The cement mixer, decorated with disco ball glass, shimmered in the late afternoon sunlight, rotating gently as ravers danced at the foot of a Berlin bridge. Almost a thousand people showed up last weekend for what looked like an impromptu dance party but was actually a protest designed to draw attention to a €560m German government plan to plough a motorway through three Berlin city neighbourhoods.
Despite the fact that German voters last week elevated the Green party to second place in the European parliamentary elections, the country’s Social Democrats and Christian Democrat politicians are moving ahead with plans to erect a six-lane highway that would require the demolition of several popular cultural spaces, nightlife venues and apartment blocks, plus part of a park.
But Berliners are not taking this lying down, and a protest movement led by a trombonist aims to stop the project. Tobias Trommer, who lives a block away from the proposed motorway, says it’s not too late to convince city and federal officials that the A100 extension shouldn’t be built.
“This is a highway that the government has wanted to build since the 1950s,” Trommer told the Observer. “But in the light of the German car industry’s diesel scandal, we now know that the environmental impact assessment justifying this extension is completely false. We don’t understand how this is moving forward.”
He said the project also lacked economic sense given the housing shortage in the city with the world’s fastest-rising property prices. Extra land should be converted into affordable housing, not motorways, he said. “The city is losing 50 hectares [123 acres] of prime land to build this highway,” Trommer said. “If the city were to build affordable housing, it would actually make a profit. There’s also a major issue of the cultural loss this project would entail.”
Indeed, the impact on Berlin’s famed nightlife scene could be significant. Already, the German government has torn down several community gardens and four apartment buildings to make room for the motorway. But the next phase would bulldoze several outdoor clubs and cultural spaces, such as About Blank, Wilde Renate, Else and Polygon.
Despite low public support for the project, the German car industry seemed to be pushing it forward, said Wilfried Wang, an architect and professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
“They’ve been dreaming about this structure for years and the federal government is willing to provide the money,” Wang said. “There is a car lobby at the central government and Berlin-level administration government, and in politics. These people have been in control for the past 70 years, and they are the most influential in terms of planning.”
The fact that the Green party is ascendant now makes the A100 project particularly anachronistic
Wilfried Wang, architect
Wang compared the development to a recent German government plan to build a highway and bridge through a Unesco world heritage site in the country’s Mosel wine-growing region. Government officials nearing retirement and an automotive lobby sensing a change in voters’ tolerance for car pollution could be prompting officials to rush through highway building projects, he suggested. “The fact that the Green party is in the ascendant right now makes the A100 project particularly anachronistic,” he added.
Though just one in three Berliners owns a car – low compared with the rest of Germany – car ownership is up 10% from 2008, according to Statista.
Even so, protesters like Trommer and his movement face an uphill battle because the government would have to compensate contractors if the project was halted.
“It’s going to be hard to stop,” said Green MEP Michael Cramer. “You’re seeing pressure from German road builders and the German car companies. They are going to keep pushing for this no matter what.”
A spokesman for the Berlin transport agency, Jan Thomsen, said the government would revise its environmental impact assessment in the wake of the German car industry diesel cheating scandal. “While the local government does not want a new motorway in Berlin … this political attitude does not exist at the federal level,” he said.
Cramer compared Germans’ obsessions with cars to Americans’ proclivity for guns. “For the Americans, it’s the rifle, the gun lobby,” Cramer said. “For the Germans, it’s the gas pedal, the car lobby. Both are crazy.”