The challenges in the city of Frankfurt over the next fifteen years
Mayor Peter Feldmann in conversation with the Skyline Atlas
Michael Wutzke: Mr. Feldmann, as Lord Mayor of the City of Frankfurt am Main, you are at the cutting edge for meeting the problems and demands of a modern city. The topics are now more diverse than 16 years ago. For your predecessor, Petra Roth, security, culture and integration of the foreign population were the most critical topics. How do you see the situation in Frankfurt today?
Peter Feldmann: We must keep our growing city together, which is the core of the challenge. The creation and construction of affordable housing is the social question of the 21st century in our cities. Our joint project is a new quarter, an ambitious housing construction program for people of ordinary income, the construction of subsidised housing, and a safe, clean Frankfurt where working people can live their lives. Equally important is the education of our children. Anything that saves costs to the detriment of our children is harmful to our future. We must invest heavily here in the coming years: 13 new schools, 19 extension buildings and 6,000 additional care centres. We need to inspire confidence and courage in the future instead of thinking small and being short-sighted.
Michael Wutzke: Frankfurt RheinMain is an attractive place for many people. The region attracts many thousands of new citizens every year. In the vicinity of towns such as Bad Vilbel, Rodgau, Offenbach, Obertshausen and Eschborn, to name but a few, one sees areas with an S-Bahn connection, while there’s a lack of living space in the metropolitan region. The attentive observer finds a lack of coordination in the creation of housing. Does the city of Frankfurt need to communicate here more urgently, or does it require a higher level of coordination?
Peter Feldmann: I visited almost all of the cities you have mentioned, and I have built trust with them. Our municipal housing association, the ABG, cooperates with many of our neighbouring communities. I demand more commitment from the state of Hesse. The country is doing too little for Frankfurt and for the region as a whole. Frankfurt does not want to impose its will arrogantly from above, but we want a common regional development on an equal footing. However, it is also clear that everyone must work together; this goes for our new residential district, as well as for the development of favourable building sites in the region.
Michael Wutzke: The urban road network in Frankfurt no longer fulfils the requirements for modern traffic routes in a large city, mainly because it was conceived for a different time. How can we optimise transit, or even, bring it underground? Is it conceivable that one day the banks of the Main River will be car-free and a ring tunnel will relieve the city centre of traffic?
Peter Feldmann: Many things are conceivable, including a car-free Main riverbank. We’ll start by experimenting, by converting the northern shore of the river into a pedestrian zone on certain days. In general, it must be clear: commuting from outside into our city by car has no future. We need to expand public transport infrastructure. Our key targets are the Regional Tangent West (RTW, Regionaltangente West), the rapid-transit railway north of the Main river (Nordmainische S-Bahn), four-track expansion to Bad Vilbel, and the subway gap between Ginnheim and Bockenheim, to name but a few examples.
Michael Wutzke: Can the railway lines, converging in a star shape around the main station, be expanded so that the city is tangentially developed, similar to Berlin, for example?
Peter Feldmann: The city of Frankfurt, together with the RMV (Rhein-Main Verkehrsverbund, the local transportation system provider), the state of Hesse and its neighbouring cities and counties, is advancing planning for the region-wide Regional Tangent West (RTW) from Bad Homburg via Eschborn, Frankfurt-Höchst and the airport to Neu-Isenburg and Dreieich. RTW is a regional urban railway line, like the S-Bahn in Karlsruhe, and can travel both on railroad and tram tracks. In the future, this line will have the function of transporting traffic beyond the city limits without the need for people to converge on the main station.
Another project within the city is to guide the tram line in a ring around the inner city to connect districts like Bornheim, Dornbusch, Bockenheim and Sachsenhausen to each other without funneling passengers through the Hauptwache, Konstablerwache, and Willy-Brandt-Platz junctions. Planning will have to be intensified in the coming years.
Michael Wutzke: Does Frankfurt need more support from the state of Hesse or the German government in tackling its infrastructure tasks, such as expansion of public transportation? For example, the city of Munich is heavily funded by the state of Bavaria.
Peter Feldmann: We would want equal support from the state of Hesse. For decades, we have been discussing the enclosure of the A661 between Bornheim and Seckbach (sheltering the highway with a roof). A development measure like this comes only once a century, and we must take this opportunity. Coming back to your question: yes, all levels of the government need to focus on our growing metropolitan regions, because that’s where the development of our country is determined.
Frankfurt has the highest birth rate in Germany. Frankfurt has almost as many jobs as residents. The city is growing by 15,000 people each year. Hesse and the national government must realise that our growing metropolitan regions are the driving force behind our economic success. On the other hand, when I see that the state of Hesse has reduced our municipal financial compensation by a half billion, I am stunned. This is so absurd. You really wouldn’t believe it, but it’s true.
Michael Wutzke: Affordable housing in the metropolitan area is and will continue to be a major political issue. In the last few years, real estate prices in German cities have been rising. Many people fear that the housing situation could hurt them financially. What are the political parties doing to improve life in the city for people who are not well off financially? What is being done for students, families and seniors?
Peter Feldmann: First, there is the program for affordable housing for ordinary earners. Secondly, there is a student ticket for public transport, for one euro per day throughout the state of Hesse. We will also introduce a significantly more favourable senior ticket. Thirdly, we will significantly increase the income limits for the Frankfurt Pass, so that all families, children and the elderly are able to frequent the outdoor swimming pool and the zoo. Fourthly, there is free admission for all children and youth to urban museums. Fifth, the care guarantee must be realised from 2020 onwards: here, too, the state government has failed in a reckless manner. In order to move forward, the city needs to take over national tasks.
Michael Wutzke: How important are housing cooperatives or alternative housing models for the future? What exactly can Frankfurt citizens do by themselves?
Peter Feldmann: Many have joined the network for shared living. Our seven Frankfurt cooperatives have united under one roof. Our planned city district in the north is intended to give lots of space to cooperative and community housing projects. Our town should not just sell building land to the highest bidder, but rather give priority to the best ideas. The keyword is conceptualisation…
Michael Wutzke: How can we as a community make the city more viable?
Peter Feldmann: Yes, something has been lost that used to be stronger: a common sense of responsibility for the public space. For our parks, for our riverbank, for our major shopping streets. We are currently paying €3 million to establish a cleaner Frankfurt. We will set up 1000 new trash cans. We will hire parking guards. There will be additional cleaning activity in the city centre and in the suburban neighbourhoods.
Michael Wutzke: On the subject of creating a livable city: the quality of architecture in Frankfurt is displeasing. In the Europaviertel and in the city centre, the streets are dominated by the drab stone facades of the newer buildings. How can we encourage investors and builders to improve aesthetics and creativity?
Peter Feldmann: Too often focus has been put on quantitative adjustments. Certainly, city planning hinges on the definition of building density. In addition, there are many aspects of building, such as energy-saving insulation, where decisions have been purely technical. Economic considerations constrain builders to pay utmost attention to construction costs. To change this we have to put more emphasis on competitions to improve aesthetics. This way we can make more inventive concept proposals, although this only applies to urban properties. Lastly, we have to build on the work of Martin Wentz (head of planning in Frankfurt in the 1990s), who involved the public in the planning process and also addressed aesthetic aspects of urban design in the process.
Michael Wutzke: There are various options reported in the media for new development areas or even new city districts. No matter which residential project is being discussed, citizens’ initiatives are formed, critics get a stage, and people file lawsuits to halt the project. Why has it become so routine in Germany for every new large-scale project to trigger a general protest along the lines of “not in front of my house”?
Peter Feldmann: My impression is different. I see a great deal of willingness for positive change, but also the need to be taken seriously and to contribute to the planning process. It is much better for me if people are fighting for their Frankfurt than if they did not care. We are a city of engaged citizens; we argue and we seek solutions. If politicians make suggestions that do not suit people, an honest discussion is always better than having the attitude of “I can’t change that anyway”.
Michael Wutzke: Today, we are crossing city boundaries in a matter of minutes and we do not often think about what city we are in. Are administrative boundaries of cities today mainly a relic of the past? For example, until 1945 there were even border controls between Frankfurt and [the neighbouring city of] Offenbach.
Peter Feldmann: People don’t care about borders so much, but alas, the administrators and politicians do…
With condominium towers we are not solving the problem.
Michael Wutzke: Let’s talk about investors. In London, for example, massive new skyscrapers are being built across the city, even up to 70 storeys. By 2019, 152 new high-rise buildings with at least 20 floors are expected to be built there, mostly residential. A large number of international investors are currently investing in London. Could this trend reach Frankfurt in the future?
Peter Feldmann: No, this is not my picture of our city. With residential towers we do not solve the problem.
Michael Wutzke: If real estate investors increase their interest in Frankfurt in the coming years, how can the city present itself as an attractive investment location compared to cities like New York City, London, or Miami?
Peter Feldmann: I want sustainable investment in affordable housing. This is the job of a responsible policy. Apartments must not be speculative objects. Privately used condominiums or houses can be part of pension provisions, but they should never be speculation objects.
The shift from affordable leases toward speculative, expensive condominiums is a negative development that we must put a stop to.
We must build, build, build, so that supply and demand are balanced again. If the growth of wages and cost of rents diverge too far, then a fundamental question arises: do we want a city that a normal working person can afford? I want that, and I fight for it every day.
Michael Wutzke: You can read in the press that only pre-defined sites should be allocated for new high-rise buildings in Frankfurt. In your opinion, does this reduce pressure on the real estate market?
Peter Feldmann: Clarity is always an advantage.
Michael Wutzke: Every major city in Europe is now advertising itself as an excellent central location. What exactly distinguishes Frankfurt from such cities?
Peter Feldmann: I do not see ourselves in opposition to other cities. Each city has its peculiarities, its own identity, mentality, and history. People in Frankfurt are open and international. The trade fairs, the airport, trade, and banking all contribute to our prosperity, as we know. But the most important thing in Frankfurt is peaceful coexistence, cultural diversity, and cohesion in our city. We are a city of philanthropy and a city of free spirit. This is Frankfurt, and that is much more important than our central location, which also helps us, of course.
Michael Wutzke: Frankfurt stands for banks, but our city has far more to offer. How can we better communicate the benefits of the main metropolis and its surrounding areas while avoiding parochialism?
Peter Feldmann: This is a big topic for my friend, Wilhelm Bender, former head of the airport and a great fighter for joint development of the RheinMain region. He always tells me that if other cities and regions offered what we do, they would advertise it day and night. The Rheingau in the west, the Bergstraße in the south, the Taunus in the north, and the Rhön just an hour away; the cultural landscape of Mainz, Darmstadt, and Wiesbaden. This is our Frankfurt, with Offenbach at its side.
There is everything here: the grandest opera, museums, theatre, the Free Scene, incredible sports and leisure, and recently, three new soccer clubs in the Bundesliga. I could continue for hours, but you know what: our metropolitan region is well known and popular all over the world.
We have doubled the number of company resettlements since 2005, from 5 new companies per week to 10. We have reduced unemployment, but full employment is our goal.
Michael Wutzke: Many visitors only pass through Frankfurt. How can Frankfurt score with tourists, and how can we make their stay here better and longer than before?
Peter Feldmann: When I started my office [in 2012], we had under 4 million visitors per year, and now it’s over 5 million. My impression is that visitors to Frankfurt feel very comfortable and rightly so.
Michael Wutzke: Paris has the Eiffel Tower. Barcelona has the Sagrada Familia. Berlin has the Brandenburg Gate. Would Frankfurt benefit from an internationally recognizable landmark?
Peter Feldmann: We have the Paulskirche, the museum shore at the Main River (Museumsufer), the Skyline, our Old Opera House, and soon the renovated old town. I don’t want to compete over landmarks, but we are well placed here too!
However, the next challenge is already at our door: the renovation of the opera and drama theatres, both of which have an excellent reputation nationally and internationally.
Willy Brandt Platz will clearly remain a centre of culture. Here, private investors have nothing to look for. The renovation of the Municipal Theatre is also a great opportunity. How we can implement this in an urban way in order for successive generations to say, “you have done well”: that is the task before us now.
Michael Wutzke: Draw for our readers a picture of our city in fifteen years.
Peter Feldmann: The renovated old town, like the Ostzeile (the restored east side of the Römerberg) and the Museumsufer will shape the identity of our city. We have managed to stabilise rents, and families can afford to live in Frankfurt. The airport is prospering, but it’s at peace with its neighbours. The Eintracht (soccer club) plays on a European level. The big infrastructure projects I mentioned are now complete or are about to be completed. In our new residential district life is vibrant: children are having fun on the playgrounds and community housing with affordable rents make it a popular part of our city.
The green belt around our town has not been degraded or developed, while industry has been retained. We are still Europastadt, and there is a lively dialogue between different religions and cultures in Frankfurt.
Our children go into good, free kindergartens and our schools are in visibly good condition. Good care is guaranteed, and when visitors come to Frankfurt, we entertain them at our new opera and other showspaces. After the performance, we invite them to go shopping where Frankfurt is the most beautiful: in our suburban neighbourhoods.
Michael Wutzke: Thank you for your time.
The interview was conducted in July 2017.
Peter Feldmann (pictured here in 2017) has been the Lord Mayor of Frankfurt since 2012.
“Clarity is always an advantage.”
Peter Feldmann, in response to whether or not binding sites for high-rise buildings should be declared.