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The future of a car-free Bergmannkiez

Cyclists are ecstatic, but drivers have called it a “catastrophe”. We go inside the multimillion-euro plan to get cars off Bergmannstraße, one of Berlin’s most beloved streets.

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Cyclists love it, drivers have called it a “catastrophe”. Kreuzberg’s Bergmannkiez is once again the focus of a multimillion-euro plan to turn its car-lined main drag into a pedestrian and pedaller paradise. Photo: IMAGO / A. Friedrichs

“The supremacy of the car and the era of the car-friendly city are over.” With this grand declaration in September last year, Monika Herrmann heralded Bergmannkiez as Berlin’s “model project for the neighbourhood of the future”. The district mayor of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, a Green party member and veteran of local politics, plans to spend €8-11 million on turning a 500m section of Bergmannstraße into a playground for pedestrians and cyclists.

The person responsible for implementing this vision is, by comparison, a relatively new face in local Berlin politics: Felix Weisbrich has been in charge of roads and green spaces on the district council since January 2019. A former forester who had previously served as a policy advisor for the state agriculture ministry of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Weisbrich jumped at the chance to turn his conservationist hand to a project in the capital. “I suffered and experienced the results of climate change first hand, in storms and damage to the forests. I knew that there was a mobility law in Berlin, so I thought: ‘This is a city that really wants to make a change,’” he says.

Green dots and yellow blocks

Weisbrich isn’t the first to try and transform the busy street at the heart of trendy Bergmannkiez into a haven for pedestrians. Bergmannstraße was the testing ground for a €1.1-million project funded by the Berlin Senat to establish Fußgänger-friendly “encounter zones” with 20km/h speed limits, alongside a general parking ban.

First announced in 2011, the measures included car-blocking boulders, bright-yellow street furniture called “parklets” for resident to mingle on and green dots painted on the road to slow down traffic. The concept was ridiculed both locally and nationally for being costly and ineffective. The now-infamous dots and boulders were removed in September 2019 and the parklets were moved to a quieter section of the street.

Not perturbed by this failure, the council is determined to get it right this time around. The stretch of Bergmannstraße between Nostitzstraße and Schleichermacherstraße – passing by the ever-popular Marheineke Markthalle – is to be closed to cars and motorcycles, making way for a two-way bike lane, green space for humans and insects alike and water-storing infrastructure that can cool the roads in summer and distribute water to the street’s trees. A raft of traffic-calming measures is to be applied to the surrounding roads: one-way streets, for example, and restricted access for non-resident and delivery traffic. The changes have already begun, with signage and speed limits put in place in May and the launch of cycle path construction in June. The aim is to complete the project by 2025.

Upping the tempo

Having learned the lessons of its previous pro-pedestrian attempt, the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district council asked 300 locals, representative of the population in terms of age and gender, what they thought of the plans in a series of workshops conducted over the last year. Weisbrich says the results were clear: people wanted fewer cars, more greenery and more water. Now he wants to act fast, making changes that will have an immediate impact in two to 10 days, not two to 10 years, as is normal in the perpetual Baustelle that is Berlin. These include the pop-up bike lanes and temporary Spielstraßen seen during the pandemic.

While he expects some dissent and resistance from disgruntled car-loving locals, Weisbrich is confident that he has public opinion, the power of the Mobility Act and the Pedestrian Law and the blessing of the district mayor on his side. “It is not a question of whether we want change in urban areas; it is a question of how we can achieve it.”