Urban planners and anti-sprawl advocates point to Germany as a wonderland of appropriate land use. It is true that Germany has been better at preserving open space between former villages; the non-stop development that seems continuous throughout most of the United States cannot be found here.
However, this triumph of planning has also come at a cost, in terms of affordability, and has kept a large percentage of the population from being able to own their own home. Germany is expensive because of forced scarcity of land and an extremely unproductive building industry, with certain peculiarities of German culture creating additional costs.
The reasons for the lack of productivity in the German housing industry stretch back to land holding patterns in the Middle Ages, when the southern and western provinces of Germany were divided into countless small duchies and bishoprics. These small holdings stayed in the families for generations and prevented the consolidation of plots. The large plots common in America are all but impossible to find, depriving the building industry of the economies of scale possible in most of America. This in turns negatively affects the cost of housing, pushing home prices higher than they need be.
There are also the vested interests of those who have bought into the German Dream and do not want to see their homes lose value. The German Statistics Agency issued a report stating that the average home in Germany is worth 6.1 times the average income. According to demographia.com anything above 3.0 is expensive.
Blame can be placed on two factors. The first is that the productivity of German builders is far lower than that of American builders. KB homes can produce a house for about $400 per square meter and the cheapest German builders charge $1,300 per square meter (both prices do not include the price of land). A recent New York Times article stated that a passive house filled with expensive high-tech gadgetry only costs about 9% more than a standard German house. No wonder, when a standard German house costs 300% more than an average American house. Not all European countries have such high building costs; the Dutch are actually able to build housing stock at American prices; the problem in the Netherlands is the enormous costs associated with clawing a country from the North Sea. Nevertheless, Dutch builders are able to more easily assemble large plots of land on the reclaimed islands.
Choices in building materials also play a role. Germans tend to prefer heavy and expensive concrete and brick construction over wood and steel-framed houses. A lot of Germans travelling to the US invariably will express their shock at how flimsy many American houses seem. Many Germans want to have a basement as well, even though the winters are more than mild enough here to allow for simple concrete slabs. The preference for basements and solid construction have a lot to do with owning a building that will not burn down in an incendiary bomb attack and a basement for the family to hide out in should the apocalypse come again.
The collective trauma of the twentieth century lives on in the contemporary German psyche. Germans have learned their lesson from history and many of them are genuinely ashamed of it. The threat of imminent destruction was only recently lifted: up until 1989 the allied defense plans put the first line of real resistance on the Rhine, meaning that the entire country would have probably been flattened before the Allies could stop the forward thrust of the Red Army.
Another factor is the huge mobility tax that the German government slaps on its citizens. The German government charges a punitively high tax for each liter of gasoline sold, equal to 80% of the price paid for fuel. Germans still drive a lot: the country invented the freeway and the ease and opportunity that an automobile offers still trumps the government billions spent on public transit. The German Sueddeutsche Zeitung, (the German equivalent of the New York Times) wrote a lengthy article, stating essentially that the automobile has survived every dire threat that it has faced over the last hundred years and will probably remain the king of the road. At least, they added, until a transit approaches the convenience and flexibility offered by the car. As it is, most new construction still takes place in the outer suburbs.
Germans love the woods. German identity since the time of Tacitus is closely linked with the woods. Herman the German was able to use the cover of the forest to wipe out the Roman legions in the Teutoburger Forest. The folklore costumes that one occasionally sees here are almost always hunter green. Many Germans do not necessarily see nature as the unscathed landscape made to order by God. The forest is not wild here; it is an almost entirely man-made affair. German forests are essentially tree farms but Germans love them. They use these forest preserves as well. They are a ritualized part of the landscape, every Sunday they fill with locals walking off their Sauerbraten.
In Germany, the natural world is something already conquered; it is viewed as something useful, a garden that the Germans themselves are stewards to. It is not the vast pristine wilderness of America. It is more like a vast public garden. German farmers and foresters have to allow pedestrians the right to walk on their land. Open space is also public space. The positive side is that the livability in many of these communities is much higher for those who can afford it. There is always a forest or a bike path/jogging path somewhere nearby.
Germany is still rather affordable compared to other European countries, especially those that were caught up in the real estate bubble of the last decade. France, The Netherlands, Switzerland and Ireland have all experienced housing booms that have pushed the median multiple for housing affordability well above 6 to 7 or 8 and in places like Ireland and the greater London area to well above 10. Prices are also shrinking in the East, which is losing people every year.
The East is actually one of the more interesting markets due to its loss of people and resulting housing price slumps. Government infrastructure investments could turn the Leipzig and Jena areas as well as Dresden into potential growth markets. Certain areas like the east and the Ruhr Valley, where cities like Bochum and Monchengladbach are worse off than some parts of the East.
Germany, along with most of Europe, cannot be transposed to the US. The sundry factors contributing to its present-day appearance are not replicable in the US. Germany is a place of small plots and inefficient builders with prices severely limiting home ownership. It is not all bad, especially for those already in place. However, it limits Germans ability to improve their quality of life. Germans, like the vast majority of citizens in industrialized countries, prefer the speed, convenience and comfort of the automobile. Germans, for better or worse, saw how the conquerors from the US lived and tried to emulate it in their own lifestyles. Many still see America as a role model, even though that will not stop the cognoscenti here from writing sanctimonious articles condemning America and trying to stop cities from “sprawling”.
Kirk Rogers resides in Bubenreuth on the outer edges of Nuremberg and teaches languages and Amercan culture at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg's Institut für Fremdsprachen und Auslandskunde. He has been living in Germany for about ten years now due to an inexplicable fascination with German culture.