Conclusion Part I & II
»As a first step, it was important to develop a common language to communicate with one another and to prepare an approach for working together. The second step was then to actually test the methods that were introduced in the first step. Another step would be to go deeper and ask: What else can this interdisciplinarity do in planning processes than the planning discipline alone?« – Bernd Kniess
To summarise and conclude the two parts of the workshop on ‘urban transformation’ in Hamburg and Cairo can hardly be accomplished by a simple list of practical outcomes. As we concentrated more on the process than on results, there is a need to take into account a wider perspective rather than reflecting on and listing the topics, findings, methods and themes discussed. In the attempt to provide a meta perspective on the process and the questions that were raised, we can summarise that the schedule was full of events, that the interdisciplinary project was ambitious and that surprisingly the cultural and bi-lingual framework was less complicated as we had imagined. It was a courageous experiment – and it worked.
When we started in Hamburg, we initially had no idea what to do and how to busy ourselves in an environment where not much else could be done than research the area. In hindsight, this was the best start into the workshop we could have hoped for. Christopher Dell put in a nutshell why this approach was so important: ‘you got lost, you got bored and you stuck in it.’ We all had to realise and experience that the feeling of getting completely lost and immersed in an area was part of the process and an important aim of the workshop. Having made this experience as a first step during the first workshop in Hamburg, we developed a clearer idea as to how we should have conceived the workshop and what it should have been about. Our first impression of urban transformation in action was the Friday prayer at the mosque on the Veddel. We observed how the life on the street changed when the prayer ended. It was the first time that something ‘interesting’ happened on the main street on the Veddel and we were surprised how the street suddenly teemed with men leaving the mosque and women appearing to pick up their husbands, young girls passing by to check out the young men leaving the mosque. With this impression we knew that we had found a starting point but didn’t know what else to look for. Changing our perspective slightly, we realised that we had to work on our own perception and discovered the important skill of seeing things happen, everyday practice taking place. So we practiced proper observation skills and techniques: sitting still, looking out and waiting for things to happen. How we developed our research interest in Hamburg was very different from how we moved on in Cairo. In Hamburg, we struggled to identify what we were really interested in and to determine our research interest. Every presentation on the wall gave us new ideas and almost made it necessary to start afresh. The discussions with the other participants were helpful as well as confusing.
Our experience in Cairo was different. Immediately we had the feeling of where and how to look, what to ask and how to wait for things to happen or show up. Following our first derive we directly revived our group dynamic from the time in Hamburg. We remembered how to communicate the topics, how to deal with each other and we felt familiar with each group member’s way of thinking and personal style.
Our group’s final outcome could be described as a development from rituals – to entrances – over thresholds – via accessibility – into in-between spaces. These were the aspects we discovered and found reflected in artefacts in order to get a closer look into how people live and produce their space; how the production of space takes place if we understand ordinary people as ‘urban designers’.
Snippets from our sketchbooks as presented throughout this publication tell us a lot about how we actually went about. Our attempts to find a topic and focus on theoretical approaches mirrors what Bruno Latour discusses in his Actor-Network Theory under the processes known as framing and de-framing. When we interviewed Francine Lammar in Hamburg, a social worker familiar with the field for more than a decade, we framed an image of the Veddel that we weren’t able to discard – yet didn’t reflect this fact enough for a long time. It took a lot from us not to think about the Veddel in terms of the stereotypical poorest neighbourhood of Hamburg, its history and statistics characterised by unemployment, migration and crime. Observing without being led by our implicit and underlying ideas and trying to see things happening without directly judging them in both Hamburg and Cairo was harder than we were initially able to admit. We thus learned by doing, mapping situations, observing performative action and everyday life as it happened in the streets of the Veddel and backyards of Al Darb Al Ahmar. And yet, at the end the question remains how all the details we collected, mapped, drew, questioned and listened to relate to each other on a higher level, in the larger picture? What is the relation between finding out that curtains in Al Darb Al Ahmar’s backyards help to create privacy and the political situation in so-called ‘post-revolutionary Cairo’? How can we map actants and objects of Urban Design without taking note of the political situation so as to preserve the relevant findings from turning into platitudes? One answer is surely that nothing we found can be explained solely in respect to the term ‘cultural identities’. What we started to research in Al Darb Al Ahmar as one of the oldest districts of historic Cairo also has to be understood as resulting from actual processes of up-grading an area in the middle of modern Cairo. When we realised that a majority of people we spoke to are afraid of losing their homes and some people have already been displaced – some even because the owners of the houses set fire to their property in order to build new houses – we were not just mapping curtains. We were observing people in situations of high uncertainty with little money and frightened to lose their homes. Because it was impossible for us to discuss the complex political situation in Cairo and Egypt in detail during the short workshop in Cairo – and indeed because we aimed to look at the everyday life without focusing on the Arab Spring – we didn’t engage in proper political analysis, while nevertheless acknowledging its importance. In conclusion, what we feel we have accomplished is to produce a number of snapshots into everyday life practices in Hamburg and Cairo that are informed both by the specific and local contexts as well as the more general processes and global developments.
»… the investigation of the Place Making group and its case studies on the actors ‘Coca Cola’ and ‘Bread Selling’, for example. If this is properly finalised and worked through, I can imagine that it attracts the interest of many actors in this place. This is how people gain an insight into the local social and economic linkages. This is how returns are made. From this piece of work, a political force can develop. The research is still in its infancy of course, but it is well placed. The group has found two important and significant actors in this place and because of their strong relational proportion – the actors and the spatial setting – they disclosed a huge amount of information.« – Bernd Kniess