Due to a rapidly growing population coupled with the refugee crisis, the need for quick and affordable housing in Europe has never been more prominent. But how can our cities meet these crucial needs while also developing sustainably? We went to Berlin to hear from the experts…

Last week INDEX: Design to Improve Life® attended the International Federation for Housing and Planning (IFHP) Summit to learn about some of Europe’s most pressing housing and habitat challenges. The inspiring two-day conference covered a number of contemporary issues including the urgent need for refugee housing – in Germany, and greater Europe – affordable housing for low income households, and the move towards the ‘smart city’ focussing on the role of technology in urban development.

The summit included presentations and panel discussions from various international experts in housing, architecture and urban planning. Presenters and participants shared their concerns, current projects and past experiences, as well as new suggestions for potential solutions.

What’s the situation in Germany?
As Germany currently accepts the most refugees out of all the European nations, they face a unique and critical situation. According to the UNHCR, in the year ending June 2015, there were 755,000 applications for asylum to the EU, and over 37,000 of those were lodged in Germany alone.

“It’s expected that around one million refugees will arrive to Germany this year,’ explained Rolf Müller, Director of Group Housing and Property, BBR, as he opened the summit.

“In terms of housing we have a large gap between supply and demand, even without the added pressure of the growing refugee population, it estimated that we will need approximately 272,000 new dwellings every year until 2020.”

Due to this enormous increase in demand, another issues lies in the rapidly increasing rental cost for lower-income housing, added Müller.

Reporting from the Senate Department for Urban Development and Environment in Berlin, Dr. Jochen Lang announced that 12,00 new dwellings will be built in 2015, but acknowledged that much more is still needed.

“We’re happy to finally observe a change in the political debate, but we still face an enormous challenge and we’re continuing to look at all resources and potential solutions,” he said.

One point widely discussed during the summit was Germany’s role as the potential “geopolitical model” for other nations in coping with booming populations. A number of speakers did confirm that a solution could potentially be tried and tested in Berlin, and possibly implemented in other cities around the world.

“While we need to know more about the refugee situation, we also need to make assumptions and calculate a new, comprehensive set of measurements,” said Müller. “But in order for a quick and pragmatic solution, we simply need new ideas.”

What’s the way forward?
With more than 100 years of fostering knowledge and debate in the areas of housing and urban planning, the IFHP have played a crucial role in solving many development challenges and improving many of the world’s cities. Leveraging their expertise and gathering information from various European states, the IFHP proposed a number recommendations to help guide effective development to address the housing crisis.

“We need a multi-agent approach to honour diversity in policymaking,” explained Christina Krog, Chief Marketing Officer of the IFHP. Adding that governments should increase involvement of relevant organisations, educational institutions, and communities.

Krog explained that while it’s important that refugee populations are not concentrated or isolated in one area, more research must go into the demographics of regions when permanently relocating new residents.

“We need a number of matchmaking solutions that respond to both the refugee and community needs,” she said.

“Housing is an instrument of integration,” added Dr. Huibert Haccoû, IFHP Council Member and Associate Professor in Planning. Haccoû explained that by thoroughly researching the local industries and where work might be available for refugees, we could greatly improve the integration process.

“We need to accelerate professional learning in this area and commit more expertise to focus on these factors,” he said.

While building more housing will be unavoidable in many areas, speakers also placed a strong emphasis on developing sustainably and making better use of current structures. Krog particularly highlighted issues with the current zoning and planning regulations that greatly limit reuse and refurbishment.

“Alternative thinking is challenged by the current regulations and these should to be revised,” said Krog. Local municipalities should also be more involved in “challenging rules and regulations,” she added.

How can we create a ‘smart city’?
While discussing crisis intervention, the summit also focused on the future of urban development. Bernd Bienzeisler, Social Scientist from and Economist at the Fraunhofer IAO, explained a number of emerging trends and how they might influence the progression of our cities.

According to Bienzeisler, in an ideal world the future smart city will be zero-waste/emissions, predictive, resilient, have a focus on innovation leadership, and have maximum livability.

“If we look at the world’s biggest companies today, we now have companies like Google and Facebook at the top, instead of gas and energy companies like was 20 years ago,” explained Bienzeisler.

“This proves that technology is now the biggest and most valuable resource we have.”

According to Bienzeisler the mega-trends that he expects to primarily affect urban living include; the commercialisation of public space and daily life, self-driving cars and new forms of ‘on-demand’ urban mobility, urban farming and a reform of local resource cycles, the automation of the workforce, and new directions of energy production.

“Eventually energy will be for free,” said Bienzeisler, explaining that the development may be closer than anticipated. “We’ve seeing the emergence of energy-positive buildings and soon most households will have the capacity to do the same.”

“With the emergence of self-driving cars and increased mobility, we may also see more people relocate further outside the city as commutes will become easier,” he added.

For now, Bienzeisler says the biggest challenge is slowly integrating innovation into public administration, but cautions that it must be done carefully.

“We will need neutral institutions to provide comprehensive advice for smart city development – these trends will inevitably bring social costs,” he explained.

Do you have a solution that might help relieve housing pressures? Nominate it for INDEX: Award 2017 now!

Photograph: Sascha Kohlmann.

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