By Robert Rivard

BERLIN – The skyline of this energetic German capital is busy with construction cranes, while city streets and avenues teem with bicyclists and pedestrians. Morning rush hour is different here. Buses share the right of way with pedaling commuters and a parade of walkers. In a city of 3.5 million people, vehicle traffic is manageable and well-behaved by U.S. standards. For a visiting American on a morning jog, there is a calming absence of screeching tires and honking horns.

Berlin is Europe’s fastest changing and fastest growing city,  a great laboratory of urban reinvention, a city still transforming itself more than 22 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. For city leaders engaged in urban transformation on any scale anywhere else, Berlin is a singular place to come for inspiration and proof that anything is possible.

The view from a bus: Vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians share the street.
The view from a bus: Vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians share the street.

Germans didn’t necessarily believe such transformation was possible 25 years ago, but this week in particular is a fitting time to reflect on then and now. Americans might not have paid much attention to the date, but no one here has forgotten June 12, 1987, when President Ronald Reagan stood in front of the iconic Brandenburg Gate, at the time walled off in East Berlin, and delivered his now famous challenge to the Soviet  Union’s leader, Mikhail Gorbachev: “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

No one imagined in their wildest dreams what would happen only two years later. On Nov. 9, 1989, after three decades of division, protestors forced a collapsing East German regime to open the Wall. The Soviet Union collapsed at the same time, its Iron Curtain grip on Eastern Europe lost, too. Since then, unification has meant nonstop change and rebirth in a united Berlin.

I am here for the second time in two years as a participant in the German-American Journalists Program, sponsored by the Robert Bosch Stiftung and Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C. The six-year-old program unites German and American journalists who visit one another’s countries in alternate years and share several days of access to high level political, economic and cultural leaders. The program was started to preserve and strengthen ties between the two countries in the post-Cold War era.

Bosch might not be a household name in the United States, although it’s one of the world’s most recognized and respected industrial brands. Robert Bosch, whose life straddled the 19th and 20th centuries, was one of Germany’s greatest industrial entrepreneurs and philanthropists. His Stuttgart-based Stiftung, or Foundation, is funded by a share of profits generated by the Bosch Group, a global company with more than 300,000 employees and $50 billion in annual revenues. Americans looking for a comparative historical figure would probably name Henry Ford.

Our group is spending time in Frankfurt, Stuttgart and other German cities this week as we focus on Germany’s leadership role in addressing the European monetary crisis. Given The Rivard Report’s mission to report on and foster urban transformation in San Antonio, it’s impossible not to be captivated by Berlin and its seemingly boundless appetite for reinvention.

People of all ages and walks of life commute by bicycle in Berlin.
People of all ages and walks of life commute by bicycle in Berlin.

You don’t have to be an economist to understand that what happens on one side of the Atlantic immediately affects events on the other side. A growing concern expressed by German leaders we’ve been meeting with is the impact speculation and the markets play on efforts by the 27-member nations of the European Union to manage the debt crisis and preserve the strength and stability of its single market and currency.

Anyone with a 401-K retirement account or other investments in stocks and bonds knows the U.S. economic recovery has been hampered all year not only by political and economic certainty at home, but also concerns over Europe’s debt crisis.  Will Greece leave the EU and default on its debt?  Voters there go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new government, a vote widely seen a s a referendum on the euro and harsh budget cutting and austerity measures being imposed in Greece.

While the focus this week is on Greece, another bailout was just approved for Spanish banks, and Ireland and Portugal also have received EU bailouts. Some are worried the contagion will next strike Italy. German growth, productivity and prosperity has made it the leader in the recovery effort, and the German people and economy the primary source of funds to rescue the region’s less successful economies in southern Europe.

Like it or not, what is happening here ripples through San Antonio and every other U.S. city, just as our government’s own deficit spending and inability to find solutions across political party lines affects the well-being of the South Texas economy and individuals alike.

All such concerns seem far away on the streets of Berlin, a city infused with energy and technology-driven economic growth that has become a global magnet for young, educated professionals who find the city’s drive toward sustainability, its pace of change, and its focus on placemaking irresistible.

“The number of people riding bicycles in Berlin is growing at a rate of 10% every year,” one government official said this week.

The atrium of the Federation Of German Industries headquarters.
The atrium of the Federation Of German Industries headquarters.

No one in San Antonio would have predicted a decade ago that the city would become a national leader for its B-Cycle bike sharing program. While change in San Antonio may be happening on a much smaller scale than change here, there is no reason city leaders can’t look to Berlin for proof that anything is possible.

A bicycle and pedestrian-friendly environment, of course, is only one aspect of the much bigger picture in Berlin. A visitor here is struck by the role architects and builders are playing in redefining Europe’s seventh largest city. One third of the city’s landscape is trees, parks and canals, but the city also changes from one visit to the next as new buildings take shape.

Some are towers, but most are not. They are human in scale and their relationship to the street and public places. They also are wonderfully individualistic, inventive and set nicely amid historical structures that reflect Berlin’s centuries-old existence. It’s a lesson for San Antonio as its inner city redevelopment picks up momentum, and serious debate begins about what structures should be reimagined and which ones should make way for new landmarks.

Speaking of re-imagining the urban landscape, I will write later about San Antonio’s superficial commemoration of its own German roots. The great mid-19th century migration of Germans to the Texas Hill Country and San Antonio helped shape the city and region we  became, yet it is now mainly remembered only in beer and bratwurst Octoberfests, incidental presentations of that history, and the survival of a few small cultural organizations.

San Antonio, the most Latino city in the nation, has failed to sustain a viable Latino arts museum, and all but forgotten its German heritage. The coming rebirth of HemisFair Park and other downtown  spaces presents the opportunity to rediscover that important missing chapter in our city’s historic narrative.

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.