All posts by Ayla Gizlice

Individuality in European Cities

How does city planning in German and Dutch cities enable people to be themselves?

The United States prides itself in being the land of freedom. It is the land where people can turn their dreams into reality. However, this summer has showed me that the way that our society is organized today can hinder the realization of these dreams in a way German and Dutch society does not. In the US our society is structured in a way that alienates people from each other, whereas many European nations foster a sense of community. I would like to argue that this difference is primarily rooted in economic and political differences. While the EU and the US both operate on a system of capitalism, the EU tends more toward the stakeholder model whereas the US system prioritizes shareholders. This means that companies in the EU make decisions by considering the interests of all of the people affected by these decisions. This system maximizes equity, and can be seen in practice at many of the Mittelstand companies that we visited in Germany. With the shareholder model, which is utilized by the US, companies consider the interests of their shareholders above the interests of the people affected. This disregard for the fellow man stratifies the economy. The middle class in the US is shrinking, and the gaps in socioeconomic status are polarizing the country. The polarization affects even the most fundamental aspects of our culture; from education, to innovation, to city planning.

Osman Kalin, a Turkish immigrant to Berlin, constructed this building for his family in the death strip along the Wall during the division of the city. He wanted to bring a piece of his home country to his new home and have a place to grow fruits and vegetables for his family. He shared the produce from the garden with the community, and the house is now a monument of individualism in Kreuzberg.

Like everything in our society, cities are divided based on socioeconomic status. It is common for the rich, wanting to distance themselves from the ugly realities of poverty, move into sheltered enclaves, while the poor are confined to neighborhoods that are often neglected. Many towns in the US are not densely developed and have limited public transit, so people who cannot afford cars are relatively immobile. As a result there is less interaction between socioeconomic groups, and less empathy for people who are different from one’s self. This creates a positive feedback loop; because people are not forced to understand each other’s perspectives, little effort is made to encourage intermingling through public institutions (parks, events, transit, etc.) and the lack of empathy deepens and the problem is exacerbated. In Germany and the Netherlands, we saw that many neighborhoods are developed to have a variety of housing options for people; subsidized, high-end, and regular housing can be found in the same area. Many neighborhoods have a park where children can play and people can meet each other. Community projects, such as the community gardens that we saw in The Hague, foster a sense of connectivity through people working together to achieve a common goal. The prevalence of public transit discourages people from using personal vehicles and forces vastly different people to encounter each other on the train or bus. Public events, which often have cultural themes (for example, the Thailand festival that we encountered on our last day in The Hague), bring people together and promote an understanding of different cultures. This strong sense of connectedness and responsibility to one’s peers is mirrored by the higher taxes that people in Germany in the Netherlands pay; tax money provides a financial safety net for people in need. However, it is important to note that taxes in the EU are only slightly higher than in the US. Instead of fortifying a monstrous military, European nations funnel the majority of their taxes into supporting their citizens.

Berlin is famous for its unique street art. Although graffiti is a crime and if caught, artists must pay a hefty fee, almost anywhere you look you can find examples of this artform. Many people admire Berlin’s street art and celebrate the artists.

I feel that the sense of community that is present in Germany and the Netherlands allows people to be themselves, and do the things that they want. In a society where you are only surrounded by people who are similar, it is really difficult to be different. Creativity is choked in the name of homogeneity. Cary is a good example of this phenomenon. Neighborhoods are planned with row after row of identical houses in identical yards on identical streets. Homeowners associations limit the modifications that people can make to their properties in fear that any discrepancy will lower the value of the homes in the neighborhood. Driving through these neighborhoods is eerie; it is as if one has entered into a science fiction world, where the people live mechanical lives and have lost the beautiful, organic quality that is quintessential to humanity. This is, of course, and exaggeration. I’m sure that people living in these communities live fulfilling lives. But boxing oneself into a life that looks like all of the others must do something to a person’s mental health. In Europe this summer I observed people ranging across the spectrum of the human experience coexisting together, and generally embracing the things that make people different. Our tour of Kreuzberg provided great examples of this. Street artists are treated as anonymous celebrities, and their work has become one of the main attractions of the area. Their art provides insight into where they find meaning, and this personal monument is celebrated. Osman Kalin pieced together a home on public land, and his creativity and resourcefulness is now admired. The African art collective, YAAM, is successful enough to be housed on property in the heart of Berlin along the Spree. This celebration of arts and culture is what I will miss most about Europe.

The crowd awaits a musical performance at The Hague’s Thailand Festival. At the festival one could find delicious traditional Thai food, watch musical and dance performances, and talk to some of the city’s Thai inhabitants.

Of course human nature will always have beautiful and ugly pieces; xenophobia will always exist, and European society also has many problems with this. But I got the impression that this is a problem that Europe is working to overcome, whereas in the US many people seem content with the status quo.

-Ayla Gizlice

Development of Wilhelmsburg

The Wilhelmsburg quarter of Hamburg is being developed alleviate density in the city.

In the morning we met up with Rolf and made our way to the train station. Along the way we stopped by some former meatpacking warehouses that have been repurposed into art galleries, a kindergarten, a brewery, restaurants, and other cultural attractions. While these businesses are revitalizing the area, the meatpacking district is becoming less and less affordable for people with low incomes. Rolf also mentioned that some people want to clean out the Rote Flora, the center for political extremism and one of the hubs for protest during the G20 summit, and convert it into a nonpolitical public space. However, this would remove some of the diversity and history from the St. Pauli quarter of Hamburg. After perusing some of the other redevelopments in the area, we proceeded to the platform and caught an S-bahn to Wilhelmsburg, the island in the middle of the Elbe River.

Our guide, Rolf, points at the old autobahn running through Wilhelmsburg on a model of the island. The autobahn is slated for closure in order to reduce noise pollution and make life on the island more pleasant.

Our first stop in Wilhelmsburg was the city planning office of Hamburg. In the center of the lobby was a detailed model of the entire city. We took a seat on the steps and Rolf launched into a lecture on the development of Wilhelmsburg. He explained that during the Third Reich an autobahn was built through Wilhemsburg. Hamburg fell under western control after the second world war, and companies in the packaging and shipping industry took root in Wilhelmsburg to take advantage of the port and the newly built autobahn. After reunification these companies expanded to the market in east Germany with ease, which actually hindered economic innovation and causes problems with job creation today. These companies developed the western edge of the island, leaving most of Wilhelmsburg untouched. As urbanization and globalization caused Hamburg to become more densely populated, the city had to come up with innovative solutions to housing people. One such solution was building up Wilhelmsburg and making it an appealing place to live.

However, there were many challenges to making the island livable and attractive. Wetlands, pollution, and flooding are all barriers to development on* the island. Nevertheless, the city of Hamburg, which owns the land, began by building a kindergarten, a medical center, a retirement home, and a hotel on the island. People began to move to the area. The south side of the island became a center for education, and north became filled with sporting facilities. The southeastern edge is a pristine, untouched forest, and the center is a large public park called Inselpark. This abundance of green areas makes the city feel spacious and less dense than it is in reality. Another autobahn was built through the island, and public transit makes traveling between the island and the city center easy and convenient. Rolf explained that in the future the city will close the old autobahn, reducing noise on the island and making a more attractive place to live. After gaining an understanding of the development of the island, we left the city planning office to see what the island had to offer. We strolled through the Inselpark, which the locals have turned into a recreational area. There were basketball courts, skateboarding ramps, a public pool, and even a towering rock climbing facility. People seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the park, and part of me was dying to put on a climbing harness and join in the fun. We continued our tour through a residential area. The flats in this area were created as part of an experiment that the government was conducting; one building had tanks of water on the outside walls and was growing algae to sell to fish farms, one was affordably built out of slabs of concrete and was subsidized by the government to provide affordable housing to low-income families, and another had solar panels to generate energy and walls made of foliage to keep the building cool during the summer and warm during the winter. The area had a friendly and inviting feel, and seemed to be gaining popularity.

A group of children gather on a soccer field in the Inselpark. The park was part of a citizen effort to make their neighborhood in Wilhelmsburg more lively and enjoyable.
The climbing gym at the Inselpark has been a huge success with young people. All skill levels can enjoy the gym, and if climbing doesn’t interest you then the bar or office spaces in the building may.
The algae house is a good example of the housing experiments that are happening in Wilhelmsburg. The outer walls of the house are filled with tanks of water and algae. The water is in motion constantly to prevent the algae from settling. This causes maximum algae production. The algae is dried and sold to fish farmers.

-Ayla Gizlice

Urban Renewal in Rotterdam

A new approach to the urban farm

In the morning we walked to the station and caught a train to Rotterdam. We had a meeting with at an urban farm called Op Het Dak, but we took our time walking there. Along the way we passed some architecturally unique houses called Urban Treetops, which appeared to be slanting down toward the street. These houses were built in the 1970s in an effort to liven up the city center with “playful architecture”. Then we meandered through the Market Hall, which was held in the center of a huge ring-shaped residential building. I bought a bizarre-looking fruit called a crazy melon and enjoyed it as we walked. As we approached the building we passed through an area that has experienced tremendous urban renewal. In order to make the area more accessable, a massive pedestrian bridge was built out of wood and painted yellow. The bridge passed by a small community garden, made in a former deposit for building supplies. The bridge continued up to a train station that is in the process of becoming the Dutch equivalent of the New York Highline. This trio of inviting refurbishments is meant to encourage people to spend time outdoors and encourage pride and commitment to the surrounding community.

Inside the Rotterdam market hall visitors can pick up spices, produce, meats, cheeses, or enjoy a warm meal with a view of the Pencil, a neighboring landmark.
The slanted Urban Treetop homes require some creativity to live in and make the center of Rotterdam appear more playful and lively.

Upon arriving at Op Het Dak, we took the elevator up to the top floor and were greeted by Wouter Bauman. He explained that in 2012, the building was scheduled for demolish, but the architect stepped in and proposed a plan to give it new life by inviting creative companies to move into the builder. Bauman explained that the bottom floor was home to a popular Biergarten, and the other floors of the building housed other community-oriented organizations. Then he presented his personal project; the urban rooftop garden, overlooking the center of Rotterdam. The city offers a hefty subsidy for people starting rooftop gardens because they minimize the heat-island effect in cities, increase biodiversity, and work to prevent runoff and flooding. The garden produces a variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs, edible flowers, and even honey to be sold and served at the charming restaurant that shared the roof. Bauman explained that the biggest challenge with rooftop gardening was distributing and managing weight in a way that the roof could support. The edges could support more weight, so were fitted with polystyrene planters where deeply-rooted fauna could be grown. The rest of the roof was covered by several layers of plastic, film and soil in order to prevent damage to the roof. Because of the limited amount of soil that could be used, the garden was mainly comprised of plants with shallow roots. However, this didn’t seem to present a large obstacle for the garden; ruby raspberries could be seen warming in the sun, the vines of bean plants bowed under their heavy pods, and pollinators (including bees from Op Het Dak’s own hive) buzzed lazily around the rooftop. In addition to being exceedingly fruitful, the garden has received much media attention and is even listed on travel website Lonely Planet as one of the top attractions of Rotterdam. Although the garden does not use any pesticides, its produce is not considered organic because the soil used is not natural. Nevertheless, Bauman explained that the compost, which was comprised of food and plant scraps, provided some of the fertilizer used to nurse nutrients into the soil. After a few minutes of wandering around the garden and grazing on the fruits and vegetables, we settled down at the small rooftop restaurant and were treated to a healthy, wholesome lunch.

With the long hours of intense summer sun, Op Het Dak’s garden is thriving.
The compost pile in the corner of the garden is a step in the company’s effort to be sustainable.
The yellow pedestrian bridge, which passes over a major road, makes the area around Op Het Dak more inviting and accessible.

After lunch we left Op Het Dak and moved in the direction of the harbor. Along the way we passed a few large regions of pavement sunk below the level of the ground. These pits contained steps and jumps for a skate park, but during heavy rains a series of gutters would direct the water into them to form ponds and alleviate flooding. Upon reaching the harbor, we split up into groups and took our time returning to our hotel in The Hague.

Because of its low altitude and rainy climate, Rotterdam has been forced to get creative about managing water. This recreational area doubles as a pond during times of heavy rainfall.

-Ayla Gizlice