The conference Weltstadt – Who Creates the City? held at the Deutsches Architektur Zentrum (DAZ) in Berlin, focussed on a range of worldwide projects in which local people are enabled to participate in city planning. Nathalie Janson found much to inspire, but limited time to discuss many of the topics raised.
In 2013, the Goethe Institute and BMUB (wait for it... the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety) launched Weltstadt, an ambitious global project studying and supporting alternative and participatory forms of architecture and city planning. Curated by Matthias Böttger, Angelika Fitz and Tim Rieniets, the project focussed on sixteen cities around the world – including Seoul, São Paulo, Turin and Toulouse – where the Goethe Institute spent the last year working with local citizens, architects and planners to help realise projects empowering local people to change and literally create their cities. These initiatives were then blogged about online, written up in publications and discussed in local workshops, and are the subject of the current exhibition Weltstadt – Who Creates the City? at the Deutsches Architektur Zentrum in Berlin, which kicked off with a one-day conference.
At the packed conference, the day was structured through five discussion panels, entitled Civil Society, Informal/formal Construction, The New Middle Class, The City as a Collective Performance, and Self-organisation and Public Administration. Ten-minute presentations by panellists introduced the audience to a set of unique projects and contexts: the occupation of disused buildings in Riga, the participation of rural migrants in the municipal planning of Ulan Bator, and urban interventions that have helped ease tensions between rural migrants and urban dwellers in Dakar, to name a few. Uniting the sometimes starkly different situations are the economic, social, and political changes that are profoundly altering cities today. At a time when city-making in the West seems an increasingly impenetrable process driven by crony capitalism, it is encouraging to view concrete examples of urban planning and architecture as something that is not “done to you and your communities”, but as a process that you can be a part of.
The projects are described in detail in a text-heavy exhibition, which opened the day before the conference. For visitors with tired feet, the material exhibited, apart from a couple of videos, is available for free in print. Against this informative backdrop, the conference provided a platform in which the solutions and challenges of one project could be compared to those of another – “to come together to form a conceivable and feasible Weltstadt perspective”, as the conference booklet put it. The project presentations, however, were too short for attendees to fully grasp their contexts without spending time reading the exhibition texts, yet long enough to leave little time for real discussion. Important questions included in the conference programme: not only the replicability, scaleability, and common ground of these projects, but also what it means to be an empowered citizen – questions deserving of a discussion that could strengthen the work of planners and architects – were unfortunately not covered.
Some of the conference’s better moments arose when the conversation became less self-congratulatory and more critical, touching on pricklier issues like gentrification, accountability, and representation. The social and cultural value of many of these projects is easily co-opted by the very forces that they challenge, often resulting in rent hikes and the uprooting of communities. The creative “Brooklyn Renaissance” of artisanal food and makerbots that was celebrated in the first panel on civil society is an example: it has increased property values in the borough, rewarding investors and developers but displaced some of Brooklyn’s poorer, more marginalised residents. This example inadvertently highlighted the very real need for a broadly inclusive civil society to make sure that bottom-up development and community-driven projects provide a benefit for all.
In his presentation, V. Naresh Narasimhan of MOD Institute in Bangalore pointed out the cultural and economic factors in India that keep people from becoming active citizens. He argued that India’s new middle class is composed of two groups: on the upper end of the spectrum, a group of “emerging affluents” who cut themselves off from the city in order to disassociate themselves from the poor; and at the lower end, households that have no safety net and are at high risk of falling back into poverty. Participation in democracy is, after all, limited by the amount of time, money, and resources one has available. Renato Cymbalista’s presentation on a similar topic in Brazil was another highlight of the conference. In his University of São Paulo classroom, Cymbalista sees a growing number lower-middle-class students transforming Brazil’s elite institutions from the inside out, as better reflections of their experiences and concerns. It was a powerful example of systemic change.
A deep distrust of political institutions and politicians was omnipresent at the conference, and with good reason. Representatives from Riga and Belgrade described their struggles and frustration with corrupt politicians and the lack of transparency in city governance. Yet while Serbians and Latvians have legitimate complaints about poor governance, it is unconstructive for the whole field to take that stance. Architecture and urban planning are not about choosing between “top-down” and “bottom-up”; they are about leveraging the strengths of both to create buildings, neighbourhoods and cities that are viable socially, economically and ecologically, and, at best, that contribute to the visionary strategies necessary to tackle complex issues like global warming, migration and inequality — all cited as impetuses for the project. What Weltstadt shows, more than anything, is that communities can contribute to this struggle with just a little institutional support.
– Nathalie Janson, currently based in Berlin, edits and writes texts about architecture and urbanism.