26. July | 2021

"It's about Power Conflicts, not Urban-Rural Conflicts"

An Interview with Eva Eichenauer and Manfred Kühn

The post-fossil transformation requires massive investments in infrastructure and new production capacities. Such investment projects often meet with resistance. The conflicts that arise in this way must be dealt with within the framework of planning procedures. At the IRS, sociologist Eva Eichenauer and urban planner Manfred Kühn research – with different focuses - planning conflicts around transformative projects. In an interview with IRS aktuell, they discuss how conflicts can be dealt with productively and what spatial dimensions planning conflicts have.

You two are researching planning conflicts. What are you interested in? And why?

Eva Eichenauer:I investigate conflicts in the context of the energy transition, i.e. primarily in the expansion of infrastructures for renewable energies, such as wind turbines and area photovoltaics. We investigate conflicts that are fought out at the level of regional planning, up to and including conflicts in approval and participation procedures. Such conflicts can hinder the expansion of renewable energies. They lead to delays, increased costs and even the abandonment of projects. But if climate protection is taken seriously, renewables must be expanded. It is therefore important to take a close look at conflicts, to understand why they arise, what exactly is happening and how to find a democratic way of dealing with them. On the one hand, without belittling or wiping away resistance, but on the other hand, without letting certain minorities dictate things.

Manfred Kühn: My background is more in urban research, and so far, we have looked at conflicts in urban planning and urban policy, and in recent years mainly on the topics of immigration, dealing with refugees, and the right-wing populist mobilisation against immigration. More recently, we are now focusing on conflicts around large construction projects. Such conflicts have a certain tradition, if you think of “Stuttgart 21”, the Elbphilharmonie or the Berlin Brandenburg airport (BER), for example. We pick out the new Tesla Gigafactory in Grünheide as a case for investigation. It exemplifies a basic dilemma that exists in all large construction projects: At a higher level, preliminary decisions are made that are typically justified by public welfare goals and also by constraints. At the local level, where a project is implemented, there is then little room for democratic participation and hardly any real alternatives. And this can generate great frustration. So-called angry citizens, the escalation of protests to the point of violent confrontations - this is especially the case in the vicinity of large construction projects. In the recent federal election campaign, all parties wrote into their programmes that planning procedures for the energy transition should be accelerated. The question is whether this can be done without dismantling democratic rights and opportunities for participation.

Eva Eichenauer: In fact, the energy transition shows that more participation can also accelerate projects. Energy transition projects are developed on a very small scale and distributed over many locations - unlike a singular large-scale project like Tesla. Thatis why there are always locally specific conflict constellations that are hardly predictable for the project sponsors. They are therefore often afraid of waking "sleeping dogs" and avoid early involvement. But if you actually look into a community early on, if you look for contact persons and possibilities for cooperation, if you create opportunities for participation and respond to local wishes and needs, then this helps. Trenches that seem unbridgeable can disappear in this way. This shows that there can be no question of restricting co-determination and civil society control. That is not at all desirable in a democratic society.

Manfred Kühn: This is also being discussed in urban planning. The new tenor here, however, is that more participation does not automatically lead to the resolution of conflicts. For a long time, it was assumed that participation procedures had to be expanded in order to prevent conflicts. But we should reflect critically on whether we are talking about more participation or new forms of participation. Simply increasing participation can also exacerbate conflicts.

Eva Eichenauer: Yes, it depends on the quality. A lot of what is called participation does not mean that you can actually achieve something. You get information, you can ask a question, you get an answer and that is it. Participation without real decision-making space raises false expectations. Another problem that arises in conflicts about energy transition projects is that people talk about participation, but the political direction is not at all clear. In fact, those with political responsibility at federal and state level should say: "This is the aim, this is the way to get there, and in participation we can talk about how to go about it. But not whether we might take a completely different way." In terms of energy policy, there is a lurch at the federal and state level. It is similar, I suspect, with conflicts over refugee housing. The municipalities then have to deal, without backing, with conflicts that do not really belong at that level. There is a lack of clarity about which path is binding and where the local scope for action is.

Manfred Kühn: Whereby this is now a contradictory statement. On the one hand, there should be real opportunities for decision-making. That is right, because if participation is suspected of being just an alibi, it causes anger and destroys trust. On the other hand, there are overriding goals and there should be a clear course. This is a clash of two rationalities that are difficult to reconcile.

Eva Eichenauer: I do not think that is a contradiction. It is about the levels at which something is discussed. One is political directional decisions that are made at the federal or state level and are not discussed in every local council. The other is how local councils deal with it: how they interpret policy decisions according to their needs and interests, and how they implement planning. This is by design in the multi-level system. If the policy direction is inherently contradictory, that encourages conflict. One argument I often hear in conversations with wind power critics is, "We should accept more wind turbines being put in front of us for climate protection, but the coal phase-out isn't getting off the ground. We don't want that."

Manfred Kühn: Yes, the multi-level issue is an important point. Tesla is a prestige project of supra-regional importance. The state of Brandenburg is the main political supporter of the project. It is also at this level that the goal of an economic and technological transformation towards electromobility is being pursued, which ultimately legitimises the billions in funding. Added to this is Tesla as a global player, which built the last factory in Shanghai and is now floating into Grünheide. The role of the region, the municipality and the citizens is very limited in comparison.

Is there evidence that planning conflicts are on the increase?

Eva Eichenauer: When it comes to renewable energies, the main thing is that resistance has become much more professional over the last ten years. Whereas in the beginning there were individual initiatives, there are now nationwide initiatives. Brandenburg is at the forefront with the initiative "Rettet Brandenburg", which has a bundling function: it provides networks, also expert networks and argumentation aids. In Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, there is even a separate party against wind turbines. There is network expertise and people who can speak eloquently. With the help of such channels, you can get involved and work against new turbines, even in neighbouring communities where you are not affected yourself.

Manfred Kühn: Yes, the professionalisation of protest can also be seen in citizens' petitions and referendums, for example in Berlin. Smaller movements are united in this way and more radical goals also find their way into political decision-making processes. As for the number of conflicts, this has been studied for urban development, for example. And for large cities it can be clearly shown that there has been an increase in protests and citizens' initiatives in recent years. The crisis in the housing market alone has led to an increase in protests because conflicts of interest are arising everywhere between the pressure for growth and development on the one hand and the preservation of open spaces and quality of life on the other.

What are these conflicts actually about – money, political goals, fears, identity, quality of life?

Manfred Kühn: On the surface, I think there are classic conflicts of interest here - in the case of Tesla, for example, between the economy and the environment, between jobs and investments on the one hand and water problems and traffic pollution on the other. But behind this there are usually also procedural and ultimately power issues that cause conflicts to escalate: the feeling of not being taken seriously, of being ignored, of only being involved for the sake of appearances. The escalation around Stuttgart 21 cannot only be explained by the fact that the main station is being rebuilt there. A deeper loss of trust in the political elite has been articulated. This is the background to many more serious conflicts.

Eva Eichenauer: I see it similarly. However, the setting is again special when it comes to wind energy. Anyone who comes from the village knows this: interpersonal conflicts often play a role, and the dispute about a project can also become a proxy conflict for something that was already in trouble; for example, if someone felt ignored during the land consolidation. But then it is also about identity. People feel connected to their homeland and are not necessarily enthusiastic when it is "transformed". In many cases it is also a question of distribution, but always in connection with questions of procedure: "The developers put the things there and we are not only not asked, we also get nothing", it is often said. Word spreads quickly about how much money can be made from wind turbines, and it really is a lot of money. The question of who bears the burden and who gets the benefit is very prominent in this field. However, there are increasing attempts in legislation to address this issue and also to distribute the benefits more widely, for example through the Citizen and Community Participation Act in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.

Manfred Kühn: These distribution conflicts have a strong spatial component. You could also call them location conflicts, because many questions of the distribution of burdens and benefits depend on the choice of location. And it is actually the task of planning to ensure that all too massive conflicts of use are avoided by means of suitability areas, priority areas, distance rules and the like.
Does the "urban versus rural" formula help to understand the spatial distribution of costs and benefits?

Eva Eichenauer: With regard to the energy transition, the urban-rural question often comes up. When the minimum distance of one kilometer for new wind turbines was set nationwide at the end of 2019, Angela Merkel spoke in this direction in an FAZ interview: Because the countryside produced the renewable energy that was consumed in the city, she said, something good had to be done for the countryside now to prevent urban-rural conflicts. This is what the distance regulation is for. In our research project "ReGerecht" we also initially started from the premise that wind power is about an urban-rural conflict. However, this was not confirmed in our interviews, on the contrary. I also spoke with mayors who are very critical of wind power, and they all found this argument to be absolutely nonsensical. From the point of view of the communities involved, this is not an urban-rural conflict. The fact that wind turbines cannot be built in the big city is completely undisputed. 

Manfred Kühn: We observe conflicts about construction projects both in the city and in the countryside. I doubt that it is helpful to play city and countryside off against each other. Everywhere there is more citizen involvement and more critical approaches to new projects, so it will be harder to push them through if you do not find new ways to get people involved. That is why I would not talk so sweepingly about urban and rural. You really have to look at the political fields. When it comes to the controversial issue of migration, we have an accumulation of right-wing extremism in structurally weak areas where people feel left out, and these are often rural areas, but also small and medium-sized towns. There is already an accumulation of conflicts here, because newcomers are sometimes seen as social competitors. Voting behaviour in rural Brandenburg is also different from that in Berlin and Potsdam. But as a general contrast, the urban-rural difference is greatly exaggerated. The much more important spatial dimension for planning conflicts is that of levels: At a higher level, goals are formulated and preliminary decisions are made, and locally, at the selected location, people have to live with the consequences and have little possibility to influence them.

The word "NIMBY", short for "Not In My Back Yard", often comes up in the discussion. It describes an attitude in which people support new construction projects in principle, but not if they take place on their own doorstep. Is the resistance you are seeing about this kind of obstructionism?

Manfred Kühn: One should be very careful with the word "Nimby". It can easily be used to denigrate protesters and initiatives. The assumption here is that protest is only motivated by particular interests that are directed against the common good. But it is perfectly legitimate for those affected by a project to protest. Who else would do so? The crucial point is that this protest out of concern alone is usually not enough to overturn a project. But the protesters will only succeed if they mobilise others. They have to come up with more far-reaching arguments. In the case of Tesla, for example, this is the issue of groundwater and drinking water protection, which goes far beyond mere resistance. It is also a public welfare issue and an important aspect of the argument. But the Nimby argument can be used to discredit such legitimate objections.

Eva Eichenauer: I also think that the Nimby argument is often used to delegitimise protest. Simple statements are made such as "Just because you don't want your view to be blocked, the energy transition won't work". In the final analysis, this leads to the short-circuit "You are to blame for climate change". This is completely misguided. It is legitimate to form an opinion and to take a counter-position to developments in the local area that do not suit you. And there are really weighty reasons for doing so. It is all right for those affected not to want to accept a burden that they feel is disproportionate, especially if the impression is that overriding public interest objectives are not taken equally seriously everywhere. And it is right that someone should check whether, for example, all the bird protection directives are really being complied with. The Nimby argument can be used to deprive protests of their legitimacy. It is certainly a strategy to say: "They just don't want to, they are irrational and therefore we don't have to deal with their arguments."

Is there something productive about conflict?

Eva Eichenauer: In principle, it is good that more people are getting involved again. The conflicts show that people are getting involved, that they are thinking about what is happening around them. And this testing of effectiveness is first of all very desirable. However, one must first learn political participation and democratic conflict resolution: how do I deal with such a conflict, how do I deal with negotiation processes, how do I deal with the fact that I sometimes get the short end of the stick? The experience, the politicisation through conflicts is first of all desirable. But it is important to create structures that make people so "democracy-proof" that they do not drift in an anti-democratic direction.

Manfred Kühn: I deal a lot with new "agonistic", i.e. conflict-oriented planning and political theories. This approach says that conflicts are necessary to keep democracy alive. The opposite of democracy is autocracy, as in China, where development programmes and projects are imposed from above and citizens have little say. In this respect, democracy is the main argument for taking protests and resistance seriously. Not so long ago, the diagnoses of "post-politics" and "post-democracy" were widespread. They said that democracy still existed formally, but that in principle citizens no longer had anything to say. Here the wind has changed, and the liveliness of debate and the importance of elections have increased again. However, the new ways of thinking in planning research also express criticism of older, "communicative" approaches, which for more than 20 years basically said: There just needs to be enough communication and participation so that all planning problems can be solved by consensus and cooperatively. That has turned out to be wrong. There are antagonisms that have to be fought out in conflict, and at best they can be tamed somewhat. I see that as a positive thing. But the question is always where the limits of democratic debate lie, and where violence begins.

How can conflicts be dealt with in planning? How do you deal with them properly?

Eva Eichenauer: That is the crucial question to which everyone would like an answer. One point I have already mentioned is that it helps if the overarching goals are clear and thus the framework is in place within which planning conflicts, which are implementation conflicts, can be negotiated. As soon as fundamental political questions enter into planning procedures, you can no longer make any concrete progress on the ground. You also need people who can channel this accordingly and make it clear, for example, that the negotiations are not about whether the borders should be closed again, or about whether climate change exists, but rather specifically about where wind power development areas or accommodation should be located, and how local interests should be incorporated into this. I have been to a lot of participation events, and even if it sounds platitudinous: you need someone to bang on the table and say "people, it doesn't work like that". You can have different opinions, but you still have to be respectful to each other, with decency, in good, benevolent cooperation. As important as it is to encourage participation, it is also important to ensure that the debate does not descend into defamation and violence. Accordingly, boundaries must be clear and enforced. It cannot be that regional meetings have to take place under police protection. Actually, these are basic upbringing principles, but they are essential.

Manfred Kühn: It is important to disclose the rules according to which decisions are made and, of course, what can be decided at all, what leeway and alternatives there are. Or else, the case has already been decided in advance, in which case that must also be communicated. Such questions must be clarified before the start of the procedure so as not to raise false expectations and produce disappointment. But there is no one right answer to the question. There is no silver bullet.


Research Associate