When the weather improved and the number of coronavirus cases started falling, chairs and tables started popping up on streets all over the city. These were generally found on former parking spaces, sometimes surrounded by a small fence and flowerpots, sometimes with plant tubs – or just plonked down on the asphalt and cobblestones. The city’s café and restaurant owners had always wanted to use the parking spaces in front of their establishments rather than the pavement. But the objections were too loud: where are people supposed to park their cars? And then the coronavirus pandemic suddenly opened the door to things that had been virtually unthinkable before. Al fresco dining and drinking at tables on parking spaces being just one of them.
Another is a new open-air area for music. There was talk of this back in 2016, when the CDU and the Greens formed an alliance in Cologne City Hall. Five years later, it was done and dusted. In Poll, on the right bank of the Rhine, the Südbrücke – an area measuring several thousand square metres where concerts and other events could be held – was opened next to the railway bridge. There will also be a beer garden in a corner that was previously popular for picnics. And for those who enjoy getting their hands dirty, there will also be an urban gardening plot. A few hundred metres further, on the grounds of a tennis club, a small stage was set up in summer 2021 for experimental concerts and theatre performances. As the location is a potential flood area, this would have been unthinkable in pre-pandemic times.
So why did it take the local effects of a global pandemic to finally set the wheels of Cologne’s regulatory authorities (and their frequently entrenched, intransparent processes) in motion? We don’t know. Maybe it’s a kind of catch-up modernisation? This is because people in Cologne are often further than their local authorities permit. After all, a beaten path is not only an infringement of rules but also points to shortcomings in city planning: people clearly need to take a path other than the officially designated one.
This discrepancy between actual needs and official directives is particularly apparent when it comes to cycling in Cologne. When the pandemic reared its ugly head, trams remained empty while roads and cycle lanes filled up, the risk of infection being lower than on public transport. This is a problem for Cologne traffic and city planners because everything has revolved around cars to date. If the volume of car traffic decreases on certain routes, cyclists can be given their own lanes. But if car and bicycle traffic increase at the same time, it’s the cyclists who lose out – after all, it’s not that easy to simply redirect a tram line. This means that more and more cyclists are being crammed into bicycle lanes that were already too narrow to begin with.
When local people, rather than local administration, take the initiative, it soon becomes clear how things can be improved. There’s a wonderful cycle lane on parts of Cologne’s ring road boulevard: wide enough for cyclists to overtake each other and coloured differently to the car lanes, where the speed limit is now just 30 kilometres an hour. This is the result of the ‘Ring Frei’ initiative that has been working for years to give cyclists their rightful place on the ring road, rather than rerouting them via side streets as intended by the city administration.
2021 could well be the year in which the City of Cologne finally understands that the best way forward is to trust its citizens. After all, there is a lot going on right now: the pandemic and the housing shortage are behind the trend towards people moving out of the city, which will hopefully not lead to an increase in commuter car traffic. A whole new district – Kreuzfeld – is currently being planned in the north of Cologne, providing various forms of ecologically oriented housing for 10,000 people. Examining the consequences of climate change would go well beyond the scope of this piece. But suffice to say, there is work to be done – so what are we waiting for?
(by Christian Werthschulte)