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Berlin Senate Hampers Subsequent Densification

Development strategies seeking to get on top of metropolitan housing shortages tend to include subsequent densification as a key component, and this is something most experts and many policymakers agree on. For it is virtually impossible to create sufficient housing in inner cities without filling gap sites and topping up existing buildings. But in Berlin, subsequent densification may get even harder and costlier than it already is. The reason for saying so is a new directive issued by Berlin's Senate Department for Urban Development and Housing (headed by a socialist, Katrin Lompscher).

According to her circular (SenStadtWohn II E Nr. 50/2017), it will no longer be permitted to cut back or cut down streetside trees to make way for subsequent densifications. Published in late June, the circular states: “Streetside trees are generally not to be cut back or felled in order to clear the way for the second emergency escape routes of newly constructed buildings (loft conversions and gap site developments) that presuppose the use of a fire engine ladder. If an existing stock of trees massively impedes the set-up of a second emergency escape route via a fire engine ladder such an escape route must be integrated into the building structure.”

Killing a Time-Tested Pragmatic Approach

What may read like an innocuous little directive could have massive repercussions for developers on the ground, and an article in the Berlin daily Tagesspiegel in late July discussed them at length.  The structural creation of the aforementioned second emergency escape route, for instance by putting in a second staircase or safety staircase is associated with prohibitive costs and is often simply infeasible. For this very reason, building authorities generally accept the accessibility of flats via a fire engine ladder as second emergency escape route. Berlin is full of tree-lined streets, and if trees compromise the accessibility of fire engine ladders, the only realistic way to make this workaround work is by cutting back some trees at a minimum.

The senate administration’s directive will eliminate this time-tested pragmatic workaround. There is reason for concern that the number of planning permissions in Berlin, which have been in decline anyway (residential planning consents were down 4.4 percent year on year at the end of the first five months of 2017) will drop even further.

That being said, there is one exception that will permit the cutting back of trees for subsequent densification now as in the future, and that is the development of “affordable housing,” as it says verbatim in the circular.