You can see Berlin’s east-west divide from space

Berlin from space, as of April 2013. Image: Colonel Chris Hadfield, Nasa.

When you look at maps of Berlin made in the decades before 1989, it’s impossible not to notice the physical fact of the city's political divisions. Some maps replaced one half of the city with a blank space; others painfully warped geography to delete one side altogether. 

Looking at maps of the city today, it seems like it's once again a unified whole. You’d have to work hard to pick out exactly where the wall once stood.

The same isn't true of aerial photographs, however. In 2013, astronaut Chris Hadfield took a photo of the city from the 200 mile-high vantage point of International Space Station, and something immediately stuck out. To the west, the lights are white; to the east, they’re yellow. The boundary is a sharp, clear line, mirroring where the wall once stood. Hadfield tweeted the photo with the comment

Berlin at night. Amazingly, I think the light bulbs still show the East/West division from orbit.

It’s not immediately obvious why this should be. After all, the wall fell over 20 years before Hadfield took his photo, and you’d imagine large chunks of infrastructure, including street lights, would have been replaced in that time, especially if the eastern ones were out of date. But apparently, not so much. Soon after Hadfield’s photo did the rounds on social media, Christa Mientus-Schirmer, a member of the city government, told the Guardian:

Although we’ve made a lot of progress in the 20 years since the wall fell, we haven’t had the money we would have liked to equalise the two parts of the city. 

A member of Berlin’s street furniture department got a little more technical, telling the publication:

In the eastern part there are sodium vapour lamps with a yellower colour. And in the western parts there are fluorescent lamps... which produce a whiter colour.

The significance of the lights as a reminder of the once-divided city isn’t lost on residents, either. On the 25th anniversary of reunification in November 2014, an artist used 8,000 glowing balloons to recreate the wall's division: 

Image: German Foreign Office.

There’s currently a push within the EU to replace a million streetlights throughout Europe with new, low-emisison models. These would give that whiter light, so it could be that, just as the remaining sections of the wall are disappearing, the light disparity will fade with time. 

While we’re here, a few other things stick out when you view the city from above. That white blob in the centre of the image (and, incidentally, on the eastern side of the divide) is Alexanderplatz, a central square and transit hub that’s undergone renovation since reunification. This explains its relative brightness compared to the yellower areas around it:

This triangular area of brightness on the top left is Tegel airport – you’d have a hard job missing it as an airline pilot:

And finally, here's a photo taken from space of Berlin during the day by the European space agency and beamed back to earth via laser

Click for a larger image.

Not a division in sight.

 
 
 
 

There isn’t a single national housing market – so we need multiple models of local regeneration, too

Rochdale. Image: Getty.

This week’s budget comes ten years after the 2007 financial crisis. The trigger for that crisis was a loss in confidence in mortgages for homes, with banks suddenly recognising the vulnerability of loans on their books.

In the last ten years, the UK’s cities and regions have followed very different paths. This week’s focus on housing affordability is welcome, but it will be a challenge for any chancellor in the coming decade to use national policy to help towns up and down the country. Local housing markets differ drastically. The new crop of city-region mayors are recognising this, as rents in parts of south Greater Manchester are on average double the rents in parts of the north of the city-region.

When it comes to buying a home, politicians are increasingly articulate about the consequences of inequity in our housing system. But we must recognise that, for 9m citizens who live in social rented homes, the prospects of improvements to properties, common areas and grounds are usually tied to wider projects to create new housing within existing estates – sometimes involving complete demolition and rebuilding.

While the Conservative governments of the 1980s shrank the scale of direct investment in building homes for social rent, the Labour governments from the late 1990s used a sustained period of growth in property prices to champion a new model: affordable housing was to be paid for by policies which required contributions to go to housing associations. Effectively, the funding for new affordable housing and refurbished social homes was part of the profit from market housing built next door, on the same turf; a large programme of government investment also brought millions of social rented homes up to a decent standard.

This cross-subsidy model was always flawed. Most fundamentally, it relies on rising property prices – which it is neither desirable nor realistic to expect. Building more social homes became dependent on ratcheting up prices and securing more private profit. In London, we are starting to see that model come apart at the seams.

The inevitable result has been that with long social housing waiting lists and rocketing market prices, new developments have too often ended up as segregated local communities, home to both the richest and the poorest. They may live side by side, but as the RSA concluded earlier this year, investment in the social infrastructure and community development to help neighbours integrate has too often been lacking. Several regeneration schemes that soldiered on through the downturn did so by building more private homes and fewer social rented homes than existed before, or by taking advantage of more generous legal definitions of what counts as ‘affordable housing’ – or both.

A rough guide to how house prices have changed since 2007: each hexagon is a constituency. You can explore the full version at ODI Leeds.

In most of England’s cities, the story does not appear to be heading for the dramatic crescendo high court showdowns that now haunt both developers and communities in the capital. In fact, for most social housing estates in most places outside London, national government should recognise that the whole story looks very different. As austerity measures have tightened budgets for providers of social housing, budgets to refurbish ageing homes are under pressure to do more with less. With an uncertain outlook for property prices, as well as ample brownfield and greenfield housing sites, estates in many northern towns are not a priority for private investors in property development.

In many towns and cities – across the North and the Midlands – the challenges of a poor quality built environment, a poor choice of homes in the local are, and entrenched deprivation remain serious. The recent reclassification of housing associations into the private sector doesn’t make investing in repairs and renewal more profitable. The bespoke ‘housing deals’ announced show that the government is willing to invest directly – but there is anxiety that devolution to combined authorities simply creates another organisation that needs to prioritise building new homes over the renewal of existing neighbourhoods.


In Rochdale, the RSA is working with local mutual housing society RBH to plan for physical, social and economic regeneration at the same time. Importantly, we are making the case – with input from the community of residents themselves – that significant investment in improving employment for residents might itself save the public purse enough money to pay for itself in the long-run.

Lots of services are already effective at helping people find work and start a job. But for those for whom job searching feels out of reach, we are learning from Rochdale Borough Council’s pioneering work that the journey to work can only come from trusting, personal relationships. We hear time and again about the demoralising effect of benefits sanctions and penalties. We are considering an alternative provision of welfare payments, as are other authorities in the UK. Importantly, residents are identifying clearly the particular new challenges created by new forms of modern employment and the type of work available locally: this is a town where JD Sports is hiring 1000 additional workers to fulfil Black Friday orders at its warehouse.

In neighbourhoods like Rochdale’s town centre, both national government and the new devolved city-region administration are considering an approach to neighbourhood change that works for both people and place together. Redevelopment of the built environment is recognised as just one aspect of improving people’s quality of life. Residents themselves will tell you quality jobs and community facilities are their priority. But without a wider range of housing choices and neighbourhood investment locally, success in supporting residents to achieve rising incomes will mean many residents are likely to leave places like Rochdale town centre altogether.

Meaningful change happen won’t happen without patience and trust: between agencies in the public sector, between tenants and landlords, and between citizens and the leaders of cities. This applies as much to our planning system as it does to our complex skills and employment system.

Trust builds slowly and erodes quickly. As with our other projects at the RSA, we are convinced that listening and engaging citizens will improve policy-making. Most of those involved in regeneration know this better than anyone. But at the national level we need to recognise that, just as the labour market and the housing market vary dramatically from place to place, there isn’t a single national story which represents how communities feel about local regeneration.

Jonathan Schifferes is interim Director, Public Services and Communities, at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).