A robust square: Planning, youth work, and the making of public space in post-unification Berlin

Weszkalnys, G.

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Weszkalnys, G. (2008). A robust square: Planning, youth work, and the making of public space in post-unification Berlin. City & Society, 20(2), 251–274. https://doi-org.ezproxy.gc.cuny.edu/10.1111/j.1548-744X.2008.00019.x

Berlin , Governmentality , Participation , Public Space , The Social , Urban Planning , Youthwork

Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in post-unification Berlin, this article examines the re-articulation of the problematic of “the social” in city planning. It juxtaposes the contrasting visions of city planners and youth workers for Alexanderplatz, a controversial square in Berlin’s eastern centre. I argue that the notion of “robustness” is helpful in understanding an important contemporary shift in thinking about planning and the social. In a sense, both planners and youth workers accused each other of taking insufficient notice of “the social.” While planners spoke of robustness as a technical, economic and aesthetic quality to which public space needs to aspire, the youth workers’ vision for Alexanderplatz was a proposal for a kind of “social” robustness where the social is, quite literally, built into the urban design. These ethnographic observations need to be understood in a context where city planning has been one of the most critical domains in which the tensions provoked by German unification are played out. Taking such socio-cultural specificities into account will lead to a more nuanced understanding of forms of neoliberal city planning.

Main finding
The author sought to find the range of ways the ‘social’ figured into the activities of both the planners and youth workers regarding the redevelopment of Alexanderplatz. The planners accused the youth workers of being overly technocratic in their view of society as separate sectors that could be empirically understood and designed for; while youth workers accused the planners of being overly concerned with the technical, aesthetic, and economic aspects instead of the social. The author identified perspectives that were particular and total, respectively, whereby the youth workers’ particular view saw the space not as a container for activities but rather reflecting the individual's life situation and the expectations they brought to the space.

Description of method used in the article
Drew on fieldwork carried out from 2001-2002 which examined Berlin's spatial reordering after the fall of the Wall. This article focused on Alexanderplatz as it was seen as a controversial space due to its symbolic significance and fact that it is now seen as a valuable piece of prime real estate which breaks with Berlin's historical structures. The author used interviews and participant observations with key actors from the youth worker's organization, Arbeitsgemeinschaft Alexanderplatz (AG Alex), the author focused on the youth worker's interactions with city planning. The particular methodological aims of the article entailed brining together science studies (its use of the metaphor "robust") and an anthropology of planning (its ethnographic terminology) to highlight the parallel in use of terms as a case of productive cross-fertilization.

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