My City Belongs to Me

Cities are economic engines and centers of commerce. But, above all, they are spaces in which we live. What does it look like, the good life in the city? How can its inhabitants shape urban transformation outside of politics? What role can maps play in bringing about this transformation? On occasion of World Cities Day 2019, we spoke to Andreas Brück about his research project “Critical Mapping in Municipalist Movements.”

Robert Bosch Stiftung | October 2019

What is Critical Mapping and how does it work?

Andreas Brück: Critical Mapping is a critical approach to creating maps. Maps are never neutral; they reflect structures of power. For a long time, they were the prerogative of a powerful few who negotiated borders and determined what the infrastructure would look like. Today maps are ubiquitous; we always take mobile devices like smartphones and fitness trackers with us – and with the help of data collected by GPS, we constantly create maps. We no longer need to know how to conduct land surveys; we might therefore speak of a democratization of maps. That begs the question: What can people do with these technologies in order to get involved and in order to promote urban transformation in their cities? Could maps help shift the balance of power – based on a different understanding of the space we move in day-to-day? We’re specifically interested in what these tools mean for Municipalist Movements, citizen’s initiatives that want to shape the cityscape on a local level, beyond politics and established parties. Simply put, our project explores the potential of Critical Mapping to drive change in a way that benefits the city’s inhabitants.

CMMM_Spielraum II
Tobias Bohm

Team CMMM at the second workshop of our funding program “SPIELRAUM - Shaping Urban Transformation“ in December 2017.

How do we get from mapping to people taking the design of their city into their own hands?

Today, visual communication plays a much greater role than it used to. And it offers us one advantage: It’s much more accessible than language, which can create a wide range of barriers. Many urban movements demand change, and mapping can help localize, visualize and convey the problem in an easily intelligible manner. Maps can illustrate if there’s a problem in a specific part of town or just on one particular street. From the fact that many people and many different groups create maps in order to tackle a host of issues it does not automatically follow that these efforts lead to urban change. That’s why we look specifically at neighborhood initiatives that make use of Critical Mapping. We ask: What methods do they use? What goals are they pursuing? What advantages does Critical Mapping have in communicating ideas or demands? Do maps help in gathering knowledge and bringing together expertise? Do they uncover hidden connections?

Critical Mapping can address a variety of issues. There are initiatives, for example, that map vacant properties, that track speculation on housing and so make visible real-estate bubbles in their own neighborhoods as well as enabling these buildings to be used in periods of transition. There are activists who map so-called “spaces of fear” in their city, or who make suggestions to improve public transport. There are also many different ways of creating maps; some initiatives are very well organized and do it collectively, some use online data and services, and others just get started with paper and pencil – or they crowd-source and have someone else do the job for them.

CMMM_Spielraum II_Natasha Aruri
Tobias Bohm

In the second workshop participants continued to develop their ideas. Natasha Aruri in discussion with her team CMMM.

Besides Berlin, the project connects cities like Barcelona and Belgrade. What brings these towns and their inhabitants together?

Where Municipalist Movements are concerned, these three towns represent very different ways of understanding neighborhood initiatives and influencing local politics. Ada Colau of the former citizen’s movement “Barcelona en Comú” was elected mayor in 2015. The movement “Don’t Let Belgrade D(r)own” also stood for election last year – if unsuccessfully. Berlin is bustling; there are a number of initiatives but no definite plans to become involved in local politics as a movement in its own right. Overall, these cities are very different and, each in her own right, face diverse challenges. For our project, it's the networking aspect that counts. Over a three-year-period, we look at three case studies and – with the help of local partners and international experts – bring together a variety of initiatives to learn from each other and to collectively develop methods that work in their specific contexts. In this way, we would like to determine if we can foster interconnections and if learnings can be implemented across different contexts. Finally, we hope that people can contribute to improving their environment on their own initiative. At a time where many people take to the streets and seek to mobilize support for their demands – and where there is a perceived solidarity between them – we could just be at the start of something that we might call urban transformation.

Andreas Brück Profilbild


Dr.- Ing. Andreas Brück is a research associate at Technische Universität Berlin's Institute of Urban and Regional Planning and leads Labor K. Together with his team at “Critical Mapping Municipalist Movements” (CMMM), he explores how neighborhood initiatives make use of Critical Mapping to illustrate the need for action in their cities, and, in so doing, initiate urban transformation.

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