The Habitat Unit seeks to contribute to the rich and growing body of knowledge of global urbanisation processes which is needed to effectively address global urbanisation challenges. We belief in the need to overcome traditional trajectories of knowledge production and transfer, disciplinary fragmentation and persisting knowledge hierarchies. We promote new approaches to inter- and transdisciplinary urban knowledge production in urban contexts across the globe and work with a diverse and growing set of partner institutions, ranging from academic research and teaching institutions to governmental and non-governmental organisations or grassroots initiatives.
Throughout the last decades urban research and theory has been dominated by a focus on cities, mainly concentrating on the growth, development and transformation of large urban concentrations. In an era of an accelerated urbanisation driven by the relentless implications of late capitalism on a planetary scale, we seek to understand urbanisation processes as an extended phenomenon producing new urbanities within and, crucially, beyond traditional cities and metropolitan areas. Our research aims to produce new conceptualisations beyond the exclusionary binaries of urban-suburban or urban-rural, investigating through comparative approaches the constantly dynamic and open-ended transformation processes which affect material conditions and relations, life-styles, subjectivities, economies and ecologies across various socio-spatial sites, practices and scales alike. Within the teaching and research programme “Studio Rural+”, the Habitat Unit focuses on the investigation and specification of extended urbanisation processes in post-rural territories of Germany and China, which are often still referred to as „rural“ or the „countryside“.
In the context of globally networked societies, international political practices and shifting, increasingly globalised economic geographies, the production of urban space cannot be understood through the consideration of local factors and contexts alone. Translocal configurations increasingly condition the way we perceive and inhabit spaces. The Habitat Unit seeks to understand how the translocal nexus changes the physical and spatial reality of cities, shifts power relations and forces us to rethink governance models. This involves questioning taken-for-granted euro-centric trajectories of urban learning and shift perspectives towards south-north, and south-south learning processes. Current research at the Habitat Unit focuses on spatial and governance implications of transnational production chains, and the translocal as a trajectory of networking and learning for grassroots organisations and local citizens.
The production of urban space, particularly in the Global South, is to a large degree self-provisioned and co-produced. It is the consequence of a diverse set of practices that are led by urban dwellers in order to produce urban habitats. These can range from occupation, squatting and incremental growth of “informal settlements” to the intended and unintended engagements with formal state urban policies – evolving not in isolation but in direct and indirect engagement with state and non-state actors; socio-cultural systems, norms and relations; economic processes at multiple scales; as well as law, policy and programmes. At times, they digress across assumed divisions of formal/informal, legal/illegal, or even bottom-up/top-down. Through transdisciplinary research approaches the Habitat Unit seeks to build a better understanding of self-provisioning and cultures of coproduction. While global policy initiatives like the new UN Sustainable Development Goals are beginning to recognise the importance of “inclusive, resilient and sustainable cities,” the potential of self-provisioned housing as a means to achieving them remains untapped. Could self-provisioned housing play a part in creating and sustaining inclusive human settlements if enabled by local, national and global policy?
In recent years urban development processes have become increasingly conflictual. In these conflicts public and sometimes professional disagreements come to the fore - be it with the particular urban development projects, with a lack of participation or with the general direction of urban policy, planning or urban development. Different types and dynamics of conflict can be distinguished. No matter how conflicts develop, urban planners are required to deal with contestations, opposing interests, and challenging demands. While much research focuses on the protesters, be they in social movements or not, there is relatively little knowledge about the other actors in such conflicts – planners, politicians, investors, etc. Research at the Habitat Unit aims to widen and deepen the knowledge of urban development conflicts. In doing so, it focuses on questions of how different actors understand and deal with urban development conflicts and how processes of learning and change occur in this context. The research is based on the assumption that it is useful to better understand conflicting rationalizations and practices in urban development conflicts in diverse urban contexts, within and between those in the Global North and the Global South in order to assess how these conflicts can become moments/catalysts of urban social change.
Approaches to built heritage tend to be dominated by models and conceptualisations developed in highly regulated industrial economies. Prescriptions of heritage preservation standards and guidelines produce at times a suffocating and rigid reliance on public or private resources. In the context of under-resourced and highly dynamic countries of the Global South, such approaches are often unviable. Together with partners in the Global South, the Habitat Unit seeks to develop alternative approaches towards built heritage beyond preservationism and contribute to the emerging transdisciplinary discourse on how to define heritage as an integrated and empowering concept: understanding heritage as a living and constantly transforming asset - a key driver and catalyst for economic, social, cultural and political innovation and reinvention.
Refugee camps or asylum seeker centres have been criticised for their resemblance to spaces of confinement and control, for their tendency to compromise civil rights, and their inability to guarantee civil dignity. Whether organised by global humanitarian organisations or European municipalities – guidelines and policies are set by a techno-managerial logic. But a visit to almost any of the hundreds of refugee camps that exist worldwide confronts us with a complex reality and forces us to rethink our preconceptions. Instead of ordered tent cities, we are more likely to find streets, markets, shops or public buildings surrounded by makeshift buildings: urbanised settings, often only distinguishable from the host environment by the ubiquity of UN flags or the logos of international NGOs. Instead of temporary situations, we find de facto permanent environments that refuse to disappear, ambiguous spaces somewhere between emergency camp and emergent city. Through research and policy advisory, the Habitat Unit seeks to build a better understanding of urbanisation processes that are driven by refugees themselves yet frequently collide with the rationalisation of humanitarian agencies, municipalities or host governments. Could the agency of refugees and their space-making tactics be understood as a key to a more inclusive, coproduced and civil partnership towards refugee protection? Could we learn from this agency to rethink refugee accommodation in European cities as spaces of emancipation and interaction, which rebuild lost dignity and enrich our cities at the same time?
During the post-WWII escalation of the Cold War and the decolonization of Asia and Africa, development cooperation emerged as a transnational field of architectural and urban planning practice. International organisations such as UNESCO or the World Bank, socialist collectives, national planning agencies and construction companies, as well as individual architects and planners built infrastructure, institutions and housing in the Global South. In addition to these actors, agencies and networks, research at the Habitat Unit investigates the geopolitics of development cooperation, particularly in relation to divided Germany and countries belonging to the Non-Aligned Movement, examining how development cooperation was instrumentalised in a dynamic field of confrontation, competition, negotiation and collaboration between the three dominant political ideologies. Addressing the spatial/physical legacies of development cooperation projects and assessing their impacts, transformations and adaptations is another focus of the research, as we seek to contribute to a more nuanced and complex understanding of recent architectural and planning history.
Urban knowledge is produced and lived by multitude of actors. Academic or professional knowledge and theorizing of/in planning is an important, but often limited frame for building an understanding of spatial production and urban change processes. How can architecture, urban design and urban planning education be reformed to become more transdisciplinary, hands-on and collaborative? How can we bring together the disciplinary resources of the academy with the practical spheres of architecture, urban design and planning? The Habitat Unit researches attempts to rethink planning education ranging from the radical student-initiated reform movements of the 1960s to contemporary “urban laboratory” and “design-build” approaches. We conduct applied and comparative research within a network of global partners and initiate practical testing involving students. How can we provide ethical frameworks for engaging and intervening in real urban change processes? How can we achieve mutual learning benefits for students, partnering institutions and citizens alike?