Berlin Lab

West to East: Thoughts on the Closing of the Berlin Lab

A gathering at the Lab

By the time you read this, the workers will have begun to disassemble the Lab—and I will probably be working to disassemble the after-effects of a celebratory Berliner Pilsner or two. And though I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that the six-week run here has already come and gone, I’m finding it even harder to believe that we’ve already finished our time in city number two and we’re about to move on to city number three: Mumbai.

I’m writing this post from the tiny, cramped kitchen of our chaotic little second-floor office overlooking the Lab. Below, I can see the swarms of visitors, wrapped in little red fleece blankets to shield them from the unseasonable cold, who have come to join the closing-day festivities. As I watch the activity at the Lab, I can’t help but feel the need to reflect on where we started, where we are now, and what all that will mean for our next step in India.

When I first learned that I’d be traveling with the Lab, my initial thought was how fascinating it would be to see the range of different issues that would crop up in each new city. But what I have found so far has actually been just the opposite: far more fascinating than the differences between the cities’ issues have been their striking, albeit very contextually nuanced, similarities. In a way, I think that is actually more valuable to experience. After all, what is the point of traveling around the globe if you can’t apply lessons from one place to another and build upon the knowledge you collect along the way?

The time has not yet arrived to dig through all the lessons from the first cycle of the Lab. That moment will probably come later, after we’ve gained the perspective that will come from our stay in Mumbai. For now, I’m interested in the questions we need to consider before we go there. A lot of those questions are running through my mind right now—here are just a few:

One of the first issues that came up immediately in both Berlin and New York was decreasing affordability/gentrification. The issue is hugely present in both cities. This is, in my opinion, one of the most difficult—albeit pressing—issues to explore anywhere. Part of its importance lies in the fact that the issue is embedded in a system that is not mostly public, like water or transportation systems, for instance (the exception, of course, being public housing). Rather, it is connected to a private, commodity-based market.

One of the most fascinating  things to investigate in both cities has been how various sectors of society try to deal with the issue in their own way, and how those approaches can work together. What the government can do about the issue is, of course, a big part of the conversation. But we’ve also learned a lot about what architects and developers, and private citizens, can do to tackle the issue in their own ways. This mixture, and how it should be balanced, is a fascinating subject to explore. But I’m curious how this mixture and balance would look in a place with a much larger gap between rich and poor. When gentrification does not mean getting slowly squeezed from one neighborhood to another, but rather having an entire slum razed to make way for condos, does the responsibility shift? If so, how?

Another big theme in New York and Berlin has been the emotional side of cities. One significant question, for instance, has been, how can cities be an engine for positive, meaningful interactions with others? Also, how can cities help to bring us together, or make us nicer to one another, so that we share more and trust more?

Well, what do those questions look like in a city like Mumbai where people are forced to share their space with more people? Where social life is less privatized, or the option to shut the city and other people out is simply less present for many? Is the question still relevant?

It has also been interesting to see the ownership and control of public space played with in New York and Berlin. Look, for instance, at the process that happened around First Street Park—the site where the Lab was located in New York. After the park was cleaned up from its formerly rat-infested state in order to host the Lab, the control of the public park’s programming was handed over by the city to a community group that had long had the dream of turning it into a community asset. The group collected ideas for the park from the entire neighborhood throughout the course of the Lab’s run, and eventually decided to run it as a diversely programmed “culture park.” This happened, basically, because it saved the city from the cost of organizing such programming itself. It was, in a way, a win-win. Now consider Corinne Rose’s battle to try to make public the information around the sale of publicly owned land plots in Berlin. Her hope was to give residents a chance to try to stop the spaces from being sold, or to buy them themselves, and turn them into spaces that are more functional for the community—which, Corinne says, is a better investment.

So, what does “public” mean in Mumbai when it comes to space? Who gets a say in what happens with it? And when that land goes into private control, what does that process look like?

“Hacking” the city has also been hailed in the Lab in New York and Berlin as an empowering phenomenon, something that gives us more ownership of our urban fabric and spaces. But is city hacking by choice the same as city hacking by necessity? Is one more empowering than the other, or is that a matter of perception and intention? The same question applies to the “open-source urbanism” that we’ve heard so much about in both places.

These are just a few of the questions that I will be keeping in mind as the Lab makes its transition to Mumbai. Meanwhile, I’ve got one more fantastic run of the Lab to celebrate.

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Photo: by Luke Abiol © 2012 Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York