A weekend in Cologne

While making my early investigations into places and people to visit, I was put in touch with Simon Hubacher – a Swiss architect who now lives in Cologne. He was super friendly and I had a good chat with him on the phone. He mentioned that there would be a networking event for group build projects on 10th March in Cologne and that it might be a good opportunity for me to come and meet people and get to know the scene over there.

With the Churchill Fellowships only being announced on 9th March it was a bit close to the mark, but fortunately I did make it to Cologne and had a fantastic weekend.

My main objectives were to attend the networking event, to get some ideas/inspiration for similar events we will be holding in Bristol and to make some contacts for my future visit(s) to Germany.

Group build information stand at the Wohnprojektetag event

The event was really well attended, with probably several hundred people joining throughout the day. There were at least 20 stands including a mix of build groups/housing co-operatives, banks and support organisations. There are over 30 current or developing group build projects in Cologne and the surrounding area, however I was surprised to learn that there is not much direct support from the city council – e.g. groups still find it hard to access land and say that it is much easier in other cities such as Munich and Freiburg.

Although there is a ‘Netzwerk fur gemeinschaftliches Bauen und Wohnen’ which runs events and socials, and ‘Stadtraum 5und4’ (a campaigning organisation) I was somehow expecting that there might be a more established central body where groups can go to access advice, funding and land – something like the Hub we are developing for the West of England. However this didn’t seem to be the case. I did however meet some great people who had developed and completed their own housing projects, both privately and co-operatively owned.

Map showing community build projects in the Cologne area

I also saw some interesting presentations showing case studies in Munich, Tubingen and Berlin, all of which I hope to visit. These were just totally on another level to anything I’m aware of in the UK.

In Munich the city council has set aside 30 hectares for a major regeneration project which will build 1800 homes for around 4000 inhabitants. Of these, 50% are affordable and 40% are designated for either housing co-operatives or private build groups. The scheme is being delivered by a consortium including housing corporations, housing co-operatives, builders, property developers and the local religious community, who have collaborated to create a holistic design including a range of community, mobility and eco features. I can’t wait to visit in person and find out more about how it all works in practice and what it takes for a local authority to get behind such a project.

In Tubingen and the surrounding towns, it now seems to be standard practice for the municipalities to sell plots of land to build groups/co-operatives at a fixed price. The typical size for each group ‘block’ is 11 homes and each group usually includes some common space as well. Interestingly, the application process is ‘qualitative’, based on the story behind the project rather than a ‘points’ system of ticking certain boxes. Applications are judged by a jury made up of the mayor and local councillors. The speaker said that this system works well but requires ‘very strong political backing’ as it is highly labour-intensive to assess the applications and potentially vulnerable to legal challenge by groups who don’t get allocated plots. The result is a very creative mix of projects which all fit together in a complementary way.

Another interesting learning from the Tubingen area is that the municipality will typically allocate a few of the plots first to ‘anchor users’ which are the early pioneers and get to make choices about the overall layout of the site, e.g. where will underground parking access and communal/private gardens be located? Groups that are allocated plots later are therefore not involved in these choices. This is a pragmatic choice because it was found from previous experience that if all the groups had to decide these things together it was a very long and difficult process. The people I visited in Cologne backed this up – making these decisions between just four build groups had been extremely fraught. However I don’t think they had an external source of support to help mediate their decision-making process, and perhaps this would have helped.

I was really fortunate to be able to stay two nights at the Wunschnachbarn community in Nippes. This is one of nine build groups/co-operatives that were able to buy plots from the city council during the redevelopment of a massive rubber factory starting in 2013 (the remaining plots went to private developers/social housing).

Unfortunately a weekend wasn’t nearly long enough to get to know the detail behind any of these projects but it’s given me a good taster and I’m now planning a return trip to Germany to investigate in more depth.

Thank you to Dr Iqbal Hamiduddin of Bartlett School of Planning at UCL who put me in touch with Simon Hubacher and made this whole trip possible, to Simon for inviting me to join the SIA exhibition and dinner on Friday night and to Ralf, Julia, Matilda and Bruno for hosting me at Wunschnachbarn!

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