Challenging densification in a shifting German metropolis where business must make way for the arts - Friends of Friends / Freunde von Freunden (FvF)

Challenging densification in a shifting German metropolis where business must make way for the arts


Frankfurt may be one of Germany’s fastest growing cities but does that leave any room for young ideas? And what form might they take? There was a passionate debate at The Sooner Now in the metropolis on the Main.

The risk of developing schizophrenia is three times higher in the city than it is in the country, Mazda Adli reports as he opens The Sooner Now, organized by Freunde von Freunden and MINI in Frankfurt. Adli is a psychiatrist at the Berlin Charité, chief physician at the Fliedner Klinik, author of Stress and the City, and researches the phenomena that pertain to urban stress. According to his research, the city is a clear cause of mental illness. With the increasing urbanization in the world—an estimated 70 percent of the planet’s population will be living in a city by 2050—the level of stress will increase as well. Questions such as how do we experience the city and how can cities grow without increasing stress are not only asked by scientists and city planners but also by people who affect the city “bottom up.”.

“No other city in Germany is currently so affected by the challenges of densification as Frankfurt.”

To discuss life in the city of tomorrow with various local communities Freunde von Freunden together with MINI Germany have initiated The Sooner Now platform. Ever since the first MINI hit the road in 1959, the brand has not only been interested in the smart use of infrastructure and mobility in the city, but also in the creative minds that implement it. And that’s exactly who Freunde von Freunden have been visiting in their homes and workspaces for many years to find out what’s going on and what they want to do about it.

In order to accompany the “bottom-up” processes, MINI has also engaged the URBAN-X platform together with Urban Us: an accelerator for urban start-ups based in Brooklyn, New York. Every six months, teams can apply with up to ten receiving a total of €100,000. “We want to learn from the start-ups,” says Eva Becker, who maintains contact with Urban-X as European Director of the MINI headquarters in Munich. Becker names “sharing communities,” “democratized technologies” and “cities that provide their data” as ways of using ideas.

The team supporting Kevin Yoo who developed the Wayband under the name WearWorks are part of the URBAN-X program. The idea is as simple as it is ingenious. Using the sensory wearable device and its corresponding app, Wayband aids visually impaired people to navigate the city without a cane or guide dog thanks to vibration indicating where they need to go. WearWorks is currently working with Apple to optimize the app. An extremely good example of how urban mobility can be improved through digital networking and sensory technologies —and ultimately improve the quality of life in the city.

No other city in Germany is currently so affected by the challenges of densification as Frankfurt. As of 2011, there are approximately 15,000 new residents each year and Brexit is estimated to bring another 10,000 at least. Two new districts have been built, the old town on the Römerberg will be filled with historic houses while 20 more skyscrapers are set to fill in the skyline. Housing pressure is increasing and many quarters, such as the one around the central station or the Ostend, are being increasingly gentrified.

“Either we give the newest generation of culturally relevant minds the freedom they need and the city goes through the roof or we leave it to politicians and investors.”

Stefan Hantel alias Shantel

“Frankfurt, du bist so wunderbar,” which translates to ‘you are so wonderful’ is the name of a community in the city that recently released a magazine under the same name. The fact that Frankfurt is better perceived today by a younger audience is in part due to the creatives who didn’t migrate to Berlin in the ’00s, but rather stayed here and moved the city forward with unusual initiatives and concepts. Creative artists Ata Macias, Stefan Hantel, Ian Shaw, Kerstin Görling and Farah Ebrahimi joined The Sooner Now evening, entitled Sensing the Urban, to passionately discuss the fortunes and future of their city.

Back in the ’80s, Stefan Hantel alias Shantel, the celebrated DJ and inventor of the Bucovina Balkan Pop series, threw his legendary parties in off-spaces in the district around the central station. In order to bridge the enormous gap between local politics and citizens, Shantel recently ran as mayor but withdrew his candidacy and instead wants to contribute as a free cultural policy adviser for the city. “I love Frankfurt. We’re the international intersection of Europe,” he says during the podium discussion.

Ata Macias complains that there are more progressive living and working concepts around the world and cites examples from Switzerland where forward-looking technology for mobility and architecture is already being implemented and the community idea is being lived more intensely. A mixture of resignation and resistance can be felt with the creator of Robert Johnson and many other gastronomic concepts, like the Club Michel, the Plank or the Pizzeria Montana. Ata, however, has already left his city behind—he now lives in a small village in Italy and only returns to Frankfurt every now and again. But is that the solution?

  • Kerstin Görling, Owner/Buyer Hayashi
  • Mazda Adli, Charité and Fliedner Klinik Berlin
  • Rabea Schif, Presenter
  • Stefan Hantel alias Shantel, Music Producer
  • Farah Ebrahimi, Art Director e15
  • Athanassios Macias, restaurateur and club operator
  • Ian Shaw, Architect
  • Eva Becker, Urban-X

“We’re at a tipping point,” says Shantel. “Either we give the newest generation of culturally relevant minds the freedom they need and the city goes through the roof or we leave it to politicians and investors.” Currently, the city is working on an “integrated city concept for 2030” co-developed by the late architect Albert Speer Junior. One of Speer’s 16 theses for this is “the future lies in the improvement of the actual and above all the perceived quality of life.”

How do we achieve that? Not only top-down but also bottom-up processes are needed—yet it seems difficult to mobilize the citizens. Even a contemporary format such as the temporary Zukunftspavillon, which the architect Ian Shaw had erected and offered a place for exchange on the central Goetheplatz from 2015 to the end of 2016, could only move the Frankfurters a little. Exactly three people used the speakers corner during this period. Which makes Shaw all the more pleased about the lively participation in The Sooner Now. “We’re the city,” he says, “so get up and do something before someone else does.”

“Be proud of your city. Use your potential and your strength and don’t call it Mainhattan—it’s Frankfurt!”

Farah Ebrahimi

Not everyone shares this black and white approach and wants to take part in banker and politician bashing. According to Kerstin Görling, who heads the progressive fashion store Hayashi on the Börsenplatz, Frankfurt is the city of business plans. And that should be supported as well. Finding a common path and taking advantage of local opportunities—as Farah Ebrahimi does with her furniture design label e15. Furniture from e15 will be used in the new Omniturm, the tower with a ‘swing in the hips’ designed by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, currently being erected in the city center. The best example of “being part of it”.

Frankfurt is the perfect centrally located business hub, believes Ebrahimi, and therefore she cannot quite understand why it no longer attracts young people and start-ups like WearWorks. As a native of Iran and thanks to an international career path via New York, Los Angeles and on to Frankfurt where she now lives and works with her husband and children, she encourages us to “be proud of your city. Use your potential and your strength.” And “don’t call it Mainhattan—it’s Frankfurt!”

Quality of urban life? What does that mean exactly and how can it be measured? In his book Stress and the City, Mazda Adli reveals everything that has an effect on well-being in cities and why life in the big cities – despite stress – has its good parts.

Urban-X, the accelerator of MINI and Urban Us, is encouraging start-ups that already think differently about urban life. The team supporting WearWorks, for example, is showing us how tactile technologies can help visually impaired people navigate the city.

Without people such as Ata, Kerstin, Shantel, Ian and Farah taking the initiative, Frankfurt would not be what it is today. Anyone looking to know more about the activities of the local community can read all of the interviews from Frankfurt. More to come!

The Sooner Now is an initiative of MINI and Freunde von Freunden who see themselves as a platform for outstanding future ideas. The series is meant to be an ongoing exchange and inspiration across cities and event formats. The focus is on personal stories and passionate projects – paving the way for shared solutions and a better life in the city.

Text:Martina Metzner