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World Revolution in an Urban Space

The world’s metropolises are constantly in flux, undergoing rapid and radical change. As the pioneers of globalization for the past 200 years, they are now the focus of an international research training group that has its roots in Berlin.

Jun 13, 2017

Metropolises like Tokyo change at a rapid and radical pace. An international research training group with roots in Berlin addresses the multifaceted topics that flow into interdisciplinary urban research.

Metropolises like Tokyo change at a rapid and radical pace. An international research training group with roots in Berlin addresses the multifaceted topics that flow into interdisciplinary urban research.
Image Credit: Bernhard Friess, flickr.comCC BY-ND 2.0

Before World War II, Berlin’s famous Potsdamer Platz was the most traffic-bound intersection in Europe and offered the craziest night life to boot. It remained a huge wasteland after 1945 and was then divided by the Berlin Wall in 1961. Even well before German reunification, the huge, unauthorized Polish market was a source of new life as well as conflict at the interface between East and West. It served as a trading ground for T-shirts, Polish sausage, marinated mushrooms, crystal, cigarettes, liquor, and more. By the end of the 1990s, Potsdamer Platz had been transformed into a new and vibrant Berlin quarter. Today, multinational companies operate in smart new buildings, while tourists from around the world stroll through streets lined with cinemas, shopping malls, and hotels. The city’s night-life scene and its rougher streets and corners are now found elsewhere.

“Berlin has changed rapidly and radically over the past 200 years. It has been both a pioneer and a driver of societal change,” says Alexander Nützenadel, a professor of social and economic history at Humboldt Universität Berlin and co-speaker of the international research training group whose work looks at: Die Welt in der Stadt: Metropolitanität und Globalisierung vom 19. Jahrhundert bis zur Gegenwart. (The World in the City: Metropolitan Life and Globalisation from the 19th Century to Today). “In Berlin,” says Nützenadel, “the city’s social, economic, and political dynamics come together in a tight urban space where large numbers of people with very different backgrounds live with and alongside one another in constellations that are constantly subject to change. Technische Üniversität, Humboldt-Universität, and Freie Universität formed the research training group to close a research gap.”

Metropolises: A People Magnet since Industrialization Began

Industrialization seen since the 19th century has changed the world in many ways. It was a revolution that began in the metropolises of Europe and North America. In the space of just a few decades, the populations of cities like Paris, London, and New York grew million-fold. People migrated in masses to the places where factories were offering work. And as industrialization progressed, globalization surged forward as well. The distance between countries and continents shrank significantly, first thanks to steamships and railways, and later to cars and planes. The world’s metropolises were and still are the hubs. Over the years, the social science subject of urban research has studied the interrelationship between metropolises and globalization. However, most of the studies on world history have only touched on this interrelationship as a kind of fringe issue. Even urban history has rarely addressed the global transformations seen since the 19th century.

In the research training group, doctoral candidates from many and varied disciplines investigate the full range of topics involved in interdisciplinary urban research: architecture and urban planning, migration and mobility, knowledge and communication, environment protection, and sustainable development. “Berlin’s universities are all well positioned in terms of their specific areas of research,” says Nützenadel. “The research training group consolidates their individual strengths.”

The research work conducted by the research training group, which is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG), is not limited to Berlin – universities in New York and Toronto are also involved. “Thanks to the group’s excellent research network we are able to offer our young researchers a working environment that is international as well as interdisciplinary. They are able to conduct transnational research, both in terms of research content and the institutions with which they work,” Nützenadel explains. “The research training group is designed to produce a new generation of researchers who are both transnational researchers and global citizens.”

Graduate Research Focuses on Cities across Continents

“Collaboration between graduate students from differing disciplines provides additional research impetus,” says Noa Ha describing her own experience. The engineering graduate worked on her doctoral thesis as part of the Transatlantic Research Training Group from 2008 to 2010. This network of Berlin and New York universities gave rise to the international research training group – of which Toronto is also a member – looking at Die Welt in der Stadt (The World in the City). Ha is now a research assistant at the Center for Metropolitan Studies at Technische Universität Berlin. She is also the coordinator of the international research training group. “The work done in the group and the framework program of workshops on offer have really broadened my research horizon,” says Ha. Her dissertation – Polenmarkt am Potsdamer Platz: Handel(n) und Wandel(n). Urbane Informalität, städtische Repräsentation und migrantische Existenzsicherung in Berlin am Beispiel des mobilen Straßenhandels (Trade and Change. Urban Informality, City Representation and Migrant Existence in Berlin in the Example of Mobile Street Trade) – touches among other things on the Polish market on Potsdamer Platz.

The research training group focuses its studies on cities across the continents in their capacities as centers of finance and business, and also as political and social crucibles. The young research community looks not only at how the dynamics of a metropolis are reflected in its architecture and urban planning, but also how music and film play a role in expressing transition and change. This is evident in publications reporting on the jazz scenes of 1920s Paris and Berlin, and in 1960s films depicting change in New York. Current topics like the refugee crisis are investigated in a historical context, as are the problems of housing scarcity and social conflict. Once they have been identified, knowledge of temporally and spatially overlapping structures and patterns can be used to develop solutions for use in tackling the challenges of the day.