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Why not only common ground but also common conflicts concerning the use of public space can be productive for the socio-spatial (re)production of urban neighbourhoods
Franziska Bittner & Alina Schütze
As our natural and immediate environment, it is always present but little questioned: the neighbourhood. The idealised values of common identification and consensus often attributed to the term neighbourhood are, however, romanticised, transfiguring and problematic. The socio-spatial construct of the neighbourhood is constituted not only by what we have in common and what we share, but also by dissent and conflict. Based on our research results, we argue that conflict is not to be seen as deficient but can rather be constitutive and, in some cases, even productive for the socio-spatial (re)production of urban neighbourhoods. In order to investigate the role of public conflicts in neighbourhoods, we created a research design that combines theory on social negotiations, rules and conventions in the public sphere with critical mapping techniques based on workshops conducted in the field.
Examining power dynamics through a subjective research perspective
Urban neighbourhoods are local settings for global and small-scale conflicts – everyday places of debate and negotiation. As they are inherently shaped by power dynamics, these dynamics are also reflected and displayed in spatial arrangements. To examine them we had a closer look at everyday and individual negotiations in urban public space.
Breaking with romanticised, harmony-based normative concepts of the urban neighbourhood that often attribute negative judgements to conflict-ridden quarters (as used in social and planning research alike), our research analysed conflicting and ambivalent perceptions of neighbours towards their surroundings – thereby giving attention to these often-hidden perceptions. We believe their subjective perspective is often missing in official planning documents as well as in the urban (and urban planning) discourse on the neighbourhood. Since our investigation is conducted from our perspective – as young female and white urban designers and former neighbours and actors of Schillerkiez – it had to be complemented by more diverse experiences.
Methodologically, the combined observation of space and social negotiation was carried out via a critical research design that used various methods from interactionist ethnography (Dellwing and Prus 2012) and relied on local knowledge as the basis of research. Based on feminist data collection (D‘Ignazio and Klein 2020) gathered in neighbourhood workshops and participatory observation of the three case studies Herrfurthplatz, Wartheplatz and St. Jacobi cemetery in Schillerkiez (Berlin-Neukölln), a mode of critical mapping was methodically developed in the style of Deep Mapping (Warf 2015) and Testimony Mapping (Kim 2015). This included listening to young and old neighbours in various contexts, families, organized groups, activists, small business owners, social workers, urban planners, and visitors. The three places were selected due to their different spatial arrangements, the way the various users formulate claims of space and the visibility of conflicts that were identified together with the involved parties. The intention was to show different nuances and spatialisations of conflicts in the Schillerkiez.
We took critical mappingas a synthesis tool – a learning map. The map is used to identify conflict spaces which provide information on negotiating power in the application of social regulations. We thereby gain a better understanding of the complexity of the conflicts and the underlying power dynamics and mechanisms that constitute and influence the spatial production of neighbourhoods.
Mapping conflicts: the competition for spatial resources
In the detailed mapping of conflict spaces on a micro-scale, which depicts people’s actions in space (scaled 1:200), we illustrated the different spatial arrangements that function as conflict causes as well as their respective subjects. Important narratives around the conflict were included through the use of original quotes and story details. On this basis, constitutive conflict phenomena were carved out in order to critically assess neighbourhood transformation.
One recurring example of a trigger of spatial conflicts is the incompatibility of different uses of space. On our conflict maps of the St. Jacobi cemetery, we identified that the presence of certain user groups leads to exclusion processes of others, especially marginalised ones.
Due to the availability of various spaces offering cover, parts of the cemetery area function as a space of retreat for drug users and homeless people. The use of hard drugs and alcohol have visible consequences – both in terms of spatial occupation and discursive interactions. However, as our interviews and workshops revealed, the number of drug users and dealers has significantly decreased since 2019, coinciding with the arrival of the urban gardening collective Prinzesinnengärten and other active groups. By maintaining green spaces and running a café on the unused plots of the cemetery, the collective seeks to make the cemetery accessible for community and neighbourhood uses, particularly since the demand for burial plots is decreasing. The spatial use of the cemetery as a place to sleep and for drug consumption – as well as its remnants such as syringes – clash with the new recreational use of the cemetery as a park or garden and is therefore classified as problematic by neighbours, activists, owners’ associations and district representatives alike. Since the cemetery area represents one of the few places in which drug users and homeless people can stay without sanction, it becomes a contested resource.
The Prinzessinnengärten strive for a conscious approach based on dialogue, together with external experts, in order to be able to act sensitively with regards to marginalized space users. However, despite great consideration and active support, the presence of the collective and other active groups, which has also increased visitor traffic, ultimately leads to an expulsion of drug users. Problematic is the obvious upper-hand one party has in terms of the negotiation of resources and the legitimacy to claim space. The question arises: in such a conflict, what can be considered a positive outcome?
One such positive outcome is engaging with marginalised groups:Even though the power imbalances in negotiations are substantial, consultations with expert advice by Fixpunkt e.V. and their generally sensitive approach have led to the emergence of potential solutions for a peaceful co-existence. Without the original conflict, the increased consideration of and intensified confrontation with the needs of marginalised groups would have likely not been triggered.
Another positive effect is neighbourhood self-organisation: The analysed conflict and the search for solutions to enable co-existence sparked an alliance of district institutions, urban garden activists, a drug support initiative and neighbours. By sharing a common goal to improve the precarious situation of drug addicts, they substantially increased awareness of the problem. Vivid communication and debates on this prevalent but often overlooked issue have thereby been triggered.
Concluding thoughts: neighbourhood as state of unresolved conflict
On the basis of this example and the various other conflict maps we developed, we conceptualise the neighbourhood as a socio-spatial construct in a state of unresolved conflict. We conclude that the neighbourhood is, among other things, constituted by dissent and conflict. Here we want to go one step further and actually recognize dissent as an important driver for urban societies. Conflicting claims on neighbourhoods make space as a shared resource more perceptible and generate further positionings towards it. The occupation of a spatial resource by one group can lead to awareness, positioning and participation in the renegotiation of that resource for other parties involved. Conflicts are thus also necessary for a critical (re)production of urban neighbourhoods – along with their power to harm them. They arise because people challenge supposedly fixed sets of rules. Their ambivalent role was successfully highlighted by our micro-mapping approach which provides a starting point for an individual assessment of any socio-spatial conflict.
Space for negotiation can be space for empowerment. Needless to say, people are equipped with very different resources to assert themselves in negotiation processes. Furthermore, to ensure real participation there has to be some space for negotiation to begin with – which quite obviously is not always the case. Adverse effects can arise, and conflicts can end up reinforcing inequalities. Neighbourhood conflicts therefore cannot be deemed positive per se. However, they do not automatically constitute a deficit in neighbourhoods, as often suggested. If we internalise this in order to rethink our understanding of the neighbourhood, we are already one step further from reproducing normative or romanticised ideas of what a neighbourhood is.
Franziska Bittner is an architect and urban designer based in Berlin. Interested in testing different critical mapping techniques, she focuses on combining political and spatial spheres. Together with Alina Schütze she is active in the Kollektiv Raumstation Berlin, in which they work on right-to-the-city issues on an activist level.
Alina Schütze is an urban designer based in Berlin. With a focus on the integration of social science and urban design methods, especially critical mapping techniques, her thematic interests lie in precarious housing, conceptions of neighbourhoods, the co-produced city and spatial negotiation processes (e.g. in the mapping project Wohnhaft im Verborgenen). Together with Franziska Bittner she is active in the Kollektiv Raumstation Berlin, in which they work on right-to-the-city issues on an activist level.
Dellwing, M., & Prus, R. C. (2012). Einführung in die interaktionistische Ethnografie: Soziologie im Außendienst. Springer VS.
D’Ignazio, C., & Klein, L. F. (2020). Data Feminism. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Kim, A. M. (2015). Critical cartography 2.0: From “participatory mapping” to authored visualizations of power and people. Landscape and Urban Planning, 142, 215–225. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2015.07.012
Warf, B. (2015). Deep Mapping and Neogeography. In Deep maps and spatial narratives, 134–149. Indiana University Press.
 The research took place before the pandemic when urban public space was still used extensively.
 We analysed the (re)production of the neighbourhood in urban public space, which is just one possible approach to understanding neighbourhoods. We define urban public spaces as those shared spaces where neighbours meet (in)voluntarily. Due to an increasing pluralization of different user groups and lifestyles, the demands on shared urban public space also diverge – which creates dissent and conflict. Through this aspect of our observations, the importance of urban public space for the (re)production of the neighbourhood is underlined.
 Authors note: During the pandemic, people are forced to retreat to their homes (if they have one). Spaces of public negotiation and everyday encounters are lacking, and conflicts are either increasingly transferred to the public realm or likely to be overseen in public. We can only assume how this situation may increase inequalities and impact negotiation resources even more. To what extent contested public space may function as a balancing mechanism and a form of retreat could be subject to further research.