MediaWharf And MediaSpree: A Comparative Analysis, Part 2

  • “Increasingly, media has become a global business, in which multinational media conglomerates have their branches all over the world, but show a strong tendency to cluster their headquarters and main production facilities in a highly selective group of ‘global media cities’.”

    As I explained previously, both MediaWharf in Amsterdam and MediaSpree in Berlin are examples of ‘creative cluster’ developments. Following the citation above and taking in mind the two projects, the two capital cities are considered to be attractive places for creative industries to settle. This can be explained in terms of ‘path dependency’, which simply means that ‘history matters’. In other words, path dependency focuses on historical developments in order to explain current urban and regional dynamics and to proclaim future developments. Musterd and others state that “cities with a long tradition in trade, finance and/or creativity will often have more favorable points of departure for the delivery of effective creative knowledge city strategies”, which would imply that typically Fordist cities face substantially more struggles in implementation of creative industry policies. One could also make use of the path dependency theory to make assumptions about how the projects in Amsterdam and Berlin can be explained in terms of different social effects and the amount of criticism.

    MediaWharf
    MediaWharf: the ‘Newest Media Center’ on the Banks of the IJ

    MediaWharf is considered to be Amsterdam’s ‘newest media center’. Located in the NDSM area, a former ship-building wharf in the North-West of Amsterdam, the MediaWharf project aims to transform this old industrial site into a creative cluster especially focused on media companies. The development department of the Northern IJ bank called Noordwaarts, explains on its website that the industrial character of the wharf has power of attraction to creative companies. Furthermore, a “consistent mix of publicly accessible and attractive studios, exhibition spaces, events, theaters, and film production spaces, will lead to a remarkable and vibrant place on the Northern IJ bank”. The development project is an expression of managerial and entrepreneurial urban governance and spatial planning, with development partnerships between urban authorities (Noordwaarts), developers (for instance Biesterbos Planontwikkeling) and institutions (Kinetisch Noord). The NDSM Wharf itself is strategically divided into three different sub-projects called North, South and East. Two sub-projects in the NDSM strategy, MediaWharf and Waterfront, are both managing groups that operate within the ‘spatial development vision’ of the municipality of Amsterdam. Although the entire area is known for its industrial and historical value, the eastern part of the wharf is a state monument. Musterd and others explain that distinctiveness of place is important when it comes to the creation of creative clusters. “Usually but not always they are located in (…) districts with some historical built environment and aesthetic qualities in the physical fabric and overall urban realm.” The Fordism-breathing, industrial NDSM Wharf is such a place. Its spatial development program focuses on a mix of activities of living, working and leisure in order to create a diverse neighborhood where creative talent would likely live and work. The MediaWharf project describes the ‘Baanderij’, one of the buildings, as a future meeting point for creative people in Amsterdam. Furthermore, the large industrial ‘Lasloods’ monument will be developed into a publicly accessible indoor square, expressing Florida’s theoretical emphasis on the relevance of public and semi-public spaces to attract talented knowledge workers.

    Before the spatial redevelopment operation kicked off, the NDSM Wharf was known for its ‘free place’ character. After the ship-builders left the area, approximately twenty years ago, all kinds of ‘bohemians’ that were seeking affordable workplaces, took advantage of the large amount of vacant spaces and turned the wharf into a squatted art village. “These buildings, most have been vacated, are seen as breeding grounds and meeting places for co-operating and innovative small scale industries, which are the starting points and testing grounds for many artists and small entrepreneurs.” The organization Kinetisch Noord forms the institutional embodiment of the interests of the bohemian group. “Even those areas that begin with organic, locally rooted activity and development inevitably generate land/property appreciation and speculation that changes the initial distinctiveness; gentrification and related development pressures can displace or exclude indigeneous firms, community amenities and certain residents.” This partly applies to the case of the NDSM redevelopment project, where current industrial activities are planned to be removed in the future. MediaWharf is an example of top-down gentrification, defined by Gary Bridge as a ‘Bourdieuan’ field where particular mixes of economic and cultural capital are expressed by different classes to preserve distinction from each other. This assumption strongly reflects the friction between the relatively small number of ‘bohemians’ that, for instance, silently protested against settlement of MTV, and the new class of knowledge workers. A large part of the 9,000 dwellings that are to be built in the NDSM area will not be affordable for the ‘old’ inhabitants of the wharf and the surrounding neighborhoods, Merijn Oudenampsen assumes. He argues that, although the official plans are aimed at ‘bringing North Amsterdam to the IJ’, in reality spatial developments make it possible for higher social classes to ‘colonize’ the northern IJ bank and create new forms of spatial segregation. This is a form of displacement, as it restricts the possibilities for low-income resindents to move into a neighborhood that used to have ample supplies of affordable housing. Musterd and others conclude that the attraction of creative business activity does not necessarily benefit the urban population or a city’s economy as a whole. Especially the cities that are involved in a major urban and economic restructuring process could face the threat of parts of their population being excluded from “securing many (if any) of the direct and indirect benefits of this new growth potential”. This is the case in North Amsterdam, where the development projects aimed at the creative class create an occupational mismatch for its inhabitants. 52 Percent of the population of this district does not have a so-called ‘start qualification’, which stands for a minimum level of education (havo, vwo, or mbo) required to find sustainable employment. This implies that a substantial part of the residents of North Amsterdam does not profit from creative clustering developments and the growth of employment in the knowledge sector.

    MediaSpree Area
    MediaSpree: a ‘Mooring Place of the Future’ on the Banks of the Spree

    Over the last years, Berlin has been busy revitalizing various waterfront districts. MediaSpree is one of the key projects within this spatial strategy, focusing on the city’s role as media location. The creative cluster project is located on both sides of the Spree river in the Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain area, and aimed at attraction of corporate headquarters of large media companies, such as Universal Music, MTV Networks and O2. Whereas the MediaWharf project measures only 84,000 square meters, the area in Berlin has a surface of 1.8 square kilometers, making it the city’s largest spatial development project. Compared to its sister in Amsterdam, the MediaSpree area also contains a number of historical buildings. Part of the industrial architecture will be re-used, and several new buildings will emerge, which is likely to be considered a prominent ingredient for the creation of distinctive knowledge-intensive places. MediaSpree aims to build office space for 40,000 knowledge workers and create a mix of working, leisure (in the form of the O2 World concert hall) and ‘loft living’, in order to create an attractive, heterogeneous creative cluster. The project kicked off in 2002 as a private sector marketing company and was transformed into a public-private partnership three years later. In 2009, nineteen large real estate companies and developers are participating in MediaSpree, as well as local and federal government-owned companies, which emphasizes the entrepreneurial role of the public actors involved. Furthermore, the project was strongly supported by the urban authorities. According to Albert Scharenberg and Ingo Bader, the local government used company-focused economic arrangements to stimulate development of the area, as “city-owned property was sold with very few strings attached”.

    Obviously, the fall of the Berlin Wall did not bring the city its expected economic advantages. After the German re-unification, the job market collapsed and huge unemployment in both East and West led to high vacancy rates of real estate. Attracted by the low prices, groups of bohemians settled in Berlin over the last decades. The urban wasteland on especially the northern side of the Spree developed into a lively subcultural quarter with a number of famous alternative bars, clubs and other activities, especially focused on the electronic music scene. Some of these subcultural ‘flagships’ “have been decisive in generating the global ‘brand Berlin’ as an innovative and ‘wild’ cultural metropolis”, and are the main reason for settlement of global media companies in the area, as these would love to be associated with the “authenticity of the subculture” and the “creative (…) image of the neighborhood”. Following general assumptions regarding location preferences of creative industries, companies are likely to be attracted to areas that contribute to a city’s ‘brand’, which applies to this case. Also Bridge’s theory is in line with the developments, as he states that “economic capital becomes more significant than cultural capital as gentrification proceeds”. Berlin has a history as a creative city in the 1920s that attracted talent from far and wide. Peter Hall implies that “highly conservative, very stable societies will never generate creative places”. Berlin is no such a place, as a report suggests that the city “is a tremendously tolerant city — far-right (…) sentiment gets very little traction there. Meanwhile, a large immigrant community (…) also contributes to Berlin’s high grade on the tolerance scale”. Furthermore, following Florida’s 3T model, the city “may soon be able to shed the poverty label. It turns out that Germany’s capital (…) has the greatest potential for growth amongst all of Germany’s sixteen states. The conclusions come from a nationwide study”.

    MediaSpree Versenken!
    Cities involved in major urban and economic restructuring processes could likely face the issue of parts of their population being excluded from “securing many (if any) of the direct and indirect benefits of this new growth potential. Cities in the former state-socialist countries of East Central Europe with their rapidly transforming economies and societies belong to this group”. Berlin has a history as both an ‘Eastern’ city and a ‘Western’ city, but its economic struggles have led to relatively low-priced real estate. The poor neighborhood ‘Kreuzberg SO 36’, which is part of the redevelopment, is suffering from the social ‘upgrading’ as research showed “the first signs of displacement” resulting from a strong increase of rental rates. This has been an important ground for successful social mobilization against the MediaSpree plans. Under the name of ‘MediaSpree Versenken!’ (meaning ‘Sink MediaSpree!’), a small subcultural group was formed that turned into a large urban movement challenging the ‘Bündnis mächtiger Konzerne’, and struggling for the ownership of city space.36 37 The group developed into a “recognized agent of social change”, supported by the nightlife scene, the radical left, smaller organizations, and many gentrification victims. A good communication strategy generated broad media attention. The massive critique on the MediaSpree plans and a public referendum ‘won’ by the activists in 2008, forced the urban authorities to reconsider their policy, and pay more attention to social en cultural atmospheres, as well as temporary use of spaces for experimental purposes. Meanwhile, the development of MediaSpree has slowed down.

    Silent Protest, Amsterdam
    In Amsterdam, only a relatively small group of artists took the initiative for a protest campaign against the MediaWharf and NDSM redevelopment plans, which finally passed like a ship in the night. The activists did not manage to get the inhabitants of the surrounding neighborhood, or left-wing organizations involved in the social movement, and their campaign was more or less perceived as a NIMBY protest. Strikingly, in Berlin, 30,000 people voted for revision of the MediaSpree plans after huge demonstrations and a petition signed by a large number of inhabitants. Scharenberg and Bader mention the scale of the development as a powerful argument for the Berlin activists to mobilize. “The area is quite large, and the planned compounds (…) will have a massive impact on the city district”, they argue. Developments in a 3.7 kilometers long area on the banks of the city’s river do indeed attract the attention of many inhabitants living in the surrounding neighborhoods, and motivate them to come into action.

    Another explanation for the huge effective difference between the projects in the two cities, could be the social composition of the city. Following the path dependency theory, current social and economic structures of cities are strongly influenced by historical developments. The Second World War, the Cold War, and the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall have determined the city’s economic and social situation. As I said, the collapse of the Wall led to a collapse of the job market. Berlin became one of the poorest capitals in Europe, and economic struggles resulted in high real estate vacancy rates. This attracted large groups of bohemians — artists, musicians, writers, et cetera. It also led to a relatively large group of ‘autonomous’ people, anarchists, who largely concentrated in and around the MediaSpree area. Perhaps Amsterdam is too socially fragmented and simply lacks a large group of squatters and left-wing activists, which could be the result of a welfare increase. Margit Mayer states that the more internally fragmented the social movement milieu is, the less collective power and resources different groups have. Perhaps are large social movements less likely to emerge in comparatively richer, or more ‘post-Fordistic’ cities?