How can a metropolitan region become a sustainable self-sufficient system?

How can a metropolitan region like Berlin Brandenburg sustainably develop in the future? As Greater Berlin marks its 100th anniversary, a new book ’21BB – Model Region Berlin-Brandenburg: Analyses and Visions for the 21st Century’ seeks to answer this question.

Working under the leadership of architects Barbara Hoidn and Wilfried Wang, our urban consultants Abdelrahman Helal and Aron Bohman, along with Senior Partner Paul Rogers, contributed an article to the book, recently launched at the Urbainable exhibition at Berlin’s Akademie der Künste. Here they explain how they believe the region could become a sustainable, self-sufficient system. Many of these thoughts informed the urban design principles for the Berlin-Brandenburg 2070 competition submission that is published in the last section of the book.

Berlin, Germany. Image: Getty

What is your vision?  

To create a truly sustainable system, we need to change the way we live. This change needs to come from a common vision, enabling us to channel all efforts in the same direction. We believe this common vision should be based on the creation of regions as balanced self-sufficient systems that are, at the same time open to global exchange.

Berlin Brandenburg is made up of two complementary regions. Brandenburg offers land for harvesting food, and producing water and clean renewable energy. Berlin, on the other hand, is a city of politics, culture, education, research, industry, commerce and entertainment. The two areas are very different, but they complement and benefit from each other. Residents in Brandenburg gain from the employment opportunities in Berlin, whereas Berlin needs the clean energy and food produced in Brandenburg. If this balance is nurtured and maintained, the region can become truly self-sufficient and sustainable.

Locating Tesla’s “gigafactory” on the outskirts of the city is an example of this logic. This location has the available land, access to existing infrastructure and most importantly, access to a highly qualified workforce.

Nevertheless, the region is not yet a self-sufficient entity. It’s still a part of a globalised world.

What can we do to create a region in balance with itself? 

Current resource flows are characterised by an intense global trade network and highly specialised global supply chains. Goods are not produced where they are consumed. Poor working conditions, and pollution from both the production process and the flow of products, are largely invisible to the end user. In times of crisis, such strong interdependencies create fragility. 

We think “sustainable resource cycles” are the answer for Berlin and Brandenburg, as well as other regions. This means giving priority to resources available in the region, especially replenishable resources, helping to underpin the local economy. Staying globally connected is important in terms of sharing ideas and making use of the latest technologies. However, material resources like water, energy and building materials should primarily be regionally sourced, whereas more abstract ‘products’ like culture, research and education remain globally integrated.

Diagram from our contribution to the Berlin-Brandenburg 2070 competition: material resources should primarily be regionally sourced, immaterial resources remain globally integrated.

What would a sustainable energy resource cycle look like? 

Wind and photovoltaic parks are a recognisable part of the Brandenburg landscape. In the future, these sources of energy, in combination with an equally plentiful supply of water, will be used to generate hydrogen to cover the energy demand in Berlin-Brandenburg, with the potential for export to a European market. Whilst Brandenburg has the correct land and weather conditions to transform wind energy into hydrogen, the area needs to be supported by both technical and research infrastructure, as well as local stakeholders. Current fossil-fuel energy supplies are only an interim solution as they create a dependency on other countries and on finite resources. 

At the moment, there is some local resistance to using the landscape for energy production. It is vital that we develop a range of ideas for engaging the local population, to emphasise both the urgency of this energy transition and the benefits of energy production in the local area.

With data and digital tools like GIS we can evidence the viability of our vision, for example the availability of renewable energy sources and potential locations of energy hubs.

Establishing a sustainable regional supply chain 

Brandenburg is rich in physical and land resources that are evenly distributed across the region, providing the essential ingredients for a future beyond fossil fuel and carbon. With the appropriate management of natural resources, in combination with sustainable harvesting and replanting, it is possible to establish a circular and perpetually replenishing regionalised supply chain of resources such as fresh food and raw materials (for example, timber for construction or manufacturing), whilst protecting the region’s natural heritage. Brandenburg’s current strength lies in the extent of its available land. It produces a massive surplus of wheat (in relation to population) and, with sensible management, there is enough water in the region. 

Brandenburg, Germany. Image: Adobe Stock

Why community support is key to success 

The climate emergency and many of today’s challenges are global issues and therefore cannot be addressed by a region in isolation. The Berlin-Brandenburg region benefits from a federalist structure, with centres of local, regional and national government providing a strong democratic framework on which effective public administration depends.

Good governance enables both Berlin and Brandenburg to be embedded within global networks. We need a global network; however, this network needs to stop the exchange of material resources and focus on the exchange of culture, research, data and knowledge. Most importantly, we need to involve the people who live and work in our region, because it is only with their empathy, support and actions that the vision of a sustainable self-sufficient Berlin-Brandenburg region can become reality.

Read more about exhibitions showing the concept >

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