When Club Kids Owned Berlin

abandoned-berlin
Image: Abandoned Berlin

The early techno scene in post-unification Berlin was something out of Mad Max. East Berlin had wasted for years, and by the time Reagan said, “tear down this wall,” a pack of club kids had inherited the empty war-torn city.

“That’s one big historical accident. Nobody could have anticipated anything like that,” says Tobias Rapp, pop culture editor at Der Spiegel. “The wall falls down and a small scene in West Berlin takes over huge empty spaces in East Berlin, so they celebrate the freedom.” It was the perfect experiment, reuniting kids from both sides. Rapp remembers squatting with friends, “running through this empty city looking for a party” (video).

The space was reclaimed eventually, but not before techno took root. Rapp and other pioneers have since legitimized the industry, which now accounts for a serious chunk of Berlin tourism.

fisher body plant 21
Image: The Fisher Body Plant 21 in Detroit, Thump

Look at Detroit today, where techno began, and you’ll see 80s East Berlin staring back at you. In 2013, the city became the largest in U.S. history to file for bankruptcy. It’s seen growth since, but some parts are so empty the city has a hard time providing services. Worst case scenario? Slipping into perpetual decay. In other words, becoming a giant slum that also happens to be the 21st most populous city in the country.

Dimitri Hegemann, founder of Berlin’s legendary club, Tresor, sees potential. “There’s a really good moment in Detroit now because there’s a new generation looking for an alternative way to start something,” he tells Thump in this 2014 interview. “The vibe is good. We could open some doors. We share similar energies, Detroit and Berlin.”

The tale of these two cities underscores the fragility, and promise, of urban settlements everywhere. Santa Fe Institute’s Luis Bettencourt asks if the challenge of slums, “the face of contemporary urbanization,” is more than just a phase. He believes a city should always enable socioeconomic creative potential. Techno’s migration to Germany ignited scenes in New York, London and Paris. Considering how club kids and squatters helped to shape Berlin, anything is possible for the city that inspired them.

Now, Detroit’s a case study on revitalization, innovative governance and co-design. Like Berlin, Detroit needs a new scene. What can the city learn from the pioneers of techno? I don’t know, why don’t we ask them?

People Are Cities, Cities Are the Future

Published by UNDP Oct 23, 2013

Making cities more sustainable is central to global development, and it’s easy to see why. The report of the Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on the post-2015 development agenda describes cities as “engines for business and innovation,” adding that “with good management they can provide jobs, hope and growth, while building sustainability.”

Following current trends, by 2025, 65 percent of the world’s economic growth could be generated by just 600 cities. Urbanists like Alan Ehrenhalt have studied the impact of development on cities, portraying them as dynamic and diverse systems that help shape the trajectory of economic and social evolution.

People are coming together, and fast. The current influx of people to urban areas, projected to have two thirds of the earth’s population living in cities by 2050, underscores the need for improved infrastructure and social relations. The global urban slum population will increase by 6 million each year unless improvements are made. The rapid growth of cities demands an integrated approach to sustainable development that considers equality, human rights and resilience. Success hinges on partnerships between Member States, multilateral organizations and civil society—in essence putting people at the forefront of global change.

While the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stresses the ideal of social justice, UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)1 require practical plans of action that consider urban spaces collectively, as well as individual systems that evolve according to local culture and custom. Maruxa Cardama, executive project coordinator of Communitas, a coalition working to holistically advance urban and rural development, is keen on seeing an urban Sustainable Development Goal (SDG): “How can we visualize an edifice of sustainable development goals where urbanization is [included]?”

Cardama refers to the set of action-oriented goals meant to build on the MDGs and converge with the post-2015 global agenda. Urban SDGs would focus on challenges unique to cities and empower actors around problem solving, including rural-urban innovations that would interlink food, water and energy sectors in a “nexus.”

People are cities and cities are the future. Community is the driving force behind urbanization. Knowing who needs what and how we can work together is essential to finding a sustainable path forward.


The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) came into effect in January 2016, and will guide UNDP policy and funding until 2030. The SDGs consider economic, social and environmental dimensions of development, as well as good governance and multi-stakeholder partnerships.

TED thread on Sustainable Cities

Before George McCarthy left the Ford Foundation to run the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, he led a TED Conversation on sustainable cities. Buried, it’s easy to miss.

He looks at how rapid urbanization can spur social change, inviting readers to reflect on the meaning of inclusive cities, “so that together we can bring attention to transformative urban innovations.”

The practice of scaling up is debated, in particular how small-scale solutions can work (or not) for big problems. Good ideas, though I wonder how an immersive format could have helped the exchange.

A History of Future Cities

David Brook’s A History of Future Cities looks at four Eurasian cities modeled after the West. I’m interested in what Brook says about regional influence in this interview promoting the book.

He recalls seeing two commercial spaces stacked on a corner—a restaurant above a vegetable market—in Flushing, the “Chinatown of Queens.” The orientation means the establishment can feed more people than either space on its own. This case of contemporary urbanism brought from China, he says, is the reverse of what happened 150 years ago, when Americans brought their architecture to Shanghai. (Shanghai Tower, China’s stab at sustainable vertical urbanism, takes “urban stacking” to a new level.)

I’m fascinated by innovation’s ability to rewrite itself across place and time—how the interplay of globalization, connectivity and multiculturalism recycles some ideas and discards others. On the histories of Dubai, Mumbai, Shanghai, and St. Petersburg, Brook says, “While these cities all initially hoped to impersonate the West and thereby catch up to it, they were also free of some of the historical constraints of the Western places they copied, which gave them the capacity to leapfrog into the future.”

What can we learn from vastly different places and times? Brook says, “We can build a global future that is neither neocolonial nor placeless… adopting site-specific best practices that may have initially arisen on the other side of the world rather than forms imposed from above.” Sky’s the limit.