What is so Berlin? A critical review of current lines and questions of urban research in the German capital

Samuel Merrill, Sandra Jasper

Das ist so Berlin


In late 2012 Berlin’s local zitty magazine launched its ‘Das ist so Berlin’ [That is so Berlin] advertising campaign. Occasionally the campaign’s small red and white stickers can still be found today, having at first appeared prominently throughout the city during 2013, on rubbish bins, U-Bahn signs, and bus stops. While this campaign hinted at the city’s supposed exceptionalism a number of academic events and publications that same year highlighted and scrutinised Berlin’s growing international urban research profile. Sessions at both the annual conference of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) in Los Angeles (9-13 April 2013)[1] and the annual meeting of the International Sociological Association’s Research Committee 21 (RC21) in Berlin (29-31 August 2013) focussed academic attention on the German capital. Coinciding with the latter, an edited volume titled, The Berlin Reader: A Compendium on Urban Change and Activism (2013) made many key German language articles about the city accessible to an international English-speaking readership for the first time.

The following review summarises these two academic events and the Berlin Reader and discusses the research themes, debates and critical questions that they reflect. It focuses on one of the key concerns that they raise, namely the question as to whether Berlin can be framed as an exceptional or paradigmatic case of urban development. A review of current research on Berlin is thus also linked to broader debates about the merits and limitations of different approaches in the field of urban studies. In such a way this review reverses zitty’s claim about the city’s extraordinary characteristics by hypothetically asking ‘Was ist so Berlin?’ [What is so Berlin?] about urban research in the city and discussing some of the answers given to this question by those involved in the aforementioned events and publication.

The review is structured in four sections. The first two sections briefly summarise the papers and discussions of the AAG and RC21 sessions. The third section reviews the Berlin Reader. Thereafter the review synthesises some of the common debates raised across these academic outlets. With this synthesis it aims to provide the reader with a concise account of some of the contemporary urban research being pursued in and about Berlin while summarising and contributing further to the critical perspectives that aim to complicate the city’s supposed exceptionalism. This is achieved through a particular attention to the vocabulary used to communicate research about the city, the role and position of the urban researcher in Berlin and the present lacunae in its constituent research agendas.

1. The ‘Moving to Berlin’ sessions, AAG

Six AAG sessions on Berlin collectively titled ‘Moving to Berlin – a growing laboratory of urban thought and research?’ were used to interrogate the reinvigorated academic fascination with the city. They aimed to shed light on and better understand the urban debates that currently characterise Berlin by provoking a discussion about the city’s status in relation to the ‘paradigmatic cities’ debate and with reference to the Los Angeles School of Urbanism. Four paper sessions explored the themes of memory production, cultural spaces and practices, housing and neighbourhood change, and the ‘new’ Berlin. They were bookended by an opening and closing panel discussion.

In the opening panel, Edward Soja, Laura Pulido, Claire Colomb, Allan Cochrane and Matthew Gandy were invited to reflect on the advantages and disadvantages of employing the ‘paradigmatic city’ and ‘school’ concepts to Berlin, draw comparisons between urban research in and on Berlin and Los Angeles, and examine how the aforementioned concepts might expand or limit the theorisation of cities and urban global networks. The panellists critically discussed the Los Angeles School’s tendency to focus on particular urban phenomena and forms of activism at the expense of other important areas of research tied to the city’s history. For example, Pulido emphasised its lack of a historically grounded perspective and its subsequent failure to account for periods of colonialism and genocide. While Cochrane drew parallels in the forces driving urban research in Los Angeles from the 1970s and in Berlin after 1989, Colomb objected to transferring concepts developed for the former to the latter. She claimed that the approaches that conceptualised Berlin as either a unique case or a barometer of general development were undermined by their tendency to rely too heavily on theories of urban development drawn from distinctively North American contexts.

The idea of ‘paradigmatic cities’ and the notion of ‘schools of urban research’ were generally rejected in favour of, as Soja put it, “more comparative, grounded, and politicised research”. Yet, panellists also emphasised the importance of the historical perspectives that can highlight specific moments in time when cities emerge as catalysts for critical intellectual debates – as, for example, illustrated by Gandy in reference to Berlin’s role as an experimental city and centre of international modernism during the Weimar era. In conclusion, most of those involved in this session seemed to agree that the Los Angeles School should be considered as having its own intellectual history, place, and time. Thus, the school’s insights and assumptions cannot easily be transferred to other contexts, including Berlin.

The subsequent sessions on memory production, cultural spaces and practices, housing and neighbourhood change, and the notion of the ‘new’ Berlin combined historical with contemporary papers in order to reveal the connections between some of the research trajectories that have been developed over the preceding decades. Papers on grassroots commemoration (Samuel Merrill), ‘official’ memory production (Jeffrey Wallen, Julia Binder) and artistic practices (Beatrice Jarvis) suggested that Berlin’s claim to paradigmatic status might arguably be strongest in the field of social memory studies. They also revealed, however, that social memory research is rarely explicitly linked to research themes and approaches of critical urban studies thus highlighting areas for future investigation. A further set of papers revealed how tensions arising from processes of property speculation and debates over land ownership have had consequences for Berlin’s cultural spaces and practices. Such tensions were reflected in early post-war cultural and architectural projects (Sandra Jasper) and continue to influence Berlin’s more recent transitory cultural spaces and practices, which face increasing commodification and regulation (Karen Till, Christian Haid, and Luise Rellensmann/John Schofield). In the session dedicated to neighbourhood change and housing, a study on Berlin’s history of squatting (Alex Vasudevan) was discussed alongside the recent case of the left-wing Hausprojekt Liebig 14 in Berlin-Friedrichshain, which was evicted by the police in February 2011 (Lucrezia Lennert). A further paper discussing the technocratic housing policies of the second-half of the 1940s (Clara Oberle) was followed by a presentation of current changes in Berlin’s housing policies and the associated processes of deregulation that have forced certain parts of the population to move to ‘peripheral neighbourhoods’ (Daniel Förste). A series of papers then focussed on the ‘new’ Berlin of the 1990s and 2000s. They analysed the accelerated pace of recent processes of urban change and discussed the city’s forced incorporation into a more generalised neo-liberal model of urban development (Claire Colomb/Johannes Novy, Nicole Huber). These papers also discussed metaphors, blind spots in research, and times around which the idea of the ‘new’ Berlin revolves. Thereby they exposed the problems of trying to classify the city with reference to a single adjective (Deike Peters, Matthew Gandy).

The closing plenary provided the opportunity for each of the session discussants (Gandy, Huber, Peters and Vasudevan) and Volker Eick, who represented a seventh AAG session dedicated to Berlin called ‘Policing its Crisis: Berlin between Powerhouse & Poverty’, to return to the productive linkages and insights revealed during earlier discussions. Its discussions revealed that the wide array of theoretical and disciplinary perspectives and methods used to account for the particularities of Berlin’s differing local and temporal contexts could be criticised for their lack of a shared analytical framework. Andrej Holm critiqued the structure of the AAG sessions for its failure to provide an overarching critical framework to account for processes of urban change. Holm and Vasudevan both called for a greater emphasis on political economy approaches.[2] In fact, the sessions were designed to avoid the a priori application of a single framework in favour of starting a broader inter- and cross- disciplinary conversation about the city that hoped to generate new insights unrestricted by narrow disciplinary and chronological frames of interest. Consequently, papers given by presenters originating from a wide array of academic disciplines (geography, history, art, planning, archaeology, and urbanism) relied on common historical frameworks and perspectives and demonstrated how these could provide new insights about contemporary Berlin.

2. Questioning Berlin, RC21

RC21’s 2013 ‘Resourceful Cities’ conference, hosted by Berlin’s Humboldt University, is further evidence of a reinvigorated academic interest in the city. The fact that it was hosted in Berlin was widely considered to be one of the main reasons for the conference’s high level of attendance. To mark the occasion, the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research (IJURR) released an open access special virtual issue in which Ute Lehrer framed the city as a “capital of contradictions” (2013) and introduced eighteen past IJURR articles about the city. The city’s contradictions became most apparent during the conference, thanks to a special session on ‘Questioning Berlin’ organised by Andrej Holm and Claire Colomb that also acted as the public launch of The Berlin Reader: A Compendium on Urban Change and Activism, a collection of sixteen articles, old and new, edited by Matthias Bernt, Britta Grell and Andrej Holm.

The ‘Questioning Berlin’ session brought together papers by both senior and junior academics who were either currently conducting or had previously conducted research on and in Berlin (Claire Colomb [standing in for Johannes Novy], Matthias Bernt, Margit Mayer, and Sabina Uffer). The session aimed to clarify whether Berlin’s developments can be interpreted in the light of global perspectives, or if Berlin is so exceptional that applying perspectives rooted in other cities does not make sense. At least this was the objective of the session stated in its programme description. Thus, the RC21 session’s discussion as to whether or not specific urban transformations in Berlin revealed the local implications of global processes connected to the AAG sessions’ attempts to question Berlin’s exceptionalism. But sadly, despite a continuity of speakers and the theoretical and empirical overlap between many of the papers in Los Angeles and Berlin, such connections were not explicated. In turn, the promise of an extended dialogue across conferences, cohorts and continents remained largely unfulfilled.

The ‘Questioning Berlin’ session aimed to interrogate the difference between local and international readings of the city. Its organisers were critical, albeit almost apologetically, of the weaknesses that they traced in the majority of international scholarship on Berlin, in particular Anglophone studies. In this vein, it and the Berlin Reader acknowledged the failure of much international scholarship to take advantage of, or even note, the rich insights of German research on Berlin whilst simultaneously grafting theories and (pre)concepts from elsewhere a priori onto the city. Similar concerns had been expressed during the AAG sessions through their participants’ attempt to critically scrutinise the position, role and influence of the academic researcher. This discourse can be further contextualised as the re-emergence of that which was discussed in the euro-commentaries exchanged by Alan Latham and Allan Cochrane in the journal of European Urban and Regional Studies in 2006 (Cochrane 2006, Latham 2006a; 2006b). Commenting on these concerns in 2013 as discussant of the RC21 session, Cochrane referenced the tension between Anglophone and German researchers but emphasised more the tension between approaching Berlin as a case or alternatively as a place. The former, he conceded, had been the predominant approach of the Anglophone scholars who, like him, were drawn to the city in the early 1990s. They conceived of Berlin metaphorically as a “playground”, “blank canvas” and perhaps most enduringly as a “laboratory” in which they could confirm, test or discover alternatives to prevalent global urban processes. The RC21 session papers, Cochrane ventured, better illustrated Berlin as a place through a richness of research that analysed local specificity without celebrating exceptionalism or failing to identify connections to or implications for wider international theories and processes.

3. The Berlin Reader

In a similar tone to the RC21 session, the editors of the Berlin Reader suggested that large parts of the international community of scholars working on Berlin have failed to grasp Berlin’s specific political, historical and economic contexts. They saw this largely as the result of a failure to engage sufficiently with the German literature due to an enduring language barrier. Therefore, the Berlin Reader’s main objective, to make explicit such contexts through the English translation of key German language texts, is ultimately a noble one, even if introduced by means of a somewhat prescriptive list of factors “necessary for understanding Berlin”. Following the brief but useful summary of these factors (namely the continuing consequences of the city’s cold-war division, its general ongoing municipal financial crisis, which resulted in an early politics of austerity, and a historically specific planning culture) the editors introduce sixteen articles structured under four roughly chronological categories: ‘Berlin’s Megalomania’, ‘Berlin In-Between’, ‘Berlin On Sale’, ‘Berlin Contested’. The collection comprises fourteen previously published works (of which ten were originally printed in German) and two new research papers. Social scientific articles alternate with more journalistic essays, with the earliest texts from Berlin’s immediate post-Wende years.

To comment on each contribution in turn is beyond the scope of this review and the majority of them have already demonstrated their value and credibility and have been discussed in established academic forums. Together they cover the dominant themes of the post-1989 city, including urban segregation, gentrification, privatisation and the resulting contestations and social conflicts. Some of the essays can now be framed as historical sources that document the rapidness of urban change in the 1990s. Others provide future direction for research on the city by highlighting the need to take into account what Holm calls Berlin’s “locally specific trajectories” and the influence of changing regulatory and legal frameworks.

Each of the contributions, as would be expected, is of an extremely high academic standard. This quality, however, is occasionally undermined by recurrent translation, grammatical and editorial errors that are no doubt the result of a tight publication deadline and the decision to use multiple translation companies. Although these errors can at times be frustrating they do not ultimately detract from the volume’s inherent value. The Berlin Reader is successful in its objective to provide the historic, political, and economic contexts of Berlin’s urban development that its editors claim is lacking in most international research about the city. Thus it will become a useful tool for the international researcher in and of Berlin.

4. Beyond Berlin’s exceptionalism

The sessions at the AAG and the RC21, along with the Berlin Reader, all served to complicate the notion that Berlin is exceptional. In their own ways, each confirmed the ambivalence surrounding the application of international urban theory and the absence of a commonly held theoretical, methodological or even motivational consensus for research in the city in ways that ultimately undermine the idea of a Berlin School of Urbanism and the view that the city might be considered paradigmatic. The rejection of these labels for Berlin does not, however, wholly resolve the question of why Berlin continues to grab the fascination of urban researchers and is able to hold the attention of academia. What Matthew Gandy described in Los Angeles as a “distinct metropolitan sensibility” could be connected to what Nik Theodore identified as the legacy of the critical urbanism that dates to the Weimar period. Theodore contrasted this legacy with a relative deficit of critical theory in the contemporary German academic context – a situation that urban research centred on Berlin can sometimes echo.

Superlatives and Metaphors

A wide range of superlatives and metaphors has been used to describe and understand Berlin. The city has been framed as ‘new’, globalising, normalising, experimental, divided, ordinary and contradictory, and researchers have approached it as a case, place, laboratory, blank canvas, playground and studio. Yet it remains unclear where on the scale between ‘typicality’ and ‘exceptionality’ the city lies. Are all of these terminologies useful in determining the extent of Berlin’s exceptionalism? Furthermore what are the consequences of their stereotypical, archetypical or prototypical claims (Brenner 2003)? Should we perhaps heed Bernt et al.’s rejection of a single common framing narrative for research in Berlin (2013), and instead embrace the academic, methodological and rhetorical plurality that the city gives rise to?

Regardless, superlative claims must serve an analytical purpose and rhetorical gestures must be subjected to constant reflexive and critical reflection (Beauregard 2003), in ways that disclose why certain metaphors have been activated, due to what motivations and with what consequences. The particularly enduring metaphor of the ‘laboratory’ is a case in point. Whilst it had a strong resonance for certain historical periods – not least for West Berlin during the city’s period of division – the question arises: what does such a metaphor refer to today? Is a laboratory a concept, method or place, and does this concept address normative questions? At the AAG Volker Eick and Alex Vasudevan both expressed scepticism about the term’s explanatory usefulness and critical potential and noted the power relations that it implies. If the city is a laboratory, what experiments are taking place there, and, as Eick trenchantly asked, “Who are the scientists and who are the rats?”

Continued critical reflection on the deployment of metaphors and the use of language is an imperative in an interdisciplinary field of research, such as urban studies. Gandy emphasised at the Los Angeles conference that the introduction of a simplified scientific terminology could not represent the solution to overcoming the conceptual boundaries underlying interdisciplinary research. In other words, only a rigorous engagement with different fields of scientific knowledge can enable a successful exchange across disciplines. Additional commentators at the time noted that such boundaries might at times be more pronounced within the German academic system, which tends to emphasise disciplinary and institutional differences at the expense of co-operative exchanges between and across specific intellectual strands.[3]

The role and position of Berlin researchers

Recent tensions in research on Berlin seem at times to border questions about who has the right to study the city and, conversely, who allocates that right. When they do, they run the risk of confounding differences regarding methodological and theoretical approaches with reservations about the origins of researchers. This might cause the formulation of simplistic categories by which to divide research about the city. Cochrane’s two sets of tensions, for example, might be misread to suggest that international researchers approaching the city as a case fail to appreciate the particular context of the city as a place, which in turn can only be grasped by the local scholar. Ultimately, as Holm acknowledged at the RC21 session ‘Questioning Berlin’, both approaches and groups of researchers are needed to push forward understandings of the city.

This disclaimer, however, does not prevent the potential risks associated with a continued attribution of particular research approaches (with all their merits and faults) to particular groups of scholars, especially those divided along, at worst, national, and at best, linguistic lines. Sadly, the dominance of an Anglophone-centred publishing culture might exacerbate these tensions as it restricts research across languages in a unidirectional manner.[4]

If we are all justified in studying Berlin, what are our responsibilities to the city and its populace? To what degree are we complicit with the phenomena we study in Berlin? And how is this complicated by the pursuit of urban social and spatial justice? Numerous papers that featured in the conference sessions reviewed above hinted at the additional roles and positions of the urban researcher, whether as an activist, choreographer or tourist, but this was too rarely the focus of discussion. A sustained critical and self-reflective exploration of the researcher’s positionality was also a disappointing omission of the Berlin Reader, as was the acknowledgement that the publication might also represent an academic variant of the city boosterism that many of its contributors are critical of. Such concerns permeate all levels of urban research in the city. As the 2013 RC21 conference showed many researchers are lured to the city because of its current cultural profile and the popular perception that it is ‘the place to be’[5], not to mention its low living costs and hospitable life-styles. What of the increase in American and UK academic field trips to the city, and the geographies of knowledge production that they import? What part do these academics and students play in the urban processes such as touristification and gentrification, which they often come to Berlin with the explicit intention to study?

Blind spots in research on Berlin

None of the above forums or publications could hope to cover urban research in Berlin comprehensively, but despite this they still provided clues to the multi-level empirical and conceptual blind spots that prevail in current research on Berlin. For example, at the AAG Deike Peters identified the predominance of neighbourhood level research at the expense of that conducted at the regional or metropolitan scale. Likewise she highlighted some of the parts of the city that gain little academic attention, including certain urban redevelopment and infrastructure megaprojects, which have so far been neglected by researchers, presumably because they are not necessarily displacing large groups of, or more politically visual, residents. Her sentiment indirectly reveals the centrality of neo-liberalisation processes such as gentrification and privatisation to research agendas in the city. An emphasis on these processes continues despite ongoing debate regarding the applicability of the wider neo-liberalist framework to Berlin. Perhaps there is no single critical framework capable of capturing Berlin, or indeed any city, in all its contradictions and complexities in the same way as the editors of the Berlin Reader have suggested that there is no singly applicable metaphorical language suited to the city.

Thus, the question arises: what other, wider frames, might usefully complement our understandings of Berlin? What, for instance, might be the implications of framing Berlin more explicitly as a post-socialist city?[6] Alex Vasudevan also acknowledged the tendency to “fetishise” specific moments in Berlin’s history at the expense of others, a weakness of current research agendas that is partly demonstrated by the content of the Berlin Reader. It does not feature any papers predating 1989 and its historic breadth is predominantly limited to the decades since unification. Thus, whilst it demonstrates the continuing consequences of the city’s cold-war division it rarely handles the process of reunification, nor the preceding historical periods and the specific implications that they hold, structurally and content wise, for Berlin’s contemporary processes of urban development. As a number of the papers at the AAG emphasised, many of the so-called ‘new’ Berlin’s characteristics have in fact a far longer genealogy that predates reunification.

In highlighting these themes along with some of their associated issues and by raising a number of questions, we hope that this review has at least modestly contributed to the debate about future research on and in the “capital of contradictions” (Lehrer 2013). But perhaps more importantly we hope this review demonstrates the need for an ongoing conversation about exactly what urban research in Berlin is, is not and should be. Arguably the depth of the city’s contradictions and distinctiveness will only be grasped if urban research in Berlin is continually problematised in ways that take account of its pluralistic rhetoric, the roles and positions of its purveyors, and the shadows it generates.



Samuel Merrill holds degrees in archaeology, ancient history and heritage studies. He is currently completing his doctorate in cultural geography at University College London on the subject of mnemonic production in the subterranean landscapes of the London Underground and Berlin S- and U-Bahn.



Sandra Jasper holds degrees in geography and gender studies. She is currently completing her doctorate, an urban and cultural geography of West Berlin, at University College London. Since July 2014 she is working as postdoctoral researcher on the ERC-sponsored project ‚Rethinking Urban Nature.‘



Beauregard, Robert A. (2003): City of Superlatives. In: City & Community 2/3, 183-199.

Bernt, Matthias / Grell, Britta / Holm, Andrej (Hg.) (2013): The Berlin Reader: A Compendium on Urban Change and Activism. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag.

Brenner, Neil (2003): Stereotypes, Archetypes, and Prototypes: Three Uses of Superlatives in Contemporary Urban Studies. In: City & Community 2/3, 205-216.

Cochrane, Allan (2006): Euro-commentary: (Anglo)phoning Home from Berlin: A Response to Alan Latham. In: European Urban and Regional Studies 13, 371-376.

Latham, Alan (2006a): Euro-commentary: Anglophone Urban Studies and the European City: Some Comments on Interpreting Berlin. In: European Urban and Regional Studies 13, 88-92.

Latham, Alan (2006b): Euro-commentary: Berlin and Everywhere Else: A Reply to Allan Cochrane. In: European Urban and Regional Studies 13, 377-379.

Lehrer, Ute (2013): Berlin: Capital of Contradictions. www.ijurr.org/view/IJURRBerlinVI.html (last accessed 5.1.2014).

Smale, Alison (2014): Mayor Klaus Wowereit of Berlin Says He Will Step Down. In: The New York Times, 26 August 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/27/world/europe/mayor-klaus-wowereit-of-berlin-says-he-will-step-down.html?_r=0 (last accessed 27.8.2014).