CORPUS: There is a clear trend toward urbanization, with the United Nations predicting that two-thirds of the world's population will be living in cities by 2050. What does that mean looking ahead?
It is important to distinguish between German towns and cities and the megacities in the highly dynamic growth areas of the Global South. In Germany, a good 75 percent of the population lives in urban areas, but mainly in small and medium-sized towns. Unlike in English, the German language distinguishes between "Verstädterung" and "Urbanisierung". "Verstädterung", which in my view is more closely defined, means quantitative growth in area and the number of people. "Urbanisierung", on the other hand, refers to the qualitative side of things, i.e. a certain urban lifestyle. The urbanization trends in the southern hemisphere show that most people move to the city because they associate it with the promise of a better life or because they can no longer survive in rural regions. Look at Africa, where people's livelihoods are often wiped out by wars, the EU's trade policy, or even by industry −and here the chemical industry is just as responsible as other protagonists. For completely different reasons, however, a trend toward urban life-styles can also be observed in Germany. The ideal home is perceived no longer as the family house in the country, but as a city apartment that is as centrally located as possible.
CORPUS: The challenges are manifold: climate change, increasing extreme weather events, and the development of sustainable mobility strategies. What are the key issues from a sociological perspective?
We obviously need to talk about climate change. How we cope with the increasing heat load in particular is central. So I am already thinking about a sociology of shade: Who is exposed to the sun and who is allowed to work in the shade or in air-conditioned rooms? This brings us straight to the issues of segregation and gentrification, which are also becoming increasingly widespread in German cities. Another key aspect is who is allowed to use scarce public space and how. Most of it is occupied by stationary traffic, and the streets are dominated by private cars. This is a constellation that is unsustainable − and this in Germany, where for the baby boomer generation especially owning a car is a kind of basic right of life. At the same time, this shows that we have a trend toward the gerontocratic city. A certain age group dominates urban development and implements many changes only hesitantly or not at all − in terms of the transport turnaround in particular, I miss a sense of urgency. In this respect, intergenerational justice is a key factor when it comes to the future of the city. Another key issue is land consumption and thus in fact the taboo topic of residential space consumption. Fewer and fewer people are occupying more and more space and, conversely, more and more people are living in less and less space. This is also due to housing costs − not only rents, but also energy prices, for example. Those who cannot pay their electricity bills and have no access to the internet are left behind. This has become obvious since the pandemic, if not before.
Fewer and fewer people are occupying more and more space and, conversely, more and more people are living in less and less space.
CORPUS: Social mixing is still considered the ideal for the city. How can we preserve this against the background of increasing gentrification − and is this a task for urban planners or policymakers?
In my view, this is a political issue, but behind it is the question of what kind of society we want. At the moment, capitalist competition between cities is causing social concerns to increasingly shift out of the spotlight. Gentrification is also so dramatic in Germany because there is no law to control money laundering. As long as "concrete gold" underpins the current stability of return on investment, this will continue. The question of land value is also important. Is it about individual opportunities for profit or about creating spaces that are available to everyone? Of course, I am not advocating the socialist ownership of land, but I find it problematic that our inner cities have become walk-in investment funds. Social mixing also depends on what kind of housing is being promoted. In Germany, the focus is still on the self-contained small apartment. However, the nuclear family has long since ceased to be the sole or even the most important form of cohabitation in the urban setting. We need alternative forms of habitation that are more social and ecological and that place the emphasis on communal living, such as integrative housing projects.
CORPUS: When you think about the city of the future, what are the most significant changes you expect?
On the one hand, there is increasing social division, but with a simultaneous increase in the importance of civil society − take urban gardening movements or campaigns to make city centers car-free, for example. The central aspect of housing includes the question of to what extent rural areas are being revalued. The agricultural mode of production, with the destruction of biodiversity, the devastation of the countryside and the associated use of agricultural toxins, does indeed have significance for the city. These are not separate spheres, and against this background many people see prospects for themselves only in the cities. At the same time, these are themselves becoming relevant again as agricultural space, which will have consequences for the competition for public space. In addition, of course, there is climate stress. We can only withstand certain temperatures, and the most recent summers have shown that the inner cities in particular have reached their limits. As you can see, it is almost impossible to single out any factors, because they are all interconnected.