URBAN ENVIRONMENTS: INTERNATIONAL PERSPECTIVES

Workshop Report (10–12 October 2019 at whiteBOX in Werksviertel-Mitte, Munich)

By Anna Antonova

This workshop was convened by Christof Mauch and Gesa Lüdecke at the Rachel Carson Center as part of the new collaboration between Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU Munich), New York University (NYU), New York University Abu Dhabi, and Cambridge University, which focuses on understanding urban environments over time and aims to explore urban issues and challenges via a comparative, transnational, and global framework. This Munich workshop brought together scholars from LMU Munich’s partner universities, and also from Munich’s Technical University. It also served as a launch of the Rachel Carson Center’s new Urban Environments Initiative.

Exploring Urban Issues

The conveners began by emphasizing that they had chosen the Werksviertel Mitte space, close to Munich’s Ostbahnhof, because it is one of the areas where the environmental and industrial history were still visible, even while the new “Kreativquartier” (a space for arts, housing, and service industries, all with a sustainability agenda) was being planned and constructed.

In the first presentation for the day, Simone Müller outlined her thinking on what she has come to call toxic commons—the commonality yet inequality of toxic experiences. Working with flows and scales, she explained how she anchored her research into the global waste economy in the urban context of Philadelphia’s Cain Sea dumping site. She also raised the juxtaposition between above and below in a city, and the role of pavements as both a seal and a porous substance. Her presentation was followed by that of Matthew Gandy, who told us of his interest in the process of writing itself and its role in shaping how people think about urban natures. He introduced his ERC project “Rethinking Urban Nature”, which brings together urban nature juxtapositions and themes from London, Berlin, Tallinn, and Chennai, and raised the question of the zoopolis, or how to bring the nonhuman into urban studies.

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Workshop participants in animated conversation

Anna Mazanik continued the themes of urban scales, the permeability of pavements, and nonhumans in the city by describing her project on public health as an environmental issue in nineteenth-century Russia. Through case studies on slaughterhouse reform, Moscow’s innovative two-pipe sewage system, and school environments for children, she discussed how public health has and could continue to shape urban and suburban environments. These themes were picked up by Regine Keller, as she described her work on informal settlements and the public spaces forming inside them in Haiti, Mexico City, and the slums of Madrid. Regine then described her “100 public spaces” project in Munich, which examines how public spaces are perceived and used by humans and nonhumans in times of climate change. Cecil Scheib reflected on his work as Chief Sustainability Officer for NYU and the everyday impact of sustainability on people’s lives and health inside an urban university. Cecil discussed aspects including fresh air circulation and office air quality monitoring, and responsible food sourcing for university dining halls, pointing out that universities can and should have an important voice in informing urban sustainability legislation.

Next, Anindya “Rana” Sinha shifted the conversation further toward human-nonhuman relations with his presentation on macaque migration and behaviour in an urban context. Rana pointed to the myriad ways that macaques’ presence in the cities—the unique urban cultures they develop and their varying interactions with both each other and humans—contests the conceptual distinction between humans and nonhumans. Sasha Gora followed Rana’s discussion of human-nonhuman relations and animal migrations by describing her own research on indigenous restaurants in Canada’s urban spaces as meeting places, and reflecting on an art exhibition in Munich that explored pigeons as a metaphor for undesirable people in the city, especially in the context of immigration. Joseph Adedeji  built on the critique of colonialist political interventions in human-nonhuman relations by discussing the precolonial urban patterns of Nigerian cities. Joseph described the spiritual aspects of planning settlements around groves that defined Yoruba cultural identity and how those practices had been decontextualized by the imposition of Western urban planning.

The lunch break included a field trip around Werksviertel Mitte led by its sustainability manager, Nikolas Fricke, peaking in a visit to Werksviertel Mitte’s windswept roof pasture and its sheep. We learned how this pasture had kickstarted the sustainable management of the Werksviertel Mitte as a whole, largely thanks to Niko’s shepherding (not only of sheep).

The afternoon was opened by Maan Barua, who introduced his “Urban Ecologies” project. The project, which explores the feral, wild, and cultivated urban animals in London, New Delhi, and Guwahati, raises questions about the links between materiality, metabolism, and biopolitics in each of the three cities. Maan’s introduction flowed into the showing of Shaunak Sen’s (Jawahar Lal Nehru University, New Delhi) film-in-progress, which follows two brothers in New Delhi who feed and heal urban black kites. As images of black kites in the city played in the background, Shaunak spoke about Islamic traditions of “kite meat alms,” about Hindu perceptions of “vegetarian” and “non-vegetarian” birds that lead to discrimination against birds of prey, and about thinking the city through an avian scale and perspective.

With Rob Gioielli, our conversation moved onto questions of urban social and environmental (in)justice. Rob presented his research on O’Fallon, Missouri, and on exclusionary and racially skewed practices of urban planning that have led to the evolution of carbon-intensive landscapes in the US. Elena Torres Ruiz picked up on these themes with her talk on urban agriculture in Detroit and its different meanings for different sectors of society. Elena spoke about the juxtaposition of municipal practices, which propose artificial urban shrinking through purposeful reduction of services, with private interests, which finance revitalization and landscaping of fenced-off areas. In these contrasting contexts, urban agriculture can mean either a coping strategy for impoverished communities or a kind of greenwashing for the middle classes. Talitta Reiz offered us similar commentary on the different meanings of urban cycling in Portland and Munich. Talitta remarked how cycling can provide mobility and access, but also represent visions for urban planning, environmentalist pride, and status-marking. Eveline Dürr and Raúl Acosta continued this discussion by sharing thoughts from their project on Mexico City ethical conjunctures, globalized environmental discourses, and the pursuit of a “good life” as part of the urban experience. Cycling, once a suicidal practice, was now a means of showing status, as well as a bedrock of urban planning and activism, including for the indigenous community.

The final topic of the day was introduced by Dorothee Rummel, and was on inclusive living-together, leftover urban spaces, and urban mental health. Dorothee reflected on how the city might be utilized as a mechanism of inclusion, with the inclusion of marginal groups, through alternative methods and places for densifying cities. She also discussed how designing cities could make urban dwellers mentally well or ill. Conversely, she spoke about the way planners’ states of mind can affect their decision-making and risk-taking, in turn shaping urban planning. These turned out to be precisely the themes to prepare us for the keynote by Elisabeth Merk (Landeshauptstadt München) on “Transformation Continuity in Munich: City Growth, Transforming the City, and Continuous Policy for Innovation.” Elisabeth noted how the city’s rapid growth and the high proportion of single-person households (more than half of the total number) contribute to stress and loneliness in the city. She spoke about city policies for sustainability, mobility, and urban quality of life as ways of combating these problems. Giving examples of various projects around the city, Elisabeth highlighted the practical ways in which the urban fabric could incorporate cultural and aesthetic considerations as well as sustainable practices.

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Keynote talk by Elisabeth Merk, Landeshauptstadt München

Workshop on Wheels (and on Foot)

The day began early with a bicycle tour of Munich. Oliver Engelmayer, the head of the landscape architecture firm that managed the renaturalization of the Isar River in Munich, led the journey along the Isar, through the Englischer Garten and the university quarter. Engelmayer discussed ecological and design challenges, and he gave a brief introduction into the production of water power (some of the world’s oldest water power stations are located along the Isar). The bicycle tour ended at the Olympiapark, where Regine Keller led a walking tour. From the Olympiapark, we journeyed to the “Kartoffelkombinat,” where CEO Daniel Überall told us all about the largest agricultural community cooperative in Europe. And finally the bus took us back to Munich’s centre, where Tom Mills gave us a tour of the city’s beer culture and history.

The Bayern München soccer team bus provided transportation for the latter part of the day.

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Launching the Urban Environments Initiative

On the last full day we heard first from Sonja Dümpelmann, who spoke briefly about her project on urban trees lining the streets in Berlin and NYC, and on her new project on urban sports landscapes and the human body as a means of interacting with urban space. Next, Marie Aschenbrenner introduced her project on marine spatial planning in the urban context of Auckland’s “blue backyard,” describing her approach to identifying the ethics and practices of justice in urban environmental planning. The theme of marine urban contexts continued with John Burt  and his research on the degradation and loss of coastlines. John discussed the current and future role of unplanned artificial reefs, their materiality, and the way they are “ecologically engineered” in coastal and riparian settings. Anne Rademacher introduced three projects centred around her interest in the renaturalization of rivers: the function and agency of structure in social science analysis; human interest in riparian zones; and how to make urban nature as a concept actively meaningful for the twenty-first century. Mary Killilea spoke about the intersections between her ecological work on the spatial dynamics of tick-borne diseases and her interest in “good cities” and urban well-being, sharing her particular interest in what cities can learn from each other. Karen Holmberg outlined her research into coastal risk, particularly her work combining volcanology, archaeology, and physics-based predictive monitoring to study Naples as a model for cities built on volcanos.

In another mobile interlude, workshop participants continued their exploration of Munich with Dorothee Rummel, who took us through the Schrebergärten allotments in Berg am Laim and then on an environmental and architectural tour through a series of the city’s neglected spaces before returning to the Werkviertel.

Kate Wright  described her collaborative project with Aboriginal Elders on an Armidale community garden, explaining how gardens can give communities a sense of freedom and the tools to survive a violent system. Avi Sharma spoke on urban justice through his project on seasonality as a form of nature control in an urban setting through standardization of time, temperature, and living conditions. Focusing on South Asia, Avi explained how his project debates urban vulnerability in the age of climate change and in the face of more and more radical seasons. Friederike Well  introduced her interdisciplinary work on blue-green architecture, or the linking of urban water resources and green elements in a synergetic system. Plants in urban settings, as she showed in the case of Potsdamer Platz, can help mitigate the effects of climate change.

Next, Benedikt Boucsein  discussed post-war architecture and the negotiation of large urban infrastructures for the everyday—including and especially airports. He spoke about the noise landscapes of eight hub airports across Europe. Benedikt’s presentation was followed by that of Gene Cittadino, who introduced links between William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis and concepts of human ecology and went on to speak about the natural and human successions of urban ecologies in Chicago and elsewhere. Finally, Felix Mauch  brought us back in time for a discussion of Singapore’s coastline and its engineered geography. Felix raised questions of the usable past, particularly as it relates to the logistical and strategical long-term use of infrastructure.

The final evening of the workshop included a preview of the Ecopolis exhibition in the Werksviertel Mitte. Our closing discussions over the weekend brought together several unitary concepts from the workshop. On a conceptual level, we discussed aspects of urban worldmaking—a phenomenological approach that allows scholars to see the city as natural and societal laboratories with designed and non-designed elements. Methodologically, we discussed how slow ways of seeing through walking the city could help us to navigate our perceptions of what a city is and how it may be experienced. On a practical note, we discussed intended and unintended consequences of our workshop (including, in the latter category, hayfever!). It was an invigorating and promising start of urban collaborations, and a great way to launch the RCC’s new Urban Environments Initiative.

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