MES Students Travel through Germany to Study Housing Practices

Written by the students of the Critical Urban Planning Workshop ENVS 6325 (Originally published in YFile)

Ten York University students traveled through Germany from June 1 to 11 to study housing policies, issues and practices as part of a master’s in environmental studies (MES) course. The 10-day international field trip for the MES workshop in critical urban planning took place in three German cities under the directorship of Professor Ute Lehrer, Faculty of Environmental Studies.

The course, “High-rise Apartment Buildings: From Modernism to Financialization,” brought students to Frankfurt, Weimar and Berlin to compare Toronto housing to that of Germany. The students were instructed to assume the role of a planning firm looking to answer questions around housing in Toronto and what can be learned from historical and contemporary German examples. Students started out in Frankfurt, Germany’s financial hub and a rapidly developing city that is undergoing immense transformation and facing high housing prices due to financialization and the investment of global capital in the built environment.

“In Frankfurt I saw how important the creation and maintenance of narrative is for a city to attempt to attract global capital,” said student Alex Christison. “The city can easily become for those who don’t wish to live and build community in the city.”

The four days in Frankfurt included a visit to the “Römer,” the recently finished reconstruction of the old quarter of Frankfurt, a bike ride through Frankfurt’s greenbelt to modernist housing settlements built in the 1920s by Ernst May, a lecture and bike tour by Professor Susanne Heeg at the University of Frankfurt, a tour of the rapidly gentrifying working class neighbourhood Gallus, and a visit to the city’s planning and development office to learn about their approaches to high rise development and questions around housing affordability.

Students continued their journey to Weimar, the birthplace of the Bauhaus, where they participated in two days of lectures, tours and an evening of comparative student presentations with peers from the Bauhaus University Weimar’s planning school. The timing of the fieldtrip coincided with the 100 year anniversary of the Bauhaus, the art and design school internationally renowned for its influence on the modernist movement of the 20th century.

“Professor Barbara Schönig’s (Bauhaus University) lecture on mass housing helped shape my understanding of social housing tower communities in Germany,” said student Mehedi Khan.

The field trip continued in Berlin, Germany’s capital and largest city, and the epicentre of much of Germany’s modern housing history. Berlin’s history as a divided city was present in the students’ experience as they toured housing developments on both the former eastern and western sides. Learning about housing offered a unique perspective through which to understand the effects of capitalist and socialist policies on the built environment in Berlin, and was contextualized with the expertise of local academics, Matthias Bernt, Laura Calbet Elias and Harald Bodenschatz, as well as with the insights of Lehrer, an expert on the redevelopment of Potsdamer Platz after Berlin’s reunification in the 1990s.

“I thought it was really interesting to explore the history of east and west Berlin,” said student Zachary Dark. “Learning about the partition of the city really helped me understand Berlin’s current housing situation, and how the partition of the city impacted its urban form.”

While in Berlin, students also visited Le Corbusier’s suburban housing development Unité d’Habitation and met up with activists fighting for housing justice and against gentrification in the central Berlin neighbourhood of Kreuzberg.

“Learning about the growing anti-gentrification movement unfolding here has given me hope for Toronto and other global cities in the world: perhaps another world is truly possible,” said student Jerrica Gilbert.

The field trip was financially supported by the MCRI (Major Collaborative Research Initiative) research project on Global Suburbanisms (PI: Professor Roger Keil), the German Academic Exchange Program (DAAD) as well as York International.

Two New Titles added to Global Suburbanisms Book Series

We live in a world of expanding city regions. The Toronto and Waterloo region are prime examples of a global dynamic that involves tendencies of both intensified and sprawling urban form. As inner cities have once more become attractive to creative economic activities and residential use, the expansion of the suburban footprint into the region has equally picked up speed.

These dynamics result increasingly in complex problems related to housing and infrastructures. Massive existing and emerging housing estates, both of ground related and multi-family units, blanket the regional landscape with densities varying across the region’s places to grow. Existing infrastructures burst at the seams while new and much needed technologies of new mobility, communication, environmental and social services are not coming on line fast enough.

Leading researchers in the Toronto and Waterloo region, in cooperation with colleagues from around the world as part of York University’s Global Suburbanisms research project, have studied housing and infrastructures in the suburbanizing regions. Their findings, relevant to academics, planners, urbanists and activists, are now available in two jointly launched books published by the University of Toronto Press in the Global Suburbanisms Book Series. The book launch, which took place May 13, 2019 at Toronto bookstore A Different Booklist, was well attended by academics and community members and featured an introduction by the books' editors.

Massive Suburbanization: (Re)building the Global Periphery edited by K. Murat Guney, Roger Keil, and Murat Ucoglu provides a systematic overview of large-scale housing projects in the urban periphery. Global in focus - from large-scale suburban projects in Canada, the former Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, and the United States to new peripheral estates in China, Egypt, Israel, Morocco, the Philippines, South Africa, and Turkey - Massive Suburbanization builds a new discussion pertaining to the problems of the urban periphery, urbanization, and the neoliberal production of space.

As much of the new urban growth in cities is taking place in the periphery, infrastructures are in a constant state of playing catch-up to rapid development. They are also places of major urban innovation. Critical Perspectives on Suburban Infrastructures: Contemporary International Cases, edited by Pierre Filion and Nina M. Pulver identifies various political, economic, social, and environmental issues related to suburban infrastructures. It also highlights the similarities and differences between suburban infrastructure conditions encountered in the Global North and Global South.

Click here to order your copies!

A Theory of the Tides: Centres, Peripheries and Urban Revolt

Date: Tuesday November 6, 12:30pm-2:00pm
Location: Room 140, Health, Nursing & Environmental Studies Building

Across the planet new patterns of urban restructuring are inscribing themselves with ferocity. It is both evident to the everyday-eye and statistically verifiable: urban cores are being acceleratingly dominated by waves of upscale residents and residences, investment properties, spectactularist touristic forays and all the social/cultural/ architectural infrastructures that serve them. The sheer speed of this urban restructuring is aggressively pushing increasing numbers of urban residents to the margins of cities, further and further away from city cores, where social marginalization is exacerbated by physical isolation. These new patterns throw up significant challenges to dominant contemporary urban theory. I suggest that thinking the city through centre-periphery relationships and patterns of sub-urbanization offers new routes for understanding these new forms of urban restructuring, and thus, instigating new kinds of resistance.

Matt Hern lives and works in East Vancouver on səlil'wətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) territory with his partner and daughters. He co-directs Solid State Industries, and continues to lecture globally. Matt's books and articles have been published on all six continents and translated into thirteen languages. His most recent books are What a City is For: Remaking the Politics of Displacement (MIT Press, 2016) and Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life (MIT, 2018, with Am Johal and Joe Sacco).


Governance, Land, and Infrastructure in the Italian Periphery

Drawing on connections made through York International, the SSHRC-funded Major Collaborative Research Initiative Global Suburbanisms: Governance, Land and Infrastructure based at York University teamed up with the University Florence and Polytechnic University of Milan to present the Spring Institute in Global Suburban Studies. Aimed at early career scholars and advanced graduate students, the Spring Institute took place in Florence and Milan from April 30- May 11, 2018. On the Canadian side, York University professors Ute Lehrer and Roger Keil were joined by University of Waterloo professors Pierre Filion and Markus Moos, all theme leads in the MCRI on global suburbanization. Participants sponsored through the MCRI included 18 early career scholars and advanced graduate students from the Toronto and Waterloo region, as well as from other international institutions.

“As a postdoc, the Spring Institute in Global Suburban Studies provided me with a perfect opportunity to exchange ideas and get familiar with state-of-the-art academic thought on issues of contemporary sub/urbanization. Above all the Institute became a small community of international intellectuals where I immediately felt welcome and I acquired a strong sense of belonging.” – Yannis Tzaninis, postdoctoral researcher, University of Amsterdam

Using the suburbanization of Florence and Milan as examples, it was the purpose of the institute to study and discuss global suburbanization processes through conceptual and methodological collaboration during two weeks of intense and in-depth exchange. Structured around the themes of governance, land, and infrastructure, the institute combined formal and informal opportunities to study the sub/urban landscapes of Florence and Milan. The first week in Florence featured lectures on the multiplicity of Florence suburban landscapes by professors Giancarlo Paba, Camilla Perrone, and Iacopo Zetti from the University of Florence. It also included an introduction to suburbanization and suburbanisms by professors Roger Keil and Ute Lehrer, discussing their recently published works Suburban Planet and The Suburban Land Question. In addition to formal lectures and group discussion, the week featured suburban field trips and workshops, including a bike tour and a session on publishing for early career scholars.

Highlights from the suburban bike tour included visits to Parco delle Cascine, a historical public park that winds along the banks of the Arno River; Le Piagge, a modernist social housing development commonly called “the ships” due to their unique shape; and a visit to the proposed site for the Peretola Airport expansion which doubles as an important hydrological and agricultural landscape. The bus tour featured stops in Scandicci, a Florentine suburb connected to the centre by the city’s first tramway; Chianti, where participants observed the touch of urbanization on the rural landscapes of wine country; and Prato, a landscape of textile factories and home to a large Chinese community.

“The Global Suburbanisms Spring Institute provided me with an excellent opportunity to deepen my understanding of socio-spatial (in)justice and it's manifestations across (sub)urban landscapes. Thanks to this experience, I was able to develop a robust theoretical framework for my research, which explores community control of land and housing to address the inequitable spatial dynamics that shape our cities and suburbs.” – Aida Mas, MES planning student, York University

The workshop on publishing took place in Fiesole, in the former home of renowned Italian architect Giovanni Michelucci. In addition to the discussion on publishing featuring professors Ute Lehrer, Camilla Perrone and Roger Keil, Spring Institute participants were introduced to the life and legacy of this important architect by Professor Giancarlo Paba, the president of the Michelucci Foundation.

The second week in Milan featured lectures on post-metropolitan Italy by professors Alessandro Balducci and Valeria Fedeli, Polytechnic University of Milan; Suburban Infrastructure by Professor Pierre Filion, University of Waterloo; and Everyday Suburbanisms by Professor Markus Moos, University of Waterloo (with Lorenzo de Vidovich acting as a discussant). Moos’ lecture was based on his recently published book Still Detached and Subdivided? Suburban Ways of Living in 21st Century North America. The second week included a career building workshop on “Methods of Suburban Research” led by professors Pierre Filion, Ute Lehrer, and Markus Moos.

“As a student transitioning from a Master’s to a PhD program, the Spring Institute provided a wealth of knowledge in different aspects of research. In addition to learning about and experiencing Italian suburbs, the sessions at the Institute provided networking opportunities to share research ideas, methodologies, and strategies in an informal setting, which had prepared me better to carry out my own future research projects.” – Nabila Prayitno, PhD student, University of Waterloo

Field trips in Milan included walking and bus tours. The walking tour, led by Professor Valeria Fedeli, explored urban transformation in the central city of Milan. Stops on the tour included the newly developed Porto Nuova, a central business district that boasts that country’s tallest skyscraper as well as a visit to CityLife, a mixed use development project located on the former grounds of the Fiera Milano exhibition, featuring new condominium developments by international starchitects Zaha Hadid and Studio Libeskind. The bus tour, led by Professor Marco Facchinetti, Polytechnic University of Milan, brought the participants to a variety of communities demonstrating the vast differences in suburban development shaping Milano’s periphery. A highlight for many was visiting the famed Silvio Berlusconi’s exclusive residential enclave Milano 2, built in the 1970s and intentionally disconnected from the city by metro.

In the spring of 2019, Professor Ute Lehrer will bring another group of students abroad, this time to Germany. Organized as a course for York MES planning students, the critical planning workshop will study the principles of modern urban planning and investigate the realities of planning today.


Roger Keil to Deliver Prestigious Sir Peter Hall Lecture

MCRI Global Suburbanisms Principal Investigator Roger Keil will deliver this year's Sir Peter Hall Lecture in London, England. The lecture will take place June 5 at the University College London's Bartlett School of Planning with the theme “Metabolic Suburbia: Facing the connectivity of the extended urban world.” “Each year we invite a leading scholar or […]

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Suburban Studies: State of the Field and Unsolved knots

What is the current state of suburban scholarship? Lorenzo De Vidovich, former Global Suburbanisms visiting scholar and PhD student at the Politecnico di Milano explores this in his recent article "Suburban studies: State of the field and unsolved knots" now available online in Geography Compass. Click here to access the full article.  

Book Launch: Massive Suburbanization + Critical Perspectives on Suburban Infrastructures

Planetary suburbanisms – regional solutions? We live in a world of expanding city regions. The Toronto and Waterloo region are prime examples of a global dynamic that involves tendencies of both intensified and sprawling urban form. As inner cities have once more become attractive to creative economic activities and residential use, the expansion of the […]

Accepting Applications for Critical Planning Workshop in Germany

  ENVS 6325 Critical Urban Planning Workshop 2019 Course director: Ute Lehrer High-rise Apartment Buildings: From Modernism to Financialization This course will look at historical and contemporary examples of compact forms of living. Taking the centenary of the Bauhaus – the foundation of the Modern Movement in Architecture – as a starting point to critically […]

This research is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada through funding from the Major Collaborative Research Initiative “Global Suburbansims: Governance, Land, and Infrastructure in the 21st Century" (2010-2017).