Stuttgart 21: Down the Rabbit Hole

My second night in Stuttgart I was walking through the snowy Christmas Market when I heard a screeching racket like hundreds of kazoos being abused. I walked in the direction of the noise and found myself at a Stuttgart 21 protest outside City Hall. I’d encountered a handful of protestors at the train station the night before, but this was far bigger and more organized. There were, yes, kazoos, and costumes, and signs, and a song about the train station set to the tune of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, and chants of “Oben Bleiben” which means “keep it above ground” (a reference to the undergrounding of the station and the tunnels). My favorite part was the dancing, chain-smoking white rabbit mascots.

This is about the time I started feeling all kinds of conflicted. On the one hand, I can’t help but relate to the protestors. I love a good protest. I love the expression of idealism, the truth-telling, the temporary suspension of political reality. Its hard for me to look on a scene like this and not want to be a part of it. These are MY PEOPLE.

On the other hand, I am inclined to support investments in transit and urban regeneration unless there is some really compelling reason not to. I get frustrated with NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard types) who would rather see the world burn than a three-story building or a new train line in their neighborhood.

So, are these just a bunch of NIMBYs, or are the angry bunnies right?

The Project:

According to the backers of the Stuttgart 21 project, the current Stuttgart station (which is, importantly, a “terminal” station meaning the tracks end at the station) and track system is too small and antiquated for the growing number of local, regional and international trains that pass through Stuttgart every day. Train congestion is a big problem here, and delays in one place create ripple effects throughout the system. Urbanists are also excited about the prospect of a huge redevelopment area in the city center, which is otherwise completely built-out. The project is being pushed by the City of Stuttgart and the national rail service, DeutscheBahn. Its also supported by the regional and state governments.

Without getting into too much detail, in essence the project would:

  • Replace the 1920s-era terminal station and railyard with a new, underground through station so that trains could keep going, rather than having to stop and go back the same way.
  • Create a new mixed-used district on the old railyard.
  • Build a new train station at the airport and a new, fast connection between the airport and the main station.
  • Build 30km of new underground tunnels to increase the capacity and facilitate the movement of trains in and out of the new stations.

Here’s a visual of the new underground station, with the old station above on the right.

Click here to see more photos of the proposed project.

The project made it through the planning and approval process in the late 1990s and early 2000s with little controversy, but construction was delayed by financing issues until earlier this year, and that’s when the trouble began.

The opposition:

The opposition is being led by the Green Party and environmental groups. Opponents cite concerns about the cost of the project being too high for the benefits – it will cost 5 billion euros and is projected to increase capacity by 30% – but opponents think the final cost will be higher and the capacity lower.  They argue that there are more pressing priorities elsewhere in the national train system.

The plan would also impact the adjacent city park, a jewel that stretches from the Neckar River through the heart of the city and includes a fantastic mineral spring complex, one of the largest in Europe. The park itself would remain a public space, but the area adjacent to the station would be affected, because the underground station and tunnels will go beneath a section of the park. Several hundred trees must be cut down to allow construction and tunneling to take place. September’s bloody protest happened when the first trees were cut down. Today, a round-the-clock volunteer park guard patrols the area, and shrines have been set up at the base of trees slated for destruction.


A shrine at the base of a tree slated for destruction. The german word for felling trees? Hack.

Perhaps the most deeply-held concern is the new development on the railyard site – what it will it look like? Who will control it, who will benefit from it? What will happen to the surrounding neighborhoods?

Opponents are advocating for an alternative which would keep the existing terminus station intact and upgrade it to include more tracks. This alternative would cost much less, would eliminate the need for extensive tunneling, and would also eliminate the redevelopment option.

The opponents have been unsuccessful in getting traction for their proposal, largely because the adopted plan was approved ten years ago and fully financed three years ago, and their alternative wasn’t studied at that time. As so often happens, they came too late to the party.

What’s really going on here?

I think the culture of protest that has sprung up around this project runs deeper than what is being debated in the newspapers and meetings. People don’t let themselves get bloodied by police because they’re worried about whether a through-station or a terminal station will increase capacity. There’s a sense that people have lost the power to determine their city’s future, that large and invisible forces are pulling the strings for their own nefarious purposes.  Most of all they suspect those who want to redevelop the railyard. In the context of the last century, I can understand why Germans would feel helpless when it comes to their cities.

Stuttgart, like many German cities, was obliterated by Allied bombs at the end of WW2 and had to be almost completely rebuilt. A great debate among architects and planners all over Germany was whether to faithfully reconstruct the old city, or to make a clean break with the past and start fresh with new, modern architecture. The modernists largely won the debate. Much of Stuttgart’s architecture is bland, generic post-war architecture – at least 60% I’d say. Some of it is OK, but a lot of it was built quickly, to get a roof over many heads, and lacks any sense of place or character.

In downtown Stuttgart, historic buildings are mostly dwarfed by post-war monoliths.

But now the pendulum seems to be swinging back the other direction. The handful of pre-war buildings that survived the bombs are cherished, and in recent years all across Germany cities are investing millions to faithfully reconstruct pre-war churches and palaces. Stuttgart spent millions to rebuild its historical Neues Schloss palace after it was obliterated by the bombs.

The rebuilt Neues Schloss palace

Stuttgart’s main train station is one of those rare important buildings that somehow survived the war. Built in the 1920s Weimar Republic era and completed just a few years before Hitler came to power, the building is simple and unimposing, not particularly beautiful. To me it feels heavy with foreshadowing.

Stuttgart's Central Station. Photo: Der Spiegel/ Bernd Weißbrod dpa/lsw

But as one protestor reminded me, Germany has a long history before those twelve horrible years of Nazi rule. For obvious reasons, Germany has turned away from glorifying its past and instead focuses on being a modern, forward-looking society. But in this relentlessly globalizing world, people long to feel a sense of place and history. The train station and its adjacent park are one of the only places that are untouched, where you can feel a sense of what Stuttgart must have been like before the war changed everything.

So along comes a plan which promises to radically remake the city – again – and fundamentally alter an historic touchstone. The plan calls for keeping the main part of the train station intact as a sort of entry hall and museum, but one wing of the building will be knocked down and most of the station’s essential functions will move into a new underground station. And the whole area around the station will look completely different as the railyard is redeveloped.

On the deepest level, Stuttgart 21 has sparked feelings of helplessness in the face of powerful forces that can tear apart communities. People here feel like they were blindsided by this project and didn’t have the opportunity to have their opinions heard. Most of the protestors didn’t even know about the project, or only had a vague sense of it, before construction began. The ten-year delay between approval and construction certainly didn’t help. One planning official admitted to me that they didn’t foresee the protests, and so they didn’t make enough of an effort to make sure people were fully aware of what was happening.

Is this what happens when smart growth goes mainstream? In California we’re struggling against the old paradigm of cars and sprawl. We are trying to create a new paradigm, and in the last few years we’ve made a lot of progress. In Germany, they’re already there. The powerful institutions all support massive investments in transit infrastructure and urban regeneration, both because they’re politically helpful and there’s money to be made. Stuttgart is perhaps a cautionary tale for what can happen when good ideas go mainstream and get ahead of their constituency.

Coming Thursday: Part Three (the final installment), where I’ll tackle the question of trading off local impacts vs. global benefits and how those forces are seeking equilibrium in Stuttgart. Also, I have a chance encounter with the chain-smoking bunny mascots – and learn what they REALLY want.

This entry was posted in Stuttgart. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Stuttgart 21: Down the Rabbit Hole

  1. Patricia Hickson says:

    Fantastic story Autumn. Sorry for all my comments – but I just can’t get enough. “Are these just a bunch of NIMBYs, or are the angry bunnies right?” !! What a good question. But more seriously – what a thoughtful recapitulation on German’s history. I’m torn myself.

  2. white rabbit #? says:

    hi Autumn
    very nice blog…
    enjoy ur time in “schwabenländle”
    greetings from the white rabbitz

  3. Chanell says:

    Autumn – this is FASCINATING! I didn’t even know this was going in Germany until reading your blog – and now I feel so confused. You make an excellent case for both sides – I never thought I would be torn by transit development … and yet I am. Excellent writing – I am eagerly looking forward to the next installment!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s