years as well as the thousands of refugees that continue to arrive, London will have to provide affordable homes and public transport in order to remain a welcoming and vibrant place for people from all over the world for the next decade.