When Club Kids Owned 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?

I’m Indian Ocean Dreaming

Today, I sailed from the Red Sea to Hong Kong in 10 minutes. JeffHK on YouTube says, “Sailing on the open ocean is a unique feeling and experience. I hope to capture and share it for everyone to see.” With 80,000 photos and 15,000 GB of files, see why this 30-day time-lapse gives new meaning to the phrase, “from sea to shining sea” (video).

Jacobs and Goliath

The latest documentary from Vanity Fair special correspondent Matt Tyrnauer chronicles one of urban planning’s most contentious disputes, a battle between the sexes: Two great American figures who became opposing forces in the struggle for New York City.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City (video) follows mid-century urban renewal in the US, led by Robert Moses, a public official whose infrastructure projects earned him the name, “master builder.” Jane Jacobs, an irreverent and charismatic journalist and community activist, opposed him. Where Moses catered to cars, Jacobs catered to people.

Image: Pages from ‘Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City,’ Hyperallergic

Moses, misguided by modernist utopian notions of how cities should work, led a radical transformation of city grids that prioritized automobiles, blinded by ill-conceived plans of urban life in the sky. Poor neighborhoods were razed first. The disastrous wave of public housing that followed became the bane of urban renewal. Author James Baldwin called it “negro removal,” the mode of urban purification which sought to address “poverty on the street” by eliminating the street itself (tweet).

In contrast, Jacobs argued that well-used streets were safe because they held the constant gaze of those who gathered on stoops or looked down from windows. Interaction was an equalizer. “There must be eyes upon the street,” she writes. “Eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street.”

But the vibrant sidewalk culture Jacobs fought to preserve was precisely what Moses hoped to eliminate by keeping people from clustering in spaces the way they always had. His obsession with massive expressways and designs that separated commerce from everyday life discounted the social elements that made the city great. His plan for Washington Square Park would have extended Fifth Avenue southward, destroying one of the city’s most vibrant public spaces. Likewise, his Lower Manhattan Expressway would have eviscerated the city, ripping through SoHo and other quintessential New York neighborhoods, much like the Cross Bronx Expressway did to neighborhoods in the north. Jacobs eventually defeated Moses, going on to inspire similar victories in cities across the nation.

Image: Pages from ‘Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City,’ Hyperallergic

Stylistically, the doc reads like an elegant piece of long-form journalism—not surprising, given Tyrnauer’s background. The story is well-paced, broaching several important issues of the time, including the emergence of feminism and other counterculture movements, the crippling effects of racism and class warfare, and the influence of postwar Europe on America’s urban renewal. A diverse panel of experts contextualizes mid-century urban development, filtered through the adversaries’ eyes. Jane Antonia Cornish’s immersive score nicely brands the film, invoking a sort of homesickness for some unmarked future destination.

But where the film excels in aesthetics, it lacks in narrative scope. The “David and Goliath” battle between Jacobs and Moses marks a sea change in urban planning. Yet, in the end, the adversaries amount to little more than caricatures. By presenting them as opposites from beginning to end—and not as fallible, dynamic agents subject to forces beyond their control—the doc obscures a valuable lesson: Regardless of intention, absolute power corrupts.

Moses experienced a profound character shift, a pre-postwar transformation from idealism to demagoguery. He grew out of the progressive movement that worked to improve the city, beginning his career in opposition to the horrific conditions in which many people lived. But then came power. As one expert says, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and Robert Moses was absolutely powerful.” The fall of Moses, considered a hero at the start of his career, might instill empathy. Instead, we’re handed a prescriptive view of the villain he became, missing entirely the tragic decline of a man who, at his height, embodied the ideal of American innovation.

Tyrnauer’s snapshot of mid-century New York is a cautionary tale for planners who might follow Moses in remaking cities in their own image, offering a timely lesson on how people and cities work: having a plan for a city isn’t enough, especially when it fails the people who live there. The question now is, what kind of cities do we want our cities to be?

Published by EDGE as “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City” Sep 15, 2017

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.

Buenos Aires by Fernando Livschitz

Using creativity, culture, the arts and creative industries in city development is more an art than a science. Strong principles include going with the grain of local culture rather than against it, focusing on the distinctiveness of place, and involving citizens in an act of co-creation in making and shaping their evolving city. (Charles Landry)

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.

Cities and Social Networks

Tech can bring us together, but are social networks enough? Building on my 2015 thesis, this site looks at data and diversity, and asks how social tech can build smarter cities. Forgive the abstract. The paper’s friendlier.


Local Communities and Socialized Citizens: The Role of Social Networks in Sustainable Urban Development offers a conceptual framework for a distributed social networking application for CSOs, where engaged citizens address issues in their communities while contributing to a more comprehensive and timely global reporting structure. The goal is to show that a distributed model of communication can help to increase the impact of local organizations, while inspiring new ways to distribute resources, manage infrastructure and nurture local economies. Urban resilience is a top concern for the social sector, where data and cross-sector partnerships are key. In lieu of a comprehensive interoperable system for civic engagement, based on their broad appeal, mainstream social networks would seem ideal. But issues around transparency and ownership make centralized services problematic for civic participation. Research shows that, while emerging technologies can help drive sustainable urban growth, centralized communication is prone to failure. By presenting a community-based model of communication for organizations and individuals that includes cross-sector partnerships, this paper highlights the potential for an interoperable and widely adopted social networking solution for local communities, where economic development and social agency are both considered. The paper also considers the role of metanetworks in implementing this solution.

Keywords: apps, civil society, CSO, digital engagement, ICT, metanetworks, mobile tech, NGO, social media, social networks, technology, urban planning, urban resilience, urban sustainability

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