Berlin Lab

The Mobile University of Berlin: Urban-Planning Education at Eye Level

The Mobile University Berlin rolls into town.

The Mobile University Berlin (MUB) rolls into town.

What if, instead of discussing architecture within the walls of a museum, you took the museum out to where the architecture actually is—on the streets? This, of course, is one of the basic underlying concepts behind the BMW Guggenheim Lab. And in Berlin, those same principles are currently being applied to urban-planning pedagogy by the Mobile University of Berlin (MUB). Rather than talking about urban planning inside a university classroom, the MUB literally takes urban planning, and urban planning education, on the road.

The MUB was one of several programs that ran consistently throughout the Lab’s time in Berlin. A partnership between the think tank Mikromakro and the organizations Urbanophil and Stiftung Freizeit, the MUB is deceptively simple in form—a cargo bike that can be unpacked into a multifunctional workspace.

But the function of this bike is much more complex: it carries a flexible environment of learning and teaching out into the streets to bring local knowledge and skills deeper into the discourse about urban planning. “A lot of the time, the things that we plan have nothing to do with reality because we assume something which, in reality, isn’t actually true,” says Karsten Drohsel, cofounder of the MUB, who is currently finishing his certificate in city planning and teaching at the Technical University Berlin.

Much of the time, he says, planners are informed by abstract things like statistics, as opposed to deep, on-the-ground knowledge. “But to understand a part of a city, I have to spend time in that city. I have to see it and feel it and use my senses,” he says. That’s why, several years ago, he began mapping cities himself based on his own impressions from the time he spent there, and those of the people he met; at the same time, he began making his students do the same.

With the MUB, he and his colleagues sought to take this practice one step further, and experiment with what it would look like to bring the learning environment of a university together with the role of a planner in the very place where the act of planning actually has its effect.

Mobile University Berlin

The MUB being unpacked and set up on the street.

Drohsel and his compatriots learned very quickly. Take the experience the group had during the first of their six workshops, when they took the MUB down the hill near to Rosenthaler Platz. Rosenthaler Platz is an area of the city that is currently at the center of a lot of discussion in the planning department about how to solve the problem of “touristification.” The MUB members wanted to find out for themselves exactly how the residents were actually being affected by the issue. But when the group spent the day engaging with residents in the street and having conversations about what they saw as being problems in the area, the first things people complained about were the traffic, the lack or state of nearby playgrounds, the fact that the nearest supermarket had moved out because of rising rents, dogs in the area, etc. Of the forty responses to the question “what do you see as a problem in this area,” just one referenced the issue of touristification.

MUB set up on the street

The MUB in action.

Karsten says that the experience experimenting with the MUB during the Lab also taught him a lot about both planning, and education. “As a planner, I learned a lot about space: that certain processes need certain spaces, as well as sensitivity. You can’t just run out and ask people, ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’ because those people are somewhere else when you approach them. You need to find a transition space to bring people into conversation. This takes time, and both people need to have that time,” he says. “But on the other side it’s also an experiment in communal learning . . . It’s about developing a new idea of teaching and learning. It’s not that one person stands there and says, ‘Hey, look here, I’ve discovered how the world works and know something that you guys need to know.’ Rather, we discuss things on eye level and really learn with and from one another.”

Emotion-mapping for Mobile University Berlin

Mapping emotion responses to the city.

Take another of the MUB’s workshops, Emotional Mapping, where participants hand-mapped their own emotional experience of a walk through the neighborhood. Some of the maps positively identified the diversity and bustling nature of the big main drag, Schönhauser Allee, as exciting and interesting. Others mapped the quiet side streets equally as lending themselves to a positive experience. So often, without really sitting down with one another, conversations like this are very easily polarized: “Big street = bad! Small street = good! And if you don’t agree, you’re wrong!” But a conversation about why people feel the way they do reveals that no such conversation is quite so simple, and it’s not often that planners sit down with residents to reach a genuine understanding of where feelings are coming from and why.

Karsten says he was surprised how the MUB object itself—the unpackable cargo bike-cum-workspace—affected the environment, and how important the physical definition of a protected learning and experimentation environment actually was to the process. Where his previous experiments with mobile learning had simply been done by walking, he said the simple idea of having a place to set something down and write something, and a designated location for people to come back together and discuss their experiences over a table, was more important than he ever would have guessed.

He hopes to eventually work even further with other groups on the concept of a backpack university. “What I find so important is that institutions that carry a social responsibility go [out into] society. Not that they dissolve, and that there are no museums or universities anymore, that’s foolish. I don’t want to make an anti-university, but rather give the university something that it doesn’t have in my opinion: a mobile tool to go out and speak about things exactly where they happen,” he says. “This I find so integral: to be open to new ideas, or new forms of perception, but also to be right there where whatever you’re working on or learning really becomes significant.

He adds, “If we can manage that—to communicate at eye level with one another, then we’ve managed a lot.”

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Photos: courtesy Karsten Drohsel