09 October 2010

Lessons from Stuttgart 21

This post follows up a discussion yesterday on the politicization of climate science, and the the degree to which highly politicized issues are created and shaped.  There are lessons to be learned from a train station in Germany -- Stuttgart 21.

What is Stuttgart 21?  Christopher Caldwell discusses it in today's FT:
The project, called Stuttgart 21, is complicated and ambitious. It is supposed to take fifteen years and cost €4.1bn. It would link Stuttgart to Germany’s high-speed rail system with 55 new bridges and 63km of new tunnels, destroying two wings of the old station. By sinking the approaching tracks, the project will free up 10 hectares of land – a big fraction of Stuttgart’s urban core – which can be used for building chic new neighbourhoods in the heart of the city. The plan was okayed by city authorities and approved by solid majorities in the Baden-Württemberg legislature.
High speed rail.  Greening and revitalizing an urban core.  What is not to like?  Especially in Stuttgart, Germany.  Well, wrong.
It provoked little opposition, until construction began. Then people decided they didn’t want it. Everything hinges on whether they must now be listened to or told, “too late, tough luck.”
Maybe they are a majority, maybe not. But we are not talking about a handful of eccentric malcontents. Starting last summer, tens of thousands have been descending on the centre of the city every day. Several were injured last week when police tried to control the crowds with water cannons and pepper spray. As many as 100,000 people came out the following day, and positions have hardened. The anti- Stuttgart 21 forces now say they won’t begin negotiating with authorities until there is a halt to construction.

So varied is the coalition against the project – greens, conservatives, preservationists, animal rights activists, students and people angry at high-handed government – that it is hard to say precisely what its main grievance is.
Der Spiegel asked what is wrong with Stuttgart?
What's wrong with this city? The world's first television tower was built in Stuttgart, as was the world's first streetcar tunnel. The world's largest artificial tornado was generated in Stuttgart, and the city boasts one architect for every 172 residents and the highest percentage of engineers in any German city. The ring binder was invented in Stuttgart, and so was the spark plug. And now these innovative Stuttgarters, of all people, are trying to block the construction of one of Europe's most cutting-edge train stations?
The answer provided by Der Spiegel is that it is not Stuttgart, but rather the badly managed politics of the issue, which it explains through a characterization of an unlikely protester :
It's a balmy Friday evening in August. Eberhard Schöttle, an engineer who works as a marketing manager for a company in the nearby Stuttgart suburb of Böblingen, and his wife, Gabriele, a physical therapist, have come to the city's Schlossgarten Park to take part in a protest against Stuttgart 21. There, they have joined about 18,000 fellow Stuttgarters carrying lights to form a human chain around the train station and a portion of the park. In some spots, the protesters have formed a protective wall by standing in rows three-deep.

Schöttle describes himself as a middle-of-the-road kind of person who isn't quick to sign petitions. As evening falls over the park's trees and lawns, he lights the candles in the purple lanterns he and his wife have brought along. Then, there is a moment of silence, broken only by the sounds of fountains and birds.

Schöttle, an athletic man in his mid-50s, is wearing black jeans and reddish-brown leather shoes. The button attached to the neck of his light-green polo shirt reads "Keep it aboveground." It's the same slogan the Stuttgart 21 opponents have been chanting without interruption, their words resonating all the way up to [Stuttgart 21 spokesman Wolfgang] Drexler's office.

Schöttle -- an engineer, a man of progress -- is one of the protesters Drexler finds so perplexing.
Before answering a question, Schöttle reflects for a moment. He is not a hothead, but he still has strong feelings about Stuttgart 21. "I'm very upset about the fact that they see us as being unable to judge this correctly," he says, "and about the arrogance with which they ignore us." His wife nods in agreement.

It's quite possible that Schöttle would have supported the project if things had gone differently -- if citizens had not perceived their politicians as being part of an authoritarian state, if the people had been taken seriously and if the city had permitted the citizens' initiative that many Stuttgarters wanted.
In the FT Christopher Caldwell provides a more general explanation:
This is not a toxic waste dump or a missile base – where raison d’état requires those in power to be firm about doing something awful to the landscape that no one will like. This was supposed to be a treat for the people of Stuttgart. It will be arty. It will place subtle skylights in the ground to light the airy station below. It will be about shopping and travel and lifestyle. Grand projects of this sort can go badly awry, of course. Consider François Mitterrand’s national library and Tony Blair’s Millennium Dome. But such failures do little more than add to the local repertoire of bar room humour. They do not usually result in a deadly earnest movement such as the people of Stuttgart are engaged in.

The authorities have a double standard. They insist Stuttgart 21 is a legitimate project because it is the result of lengthy public deliberation. But they present any further deliberation as illegitimate. “There is no ‘right to resistance’ against a railway-station project,” said Rüdiger Grube, chief executive of Deutsche Bahn. The unseemly rush to knock down a pretty train station and to uproot a few beloved trees leaves protesters feeling the authorities are seeking to create new “facts on the ground”. Once the things people worry about losing have been irrevocably destroyed, there will be nothing left to argue about.

The problem is not limited to Germany. Americans will be reminded of their new healthcare legislation, and specifically of the moment last winter when Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, told those worried about the contents of the health legislation that “we have to pass the bill so you can see what’s in it.”

In Stuttgart as in Washington politicians have behaved as if honouring certain formalities (of their own devising) exempts them from listening to the public. Stuttgart 21 was the product of serious discussions, just as its defenders say it was. But those discussions were between politicians and planners about the planners’ wishes – not between politicians and the public about the public’s wishes. That it is legal does not make it legitimate.
Stuttgart 21 has become a national issue, and even threatens Angela Merkel's government.  There are more general lessons here for experts and planners on other issues in how a regional train station became a political flashpoint with national implications. Highly politicized issues are created and shaped, and for better or worse and whether they like it or not, experts and planners are key actors in this process.