Living the high (street) life

In Berlin, every second shopping trip to the city centre is made by foot or bicycle, and 27% by public transport. That’s higher than many people might have imagined and gives an image of a sustainable, thriving city. However, over the past two years, with many people staying away from busy areas, Berlin, like other cities, has seen increasing numbers of vacancies on its high streets.

In fact, in a city of over three million people, talking about ‘the’ centre isn’t quite accurate. There may be as many as 80 ‘centres’ dotted throughout the city’s metropolitan area, each containing a high street and local amenities that are important to people’s daily lives.

Yet, with less footfall in the last two years, one project is looking at the impact Covid has had, and what the future of Berlin’s high streets will be.

Mapping the public space

Assessing the impact on what these developments mean for Berlin’s centres is in the remit of Elke Plate and her team, which focusses on strategic planning for the whole city of Berlin.

Many trips are made by bicycle in Berlin

Recently, the team has been working with residents and business owners in 18 of Berlin’s high streets to map the use of ground floor rental units, the current challenges users face, and how this might give a clue to creating more value from these spaces in the future city.

Berlin will become a carbon neutral city by 2045. We need services, whether for play, medical, social or work purposes, available within a short distance of people’s homes to meet that challenge.
— Elke Plate, Head of Unit, Senate Department for Urban Development, Building and Housing

“We have different interests,” says Plate. “One is to find out what others are doing, in Germany and in Europe, to see how they plan to activate future retail. And to see which other demands exist on this space, such as for social activities, tourism, arts and cultural affairs, spaces for children to do their homework etc., to get a feel for the management of opportunities for this space. The other has been to simply map the current use in Berlin, and figure out the demands and needs of the current users.”

In the middle of Berlin

A large part of the impetus for Plate’s current focus has been the recent launch of a competition by the German federal government, Post-Corona-Stadt, slightly delayed from its intended launch date in the summer of 2020, which aims to look at some of the impacts of Covid19 on urban centres, and in which more than 200 municipalities took part, with 17 selected to implement their ideas. Berlin’s approach centres around the idea of ‘Curated Ground Floor Management’.

Mapping ground floor usage

“The centre is at the core of our neighbourhoods and they are an important urban structure for the city’s development. For example, Berlin will become a carbon-neutral city by 2045. We need services, whether for play, medical, social or work purposes, available within a short distance of people’s homes to meet that challenge. And the centres, where the services are clustered, are connected via public transport. In 2018, more than 80% of Berlin’s population could already reach a point of public local transport within 500 metres of their home with a service running every 10 minutes.

“And from the democratic and thus social perspective, the open spaces in our centres is, I think, the most important. We need places in cities where people can meet, and mix, where they can see each other just to see each other, and to talk. In the high street, you can observe the diversity of society. It’s not like these housing areas where sometimes only detached houses are located, or areas where there are only offices,” says Plate.

And for the future of the city, maintaining a vibrant city life means understanding and managing how we use our open and public space.

“Regards the ground floor uses, the idea is that together with the owners and renters and people who are from the neighbourhood, for instance, they have an idea of how they want to move forward,” adds Plate. “And so, the idea is that these networks take responsibility for their own shops and facilities in different ways, and they will develop ideas on how to develop a sustainable model for each high street.”

They will develop ideas on how to develop a sustainable model for each high street
— Elke Plate

This first, ideas, phase of the ‘Mittendrin Berlin! Projekte in Berliner Zentren’ competition will lead to an implementation phase to start next March. It’s a model that the Berlin City Council has been using since 2005 – with new competitions launched every two years jointly with the Chamber of Industry and Commerce – so its methods are tried and tested.

Developing Berlin’s centres

Previous iterations have included a project for a plastic-free neighbourhood, where locals in the Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf district came up with a list of actions for both retailers and customers on how to reduce plastic, and created a sustainable shopping guide for the neighbourhood that includes a digital map with an overview of the shops and companies that are the most sustainable.

high street in the Wilhelmsruh district of Pankow
Reviving a high street in the Wilhelmsruh district of Pankow

Another, that followed the two-step process Plate’s team is currently following, focussed on the revival of a high street in the Wilhelmsruh district of Pankow. A first step included a brochure giving details of existing shops along the high street, to help make it easier for entrepreneurs to get an overview of the locale. A second step included the opening of a pop-up store, staffed by volunteers, which offers space for the exchange of ideas for the future of the neighbourhood and the sale of local products. One of the ideas behind this store was to test the supply and demand possibilities for a future Saturday weekly market, which has now been approved to start in early Autumn, and to strengthen networking within the neighbourhood.


In the context of managing the city’s recovery from the Covid19 pandemic, the competition seeks to go straight to the centre of a conundrum that many cities are facing. Changing habits, with increased teleworking, different use of private and public space, the uptake of digitalisation of services, of work, of play, means that people have more opportunities to move away from city centres. Much evidence points to the fact that such trends are here to stay, and for town and city planners redesigning the urban space in a way that works for people and climate means understanding and reflecting new realities.

This article is part of a series charting local recovery efforts made by cities all over Europe – cities want #MoreThanRecovery

Alex Godson Eurocities Writer
in numbers:
  • 27%

    Trips made to the centre by public transport
  • 50%

    Shopping trips to the city centre made by foot or bicycle
  • 80%

    Percentage of Berlin’s population able to reach a point of public local transport within 500 metres
  • 78%

    Percentage of Berlin's population living in the urban 'core'