Intro: A Discussion Between the Initiators
Sarah Asseel, Lene Benz, Katharina Böttger, Lukas Grellmann,
Aya Nassar, Nihal Ragab, Mathias Schnell, Philipp Wetzel
Rapid and far-reaching urban transformations characterise the present. For us, students of the Urban Design Master Programme at HafenCity University in Hamburg, such changes and developments are central to our approach to and understanding of cities and urban processes. Yet although a lot of the work and projects we undertake remains within the university, even within the faculty, it nevertheless addresses issues of importance and relevance to people beyond our own discipline, beyond the university and beyond Hamburg. The two workshops and their documentation therefore present an attempt to share our approach and work with a wider audience.
A workshop that addresses urban transformations necessitates interdisciplinary thinking, both of theory and of practice. When we began to organise the workshop, we felt a particular need to work across the disciplines, bridging multiple voices and perspectives. As students of Urban Design, we shared an enthusiasm for cross-disciplinary research and issues around urban form(ation)s as well as perspectives beyond technical questions and wanted to create an opportunity to discuss the spatial politics of (studying) cities. When we developed the idea to bring two geographically, culturally and educationally diverse groups of student researchers together, the aim to contribute to mutual learning was simultaneously a central objective and condition for the workshop to work. We therefore attempted to project our understanding of the urban co-production onto an understanding of urban research and exchange: in order to understand urban processes in two very distinct and different places – Hamburg Wilhelmsburg and Cairo Al Darb Al Ahmar – we needed to understand each other and engage with the ways the participants perceived, saw, heard, represented and understood urbanity and urban production.
In our interest to enable cooperation we conceptualised the two workshops together with our partners in Cairo. If we were to avoid putting on simply another research activity organized in Germany to be applied in Egypt, we had to bypass generic forms of development policy and practice. The DAAD’s funding programme for short-term support of exchange activities between German and Egyptian universities provided the necessary means to pursue our intentions. We developed the idea, framed the theme and our focus and involved members of staff. Both the Faculty of Political Sciences of Helman University in Cairo and the Urban Design Programme of HafenCity University in Hamburg supported our project and in January 2012, the organizing team in Hamburg was able to submit a successful application. By the time we started receiving responses to our call for papers, the two student-led organising teams were practically working as one. For many of us, this was a first experience in an organizational role – especially of such an intense activity. We hence organized the workshop on the basis of our understanding that organizers and participants should learn from each other and from the experiences and spaces we shared while we created them.
The dynamics of the teamwork
The dynamic of the teamwork was influenced by and dependent on the different professional backgrounds and interests of the participants. While this was valuable for the discussion in the initial stages and helped develop research questions, these differences also meant it was sometimes difficult to communicate within the group and to arrive at decisions shared by all. For the actual research and data collection, we split into smaller groups that addressed the research questions from different angles. In hindsight, we could possibly have yielded better results had we worked in one group with more direct exchange between the participants. Meeting in the larger group to discuss the findings meant that we had to explain how we approached the questions from the various different angles. Small groups are more mobile and flexible, especially with tight time schedules. Smaller groups developed the necessary dynamics that enabled professional backgrounds to retreat while discussions helped develop a common language among the groups.
Of course, organisational issues add another dimension to the dynamics of any projects. It was important to get to know the people involved as well as setting out their individual responsibilities so that the right contacts could be reached at the right time. While a schedule provided an overall structure, it had to be simultaneously flexible so as to enable adding to or dropping items from the agenda. While an ideal strategy for organising a workshop may not exist, working as a core group of organisers as well as having existing and making new contacts was key to the successful management of the planning and delivery of the workshop.
The workshop in the making
The idea for the workshops emerged in December 2011. We were interested in conducting two interdisciplinary intercultural workshops in two different cities: Hamburg, Germany and Cairo, Egypt. We therefore wanted to motivate students of the social sciences and urban planning disciplines to work together on two very different case studies chosen for several reasons: Veddel and Al-Darb Al-Ahmmar. The aim and subject of the workshops was to study ‘neighbourhood’, as a concept, a set of practices and specific places. This involved engaging with different ways students of the social sciences and urban planning study the city, let alone neighbourhoods. If we were to aim for an holistic grasp of the two neighbourhoods, it was important to identify and discuss these various concepts and definitions of ‘neighbourhood’.
Rather than producing a finite definition of ‘neighbourhood’ or even specific solutions to various problems in the two neighbourhoods, the workshops’ purpose was primarily the exchange itself: pedagogical exchange through presenting and discussing different methods and strategies for research, intercultural exchange through working with students from both countries and different backgrounds, and interdisciplinary exchange through an appreciation of various disciplinary perspectives.
Finding the theme
Our interest to study neighbourhoods was a suitable theme to bring together, over a relatively short time, a very mixed group of young researchers. The subject triggered similar ideas as to how the two fieldwork sites could be approached; research interests emerged; and sessions were organized accordingly. We also found that although neighbourhoods differ decisively between locales and cultures, there is ultimately a shared notion of the neighbourhood – at least we thought so. We wanted to find a topic participants could relate relatively quickly to, so that exchange in a common language was made possible. This was particularly important during the first workshop in Hamburg as we tested and practiced research methods that were new to many in an environment that was equally new to many. Moreover, we worked with and on methods that we would take to Cairo to test and practice them there under reverse circumstances.
Partly inspired and fully hosted by the UdN (University of the Neighbourhoods), an Urban Design project in Hamburg, the workshop participants studied the neighbourhood from within the neighbourhood.
Of course, ‘neighbourhood’ is a very open topic. Various disciplines and discourses refer to the neighbourhood, if in different and sometimes conflicting ways. In order to be able to create a common language we had to find a common ground to meet and discuss. The theme “neighbourhood” provided such ground while at the same time allowing for a reinterpretation and a re-working of the term. This was particularly intriguing because a literal translation of the word ‘neighbourhood’ into Arabic doesn’t exist. Yet when the small groups were negotiating the term, we discovered a number of shared meanings: relationships, structures and processes within the fabric of urban living arrangements.
Such challenges made us reflect on the methodological transfer that we tried to achieve – after all, we had assumed that ‘neighbourhood’ exists in every language. Now, we were possibly superimposing a specific neighbourhood in our initial conception of the term: an existing community formation that bears a different meaning for its residents as compared to outsiders. So is it neighbourhoods that create communities? Or do communities create neighbourhoods? Or is it layers of negotiations and practices alongside solidarity that create community and commonality? Had we ‘again’ managed to project our subjective understanding of the city onto a particular urban space? We therefore allowed for enough room to re-visit it from the residents’ perspectives.
The Urban Design programme’s particular interest in neighbourhood research, everyday live of communities, everyday practices and the production of everyday spaces emerged and ripened in the context of a five-year research project in Hamburg Wilhelmsburg, the University of the Neighbourhoods (UdN), an old and unused building in one of the most diverse and socially disadvantaged areas currently under regeneration during the International Building Exhibition (IBA). The building and newly founded ‘institution’ UdN gave us an opportunity to engage as neighbours with neighbours, to situate ourselves as students within the very context that we studied and to programme the building architecturally and socially (see Chapter 4). It housed seminars, workshops, conferences, research projects, communal practices such as cooking and eating together and inter-cultural projects such as tree house workshops for children from the neighbourhood and thus offered the opportunity to host the first of the two workshops for 20 students from Egypt and Germany. The rationale for using the UdN as home base for the first of the two workshops was threefold: it offered a place to live, work and discuss; it made it possible to study the surrounding neighbourhood both from within and without at any time, from insider and outsider perspectives; and it presented – as a building, a project and a programme – a succinct and direct introduction to the Urban Design approach developed and practiced in Hamburg (see Chapter 3).
The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) gave us an opportunity to exchange knowledge and ideas as much as to gain research practice in very different settings under very different conditions. This matched our interest in informal urban processes and developments, and studying these in different institutional, geographical, political and social settings promised to generate valuable and meaningful debates in respect to the DAAD’s principles and those of our Urban Design programme.
The DAAD’s funding was available to German/Egyptian projects in the context of – but not restricted to engaging with ongoing developments in Egypt and the Arab countries, most prominently the protests known and widely discussed as ‘Arab Spring’ (Abourahme & Jayyusi 2011; Lopes de Souza & Lipietz 2011; Kanna 2012; Taher 2012; Abaza 2014). The programme supports measures that encourage and practice knowledge transfer, intercultural learning and academic exchanges between Germany and Egypt in an interest to foster a democratic culture in societies in transition, enable partnerships to emerge and allow (academic) research strategies and methods to be exchanged. The Urban Design programme’s interest in uncovering potentials rather than prescribing solutions resulted in the proposal to organise and deliver two related workshops expecting to foster academic exchange, interdisciplinary teaching and learning practice, knowledge transfer and in-situ intercultural experiences for students from both countries.
Unsurprisingly, the workshop realities turned out to be messy and very much a work in progress. Rather than pushing through a set programme, the actual exchanges and experiences of working in mixed groups, questioning processes and disciplinary perspectives and the inevitable production of chaos enabled the participants to develop ways of dealing with these issues. From the Urban Design perspective followed at HCU, the ability to deal with one another across disciplines, across cultures, from different backgrounds is central to developing a common understanding of matters at stake.
The workshops were thus an opportunity to practice knowledge production and its communication, always attempting to maintain a balance between imparting knowledge and eyelevel discussions. Organised by students for students, the workshops enabled students to practice research, to exchange methods and theoretical approaches ‘in the field’.
Inspiring theories and reference points
The workshop was first envisioned as a broad idea of interdisciplinary and intercultural research. Since our main interest was to study neighbourhoods in Hamburg and Cairo, the theoretical approaches evolved out of relevant issues and urban questions facing urban spaces in transition. Our theoretical lenses were initially quite broad, as we were concerned with methodological questions regarding tools and perspectives that would help us to understand both the neighbourhoods and how they are studied. Influenced by Lefebvre and the Situationists and with backgrounds in Sociology and Cultural Studies, we invited the smaller groups of participants onto Dérives through a neighbourhood in Hamburg Wilhelmsburg and consequently in Cairo Al-Darb Al-Ahhmmar. We approached a social worker, Dr. Francine Lammar, in advance, who was able to suggest potential interview contacts to the groups and figured as a gatekeeper and door opener.
Finding a ‘common language’
Perspectives on the urban fabric and its interpretations varied according to the different professional backgrounds of the participants, but also depending on each participant’s individual experiences with urbanity and its various appearances. This made working in interdisciplinary and intercultural teams challenging and at the same time helped create a controversial yet simultaneously inspiring atmosphere to work. In this process communication was a key factor, which resulted in the desire and need to find a ‘common language’. This was not only important within the working groups but also in terms of communicating the groups’ findings to an external audience. The term ‘common language’ can be seen as a metaphor for the process of interdisciplinary teamwork in which making use of the various competencies of the participants helped channelling them into joint research strategies. During the two workshops we repeatedly discussed the use of different research methods, the analytical foci and the various ways of presenting our material in writing and visualisations. This already indicates the constant exchanges between “different languages”, as exemplified by the following examples:
- An architect would learn how to use social scientific methods of quantitative data analysis, while a social scientist would use pencil and sketch-book to map the neighbourhood.
- A political scientist participates in an urban intervention in a public space initiated by a street artist. The scholarly outcome of the project can be better defined in terms of process than in terms of actual scientific facts. We were able to involve researchers from very different backgrounds and with at times conflicting notions of how to work, share knowledge, create research methods and live together. Rather than producing outcomes, the workshops intended to bridge the various gaps between the disciplines that (still) more often than not work in disciplinary silos – even when they pursue similar matters and interests. This is where we see the workshop’s main social and academic achievement: we have learned how to bridge disciplinary borders and learned that this is not only possible but also creates valuable outputs.