Germany Critical Urban Planning Workshop

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.