The Women Candidates Shocking the Competition

This week, Boston city councilor Ayanna Pressley set herself en route to making history—again.

After winning the Democratic primary for Massachusetts’ District 7, she’s virtually assured to become the first African-American woman to represent the state in Congress. But Pressley had already become a first a decade ago when, in 2009, she became the first woman of color elected to the Boston City Council. Two years later she worked successfully to fight off a comeback campaign from a veteran Boston politician, and finished atop a crowded field.

Pressley’s rise began with local ambition and king-slaying, and races from Phoenix to Rochester, New York, seem to be echoing her trajectory: In recent and upcoming 2018 elections, first-time candidates, women, people of color, and LGBTQ candidates are running and winning more than ever, especially at the local and state-house level. In the past, the high price tag of a campaign, even on the local level, has made the cost of running a rising hurdle, one that compounded the other challenges for non-establishment candidates.

Pressley herself faced a competitor who had raised $1.7 million to Pressley’s $900,000 by August. But after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shocked people by winning the primary for U.S. representative in New York’s District 14 over a 10-term Congressional incumbent who raised over $2 million to her $860,000, people noticed a tide shift. As Walter Shapiro wrote after her win: “Money is not destiny.”

Supporters of Ayanna Pressley reacted with tears and celebration after she won the primary for a secure seat as a Congressional representative for Massachusetts. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Women candidates, especially, are realizing that the promise of infusing new blood into a city’s leadership can make an election winnable without a big war chest. And for some, it can even encourage more donations.

***

In Phoenix, mayoral candidate Kate Gallego was once considered the underdog by political watchers. Now she’s the woman to beat. How did she manage it?

Well, there are a lot of reasons, she’ll tell you. There are her credentials (she got an environmental science degree from Harvard) and her vision (she wants to push Phoenix into the Fourth Industrial Revolution). But there’s also the fact that, if elected, she’d be Phoenix’s first woman mayor. “None of the ten largest cities have a female elected mayor,” she said. “There are a lot of people who would love to see more balance.”

After the former city councilor announced her run in October, political pundits identified Daniel Valenzuela as the front-runner, endorsed by three former mayors and sports mogul Jerry Colangelo. But by August, Gallego had out-raised not only Valenzuela, but all five of her competitors combined. The rapid ascent has inspired stupefied op-eds: “Kate Gallego wasn’t supposed to be this far ahead in the Phoenix mayor race. How did she raise $1 million?”

She, like many of the female candidates who have exceeded conventional fundraising expectations, told CityLab that even though their gender or lack of incumbency generated doubt from the establishment, it made local donors’ support more impassioned.

To pull off a fundraising coup—or to win without one—though, political observers say that members of these underrepresented political groups often have to work twice as hard to get half as far.

Lindsay Crete, deputy director of state and local campaign communications at Emily’s List, which raises money and builds support for pro-choice Democratic women candidates, said “A lot of women candidates, especially those who are running for the first time, can face a lack of support: Because state party structures and in-state groups are used to throwing their weight behind well-known men, and are skeptical of women candidates, or [will only support] them if and when an incumbent man steps aside.”

It took Joyce Craig, the first female mayor of Manchester, New Hampshire, two tries to win the position: For her first run, in 2015, she raised less money than her opponent, a three-term incumbent, and lost by 64 votes. In 2017, she won.

“It was definitely harder to raise money against an incumbent when I first ran for mayor in 2015,” she wrote in an email. “In my second run for mayor in 2017, there were still people who wouldn’t contribute to my campaign because I was running against the incumbent.”

However, Craig says, because of the closeness of the first race; and because of the “very palpable desire for change in Manchester,” she was able to raise more, and win. “Our campaign set very aggressive fundraising goals,” she said. “By the end, we aimed to raise $500,000, a goal which we surpassed.” It was the most money any mayoral candidate had raised in Manchester, and in the entire state of New Hampshire.

Craig spent almost the same amount as her opponent in radio spots and mailings, she said, but still felt she had to knock “a record amount of doors and [talk] to a record amount of Manchester voters.”

If non-establishment candidates do get more funding, there’s a chance that other challenges will fall away. “The unfortunate part of our political process is if you’re able to raise money, the other issues that come along with being a candidate get easier,” said Ross Morales Rocketto, the co-founder of Run for Something. “Folks will be more willing to line up behind you if you’re viable, and viability is often a money test, to be perfectly blunt.”

Last November, Seattle elected its first gay mayor, Jenny Durkan, who also became the city’s first female mayor in over 100 years. Durkan did it partly by out-raising her fellow woman competitor, Cary Moon, 5-1, earning more than $1 million from 4,327 donors. It was the largest group of people to contribute to any Seattle mayoral candidate ever.

And the victor of San Francisco’s recent contentious mayoral race was London Breed, who became the city’s first black woman mayor—beating opponents who could have become the first Asian-American woman mayor or gay mayor, respectively. Breed was branded the big-money candidate after independent expenditure groups raised about $1.3 million to support her, compared to other groups that raised around $100,000 to $400,000 for the other candidates. But the money also earned Breed a sleeker, and ultimately successful, campaign.

***

When Lovely Warren campaigned to be the first woman mayor of Rochester, New York in 2010, her opponent was a male incumbent who had spent years entrenched in city politics. At the time, Warren had already served as Rochester’s city council president for three years; and Rochester, the third largest city in New York, had elected several women to other leadership positions. But still, Warren found it hard to convince people to donate the money she needed to print mailers and fund radio ads.

Warren had what many considered a triple handicap: She was young (36 at the time), black, and a woman. “To the status quo; to the powers that be, none of those [characteristics] check their boxes,” Warren said. “They thought my opponent was going to win the election. So I think what was more of a challenge for me than anything: Getting people to give me money for the race.”

Even though her incumbent opponent out-raised her by thousands, and outspent her two-and-a-half to one, Warren won. “The first time I challenged the status quo and I won and they thought it was an anomaly,” she said. Now, she is well into her second term, after another contentious campaign against a former (male) police chief.

“The first time I challenged the status quo and I won and they thought it was an anomaly,” Lovely Warren said. She is now well into her second term. (Hans Pennink/AP)

She says her success suggests that money doesn’t always tip the ballot, especially at the local level. “I think that in mayoral races, because we are the ones that are on the ground, we are the ones that people develop relationships with and we’re seeing in the community on a daily basis,” Warren said. “If you can get this message out there by knocking on doors and having volunteers out there, then that beats having a whole lot of money any day.”

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How Officials and Citizens Can Protect the Integrity of Their Elections

As voters prepare to cast their ballots in the November midterm elections, it’s clear that U.S. voting is under electronic attack. Russian government hackers probed some states’ computer systems in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election and are likely to do so again—as might hackers from other countries or nongovernmental groups interested in sowing discord in American politics.

Fortunately, there are ways to defend elections. Some of them will be new in some places, but these defenses are not particularly difficult or expensive, especially when judged against the value of public confidence in democracy. I served on the Iowa board that examines voting machines from 1995 to 2004 and on the Technical Guidelines Development Committee of the United States Election Assistance Commission from 2009 to 2012, and Barbara Simons and I coauthored the 2012 book Broken Ballots.

Election officials have an important role to play in protecting election integrity. Citizens, too, need to ensure their local voting processes are safe. There are two parts to any voting system: the computerized systems tracking voters’ registrations and the actual process of voting—from preparing ballots through results tallying and reporting.

Attacking registrations

Before the passage of the Help America Vote Act of 2002, voter registration in the U.S. was largely decentralized across 5,000 local jurisdictions, mostly county election offices. HAVA changed that, requiring states to have centralized online voter registration databases accessible to all election officials.

In 2016, Russian government agents allegedly tried to access voter registration systems in 21 states. Illinois officials have identified their state as the only one whose databases were, in fact, breached—with information on 500,000 voters viewed and potentially copied by the hackers.

It’s not clear that any information was corrupted, changed, or deleted. But that would certainly be one way to interfere with an election: either changing voters’ addresses to assign them to other precincts or simply deleting people’s registrations.

Another way this information could be misused would be to fraudulently request absentee ballots for real voters. Something like that happened on May 29, 2013, when Juan Pablo Baggini, an overzealous campaign worker in Miami, used his computer to file online absentee ballot requests on behalf of 20 local voters. He apparently thought he had their permission, but county officials noticed the large number of requests coming from the same computer in a short period of time. Baggini and another campaign worker were charged with misdemeanors and sentenced to probation.

A more sophisticated attack could use voters’ registration information to select targets based on how likely they are to vote a particular way and use common hacking tools to file electronic absentee ballot requests for them—appearing to come from a variety of computers over the course of several weeks. On Election Day, when those voters went to the polls, they’d be told they already had an absentee ballot and would be prevented from voting normally.

Two defenses for voter registration

There are two important defenses against these and other types of attacks on voter registration systems: provisional ballots and same-day registration.

When there are questions about whether a voter is entitled to vote at a particular polling place, federal law requires the person be issued a provisional ballot. The rules vary by state, and some places require provisional voters to bring proof of identity to the county election office before their ballots will be counted—which many voters may not have time to do. But the goal is that no voter should be turned away from the polls without at least a chance their vote will count. If questions arise about the validity of the registration database, provisional ballots offer a way to ensure every voter’s intent is recorded for counting when things get sorted out.

Same-day voter registration offers an even stronger defense. Fifteen states allow people to register to vote right at the polling place and then cast a normal ballot. Research on same-day registration has focused on turnout, but it also allows recovery from an attack on voter registration records.

Both approaches do require extra paperwork. If large numbers of voters are affected, that could cause long lines at polling places, which disenfranchise voters who cannot afford to wait. And like provisional voting, same-day registration may have more stringent identification requirements than for people whose voter registrations are already on the books. Some voters may have to go home to get additional documents and hope to make it back before the polls close.

Further, long lines, frustrated voters, and frazzled election workers can create the appearance of chaos—which can play into the narratives of those who want to discredit the system even when things are actually working reasonably well.

Paper ballots are vital

Election integrity experts agree that voting machines can be hacked, even if the devices themselves are not connected to the internet.

Voting machine manufacturers say their devices have top-notch protections, but the only truly safe assumption is that they have not yet found additional vulnerabilities. Properly defending voting integrity requires assuming a worst-case scenario, in which every computer involved—at election offices, vote-tallying software developers and machine makers—has been compromised.

The first line of defense is that in most of the U.S., people vote on paper. Hackers can’t alter a hand-marked paper ballot—though they could change how a computerized vote scanner counts it, or what preliminary results are reported on official websites. In the event of a controversy, paper ballots can be recounted, by hand if needed.

Conduct post-election audits

Without paper ballots, there is not a way to be completely sure voting system software hasn’t been hacked. With them, though, the process is clear.

In a growing number of states, paper ballots are subject to routine statistical audits. In California, post-election audits have been required since 1965. Iowa allows election officials who suspect irregularities to initiate recounts even if the result appears decisive and no candidate asks for one; these are called administrative recounts.

Based on that experience, some election officials have told me that they suspect the current generation of scanners may be misinterpreting 1 vote in 100. That might seem like a small problem, but it’s really way too much opportunity for error. Voting simulations show that changing just one vote per voting machine across the United States could be enough to allow an attacker to determine which party controls Congress.

Recounts are expensive and time-consuming, though, and can create illusions of disarray and chaos that reduce public confidence in the election’s outcome. A better method is called a risk-limiting audit. It’s a straightforward method of determining how many ballots should be randomly selected for auditing, based on the size of the election, the margin of the initial result and—crucially—the statistical confidence the public wants in the final outcome. There are even free online tools available to make the calculations needed.

Preliminary experiences with risk-limiting audits are quite promising, but they could be made even more attractive by small changes to ballot-sheet scanners. The main problem is that the method is based in math and statistics, which many people don’t understand or trust. However, I believe relying on verifiable principles that any person could learn is far better than believing the assurances of companies that make voting equipment and software, or election officials who don’t understand how their machines actually work.

Elections must be as transparent and simple as possible. To paraphrase Dan Wallach at Rice University, the job of an election is to convince the losers that they lost fair and square. The declared winners will not ask questions and may seek to obstruct those who do ask. The losers will ask the hard questions, and election systems must be transparent enough that the partisan supporters of the losers can be convinced that they indeed lost. This sets a high standard, but it is a standard that every democracy must strive to meet.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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NIMBYs Dominate Local Zoning Meetings

The late Jane Jacobs never much liked forums for community participation in zoning and housing issues. She thought they were usually a sham to harness community sentiment in ways that benefitted powerful government and development interests. She personally told me the story of how Robert Moses dismissed her and her colleagues at one critical meeting as “nobody but a bunch of mothers!

But the reality today is that community participation is effective—as a mechanism for creating and reinforcing NIMBYism and the accompanying restrictive zoning and land use policies.

That’s according to a new study by Katherine Einstein, Maxwell Palmer, and David Glick, political scientists associated with Boston University’s Initiative on Cities. People who oppose creating more multifamily housing development tend to speak at public meetings much more often than those who support it.

The study compiled unique data on the participants in planning and zoning meetings of 97 towns in the Boston metro area. It tracked some 2,800 citizen participants in meetings on issues of zoning and housing from 2015 to 2017. Most Boston-area towns have interpreted Massachusetts’ open meetings law as requiring that meeting minutes include the names and addresses of all members of the public who speak. Using that data, the study matched participants with the state’s voter files to identify the age, gender, partisanship, length of residence, and political participation and affiliation of participants.

The study zeroes in on towns across metropolitan Boston that vary in size, scale, density, and types of housing. The researchers coded meeting minutes, noting whether opponents supported or opposed development and the reasons stated for their positions, including factors like neighborhood conditions, character, impact on property values, environmental considerations, density, affordability, noise, parking, and traffic concerns.

First off, participants were much more likely to oppose new development. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of all comments were in opposition to proposed housing projects, compared to just 15 percent in support and 23 percent that were neutral. As the researchers note, this pattern strongly suggests that “the incentives to show up and oppose new housing are far stronger” than for those who support the housing.

Difference Between Commenters and Registered Voters

Variable Commenters Registered Voters
Age 58.7 years 50.9 years
Length of Residence 17.4 years 11.8 years
Female 43.3% 51.3%
Democrat 32.0% 31.7%
Republican 11.2% 11.1%
Independent 56.6% 56.3%
Percent of Elections Voted In 50.2% 27.2%

Overall, the study found that the participants in these community meetings were older and more likely to be white, male, and own a home. Women, for example, made up just 43 percent of commenters at community meetings, even though they represented 51 percent of registered voters. That said, women were more likely to oppose new development. In addition, participants were much more politically active than the voting population; those who spoke at meetings voted roughly twice as often as those who did not.

Homeownership, unsurprisingly, also plays a significant role in opposition to new housing development, a finding that is in line with other research. Zeroing in on Arlington, Massachusetts, a mixed-use, mixed-income suburb of Boston, the researchers found that even though nearly 40 percent of the town is comprised of renters, renters made up just 22 percent of active participants in community meetings.

Top 10 Stated Reasons For Opposing Housing Development

Reason Percentage of Commenters Citing It
Traffic 23.1%
Environment 18.6%
Flooding 14.9%
Safety 14.8%
Density 11.9%
Aesthetics 11.9%
Septic/Water 10.9%
Neighborhood Character 10.5%
Parking 9.9%
Non-Compliance 7.1%

Traffic was the main concern of those who opposed new housing development; nearly a quarter of opponents cited traffic congestion as the main reason for their opposition. Other factors included parking, neighborhood character, environmental considerations, flooding, and safety. The main concern of those who supported new housing development, not surprisingly, was affordability.

There appears to be a considerable gap in the opinions and viewpoints of those who participate in zoning and land-use meetings compared to the general public. To get at this, the study took a close look at the difference between meeting participants and voters as a whole, on the issue of affordable housing. Specifically, it tracked a 2010 statewide ballot measure to repeal a long-standing Massachusetts affordable housing statute, Chapter 40B, a law that allowed developers to bypass local zoning regulations.

In the cities and towns in the study, 56 percent of voters opposed the repeal and supported 40B, in line with the statewide figure of 58 percent. Contrast this with the fewer than 15 percent of meetings participants who spoke in favor of new housing construction of any type.

Even in Cambridge, a community where 80 percent of voters supported Chapter 40B’s affordable housing, only 40 percent of meeting participants spoke in support of multifamily housing. In all but one city, support for multifamily housing at local meetings turned out at a much lower rate than support for the 40B ballot measure in the general public.

Support for 40B Referendum

Einstein, Katherine Levine, Maxwell Palmer and David M. Glick. 2018. “Who Participates in Local Government? Evidence from Meeting Minutes.” Perspectives on Politics 17(1), forthcoming. Reprinted with permission.

Professionals are also more likely to participate in meetings, using their own expertise to bolster their positions. The study notes that many public commenters tend to cite their backgrounds in law, architecture, engineering, planning, or other fields; and invoke their own understanding and familiarity with complex land-use and zoning issues. They thus use their technical expertise and jargon to “dissuade some underrepresented voices from speaking up.”

There are partisan differences, too. Republicans were more likely to oppose new development and Democrats were more likely to support new development. As the researchers put it: “This finding suggests that liberal homeowners and renters may, in some instances, overcome a neighborhood-based opposition to new housing.” Researchers found that almost a fifth of Democrats expressed support for new housing development at meetings compared to 12.8 percent of Republicans.

Instead of generating a more vibrant local democracy, participation in community meetings skews toward older, more affluent, and more invested groups. As such, meeting commentary presents an incomplete portrait of the opinions of the electorate, and serves as a mechanism for reinforcing NIMBYism, suppressing housing development, and exacerbating political and economic inequality.

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CityLab Daily: Why Widening a Road Doesn’t Ease Traffic

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(Madison McVeigh/CityLab)

The problem is, it doesn’t always work that way—in fact, congestion can stay just as bad, or get even worse. Economists have a name for this phenomenon: induced demand. Basically, when you provide more of something, people are more likely to use it. In the latest edition of CityLab University, Benjamin Schneider gives a crash course in induced demand and why it has vexed drivers, planners, and politicians since the dawn of the automobile age.

Andrew Small


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A Second Life For Berlin’s Plattenblau

The city is looking to the ubiquitous building type from its Communist past to help solve a housing crunch.

Feargus O’Sullivan

To Clear Up Busy Streets, Florence Targets Hungry Tourists

The Italian city is imposing a €500 fine for eating in some popular, crowded areas.

Feargus O’Sullivan

The Not-So-Invisible Labor Prisoners Do in Cities

In a nationwide prison strike, the U.S.’s incarcerated population is demanding better wages and an end to “slave labor.”

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Black Colleges Have to Pay More for Loans Than Other Schools

And there’s no factor that can explain it other than racism.

Adam Harris


What We’re Reading

Houston’s roads and drivers are the most deadly in the U.S. (Houston Chronicle)

IBM used NYPD surveillance footage to develop technology that lets police search by skin color (The Intercept)

How the Army Corps’ hesitation nearly destroyed a city (ProPublica)

States are losing millions in biking and walking funds (Streetsblog)

Reader suggestion: Take a look at one of the best video game cities (Polygon)


Tell your friends about the CityLab Daily! Forward this newsletter to someone who loves cities and encourage them to subscribe. Send your own comments, feedback, and tips to hello@citylab.com.

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CityLab University: Induced Demand

It’s time again for “CityLab University,” a resource for understanding some of the most important concepts related to cities and urban policy. If you like this feature, have constructive feedback, or would like to see a similar explainer on other topics, drop us a line at

With 26 lanes at its widest point, the Katy Freeway in the Houston metro is the Mississippi River of car infrastructure. Its current girth, which by some measures makes it the widest freeway in North America, was the result of an expansion project that took place between 2008 and 2011 at a cost of $2.8 billion. The primary reason for this mega-project was to alleviate severe traffic congestion.

And yet, after the freeway was widened, congestion got worse. An analysis by Joe Cortright of City Observatory used data from Houston’s official traffic monitoring agency to find that travel times increased by 30 percent during the morning commute and 55 percent during the evening commute between 2011 and 2014. A local TV station found similar increases.

The Sisyphean saga of the Katy Freeway is a textbook example of a counterintuitive urban transportation phenomenon that has vexed drivers, planners, and politicians since the dawn of the automobile age: induced demand.

KEY POINTS

  • In urbanism, “induced demand” refers to the idea that increasing roadway capacity encourages more people to drive, thus failing to improve congestion.
  • Since the concept was introduced in the 1960s, numerous academic studies have demonstrated the existence of ID.
  • But some economists argue that the effects of ID are overstated, or outweighed by the benefits of greater automobility.
  • Few federal, state, and local departments of transportation are thought to adequately account for ID in their long-term planning.

SUMMARY

Nearly all freeway expansions and new highways are sold to the public as a means of reducing traffic congestion. It’s a logical enough proposition, one that certainly makes plenty of sense to anyone who’s stuck in traffic: Small communities served by small roads grow bigger, and their highways need to grow with them. More lanes creates more capacity, meaning cars should be able to pass through faster. But that’s not what always happens once these projects are completed.

Just as with the Katy Freeway expansion, adding new roadway capacity also creates new demand for those lanes or roads, maintaining a similar rate of congestion, if not worsening it. Economists call this phenomenon induced demand: When you provide more of something, or provide it for a cheaper price, people are more likely to use it. Rather than thinking of traffic as a liquid, which requires a certain volume of space to pass through at a given rate, induced demand demonstrates that traffic is —in other words, back to capacity, fulfilling Downs’ Law of Peak Hour Traffic Congestion.

How quickly does new road capacity get filled up?

Once again, it’s important to note that measuring induced demand is a somewhat inexact science. Most studies provide ranges that estimate the amount of road capacity that is filled by induced demand over a given period of time. One

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Florence Is Fed Up With Tourists Eating in Public

Florence, Italy, has declared war on sandwiches—or at least on people who eat them in the wrong place.

As of September 6, anyone caught eating food outdoors during peak hours in four central streets in the Tuscan capital could face a fine of up to €500. When a city proposes a penalty this steep for the modest crime of nibbling on a snack, it’s clear that tempers must be running high—and indeed they are.

Florence’s latest rule is part of an ongoing wave of Italian measures intended to manage tourist pressures and curb anti-social behavior in general, a wave that shows no sign of having crested yet. Two years ago, the city banned non-local food from the city center, while last summer the mayor threatened to attack visitors eating on the cathedral steps with a hose. Elsewhere in the country, cities have banned kebabs, al fresco drinking, and even late-night ice cream in a bid to preserve a sense of decorum and public order. As CityLab discussed last year, there’s sometimes a darker side to these bans, which have served to create rules that can unjustly target marginal groups and to pass the buck for years of bad official planning onto individuals. In this specific case, however, Florence’s new fines do make some sense.

That’s because inner Florence’s streets are full, and tensions caused by their congestion are starting to boil over. The four specific streets chosen (Via de’ Neri, Piazzale degli Uffizi, Piazza del Grano, and Via della Ninna) are narrow and extremely busy—even Street View images of the Via dei Neri show it full to bursting.

In streets this packed, any group that lingers can cause a blockage, and that’s just what’s been happening around the establishments in the area serving takeaway food. On August 20, a shopkeeper got into a scuffle with some Spanish tourists who he thought were blocking his entrance after having bought lunch at a sandwich shop a few doors down. It’s easy to understand his frustration. It may seem over-the-top to get too snippy about visitors’ dining habits, but when those habits actually risk harming your business, something has to give.

Florence is by no means the only European city struggling with intense tourist pressure. But like Venice, which has resorted to installing seasonal gates at the city’s busiest points of entry, its layout makes things notably harder. The city’s core is a dense, irregular grid of streets with no green space—exactly as you would expect in a town that took shape behind city walls in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. As a result, the congestion isn’t entirely visitors’ fault. Without a fair walk, or knowledge of the city’s quitter more secret spaces, there aren’t a lot of places for them to enjoy their takeaway sandwiches. Even larger squares tend to be busy and not especially well furnished with benches, so it’s no wonder that visitors tend to eat where they stand. Still, if this habit is now going to come with a potential €500 surcharge, visitors may soon change their stripes.

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A Second Life For Berlin’s Plattenblau

Berlin has decided on a novel location to host some of the new apartments the city badly needs—on top of the old ones.

Yesterday, Berlin’s Senate announced a project to add more units on top of already existing buildings in the city’s east, with a possible capacity of up to 50,000 new homes. The plan to add floors isn’t novel in itself, of course, even in Berlin. What’s striking is the specific type of building chosen for the experiment: East Berlin’s Plattenbau. These mass produced, partly prefabricated modernist apartment complexes (the name translates as “slab buildings” in reference to the concrete panels that form their walls) were put up in huge numbers during the Communist era. When a German thinks of a Communist-era building, a Plattenbau likely springs to mind.

After reunification, however, Plattenbau were heavily derided as dreary, meretricious, and frequently remodeled, demolished, or reduced in size. Now, it seems these buildings are set for another reversal, rising high again as their role in providing decent housing is reassessed.

It’s not necessarily the case that Berlin is falling back in love with the Plattenbau’s aesthetics. The Senate’s plan, which will launch a partnership with social housing association Howoge to identify suitable Plattenbau for trial construction, is essentially pragmatic. The building type makes a great candidate for roof extensions. Plattenbau are almost always flat roofed and usually broader than they are tall, which means that additional floors could provide a lot of new apartments. Unlike the tenements in Berlin’s older districts, Plattenbau were generally set back from the sidewalk and placed among open spaces, so their height can grow without throwing the streets beneath them into permanent shade. And crucially, there are a very large number of them. Howoge estimates that it has 320,000 square meters (3,444,450 square feet) of roof space suitable for more construction, some of which could well host multiple floors.

If all this space was used it would transform the face of East Berlin, a place where it can be a struggle to find a building that doesn’t have a slab-covered façade. Plattenbau are ubiquitous across all East Germany, largely the product of a nationwide housing program launched in 1972 that saw the state build a phenomenal 1.9 million apartments across the country. Following a model that had been developed from the 1950s onwards, this housing program was able to speed up construction by preparing almost all of a building’s components offsite in a factory—even adding windows—before it was slotted together in the chosen location. Popular across the Eastern Bloc, the technique took off in such a big way partly because it fitted so well with the state’s yen for central planning.

For the residents who moved in, the Plattenbau often represented a sharp leap in living standards. East Germany’s older working class housing—much of it still battered from wartime damage—required residents to lug coal upstairs to heat stoves and water heaters, and to share toilets with neighbors. In the new Plattenbau, however, many got central heating, full bathrooms, fitted kitchens, and instant hot water for the first time.

The buildings also gave East Germany a monotonous, strikingly uniform aspect, with cities coming to substantially resemble each other from one end of the country to the other. A classic interior aesthetic developed as well, with a stereotypical Plattenbau home featuring mass-produced, wood veneer-covered furniture, space-saving fold-down beds, and living rooms equipped with the ubiquitous Schrankwand—a display unit that covered an entire wall. Conditions weren’t generally terrible, but it wasn’t hard to see the Plattenbau as the representation of the broadly competent but stifling state that created it.

In the 1980s, the state itself realized that the overall impression of this monolithic standardization was a little too oppressive. In a spirit of tentative experimentation, East Berlin built some fancier Plattenbau overlooking the wall that loosely echoed Art Nouveau forebears and employed polychrome panels. The city even constructed a little huddle of faux-historic, gabled prefabs in a villagey corner of East Berlin that was at the time being milked for all the picturesque charm it could muster.

With rents spiraling and apartments scarce, Plattenblau are steadily looking more and more attractive. (Franka Bruns/AP)

Since reunification in 1991, the Plattenbau have had a checkered experience. Some of them were demolished, while others (such as the homes visible here) had as many as half their floors removed. What remained was often cheered up with a polychrome paint job that made parts of East Berlin look like they’d been sprinkled with colored sherbet. Shrinking the housing stock this way might seem shocking now, but at the time much of East Berlin was emptying— along with much of eastern Germany—as people fled high unemployment rates in search of opportunities in Western Germany. At the same time, there was time a smaller counter-movement of relatively affluent Westerners moving into East Berlin, but they made a beeline for its pre-World War I tenements close to the city’s heart and largely avoided the Plattenbau. Now, with rents spiraling and apartments scarce, they are steadily looking more and more attractive.

This new interest doesn’t necessarily mean a new appreciation of the way they look, even if attitudes seem to have softened. New floors might well be constructed in a different style, while the lack of individual detailing on most buildings of this type makes them poor candidates for the type of aesthetic fetishization that Brutalism is currently experiencing. Something has still shifted. Thirty years ago, the idea of living in a small apartment in a Modernist project was hardly the stuff that most people’s aspirations were woven from. Now that affordable urban apartments are so hard to find, that goal seems to many not just desirable, but increasingly unattainable.

Plattenbau may not have provided spectacular accommodation, but they did provide liveable homes for a large number of people, and fast—something the city needs out of its housing construction yet again.

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