Citizens Reclaiming Politics Through Institutionalizing Their Everyday Concerns and Struggles


Our partner Ivana Dragsik reflects on a study visit to Hamburg and Berlin organized by the Heinrich Böll Foundation for its partners from Banja Luka, Sarajevo, Tirana and Skopje

hbs Berlin

Citizens Reclaiming Politics Through Institutionalizing Their Everyday Concerns and Struggles

The beginning of March 2019 marked the occasion when I got to see my colleagues from Banja Luka, Sarajevo, Tirana – but not in the context in which we always meet. Instead, we got a chance to visit Hamburg and Berlin through the filter of a study visit for activists, professionals and other civil operators more or less working on similar topics in their respective cities and countries: green politics, citizens’ participation, advancing democracy and protecting the environment. The group of 15, representing organizations from 4 cities, was a group of people with proven quality and long-term dedication to heavy issues in their respective communities and presented a rather stimulative environment for endless reexamining of my own attitudes, knowledge and persuasions. With many things brought into question, we discussed, disagreed, laughed and learned, hoping to acquire knowledge and information that we will be able to mobilize in our work back home.

Monday, March 4

The weather was typical, the schedule was dense, and we were in the mood to listen and talk. As the first day of our official study visit unfolded with a wind forecast for potential 88km/h, our first stop was the Hamburg based studio for participatory urban design “urbanista”, where we were greeted by Ms. Astrid Großman from the department of urban planning. Here we learned about the state-supported initiative of the City of Hamburg to connect and upgrade existing green areas into one big patch of high quality greenery that will contribute to the overall struggle against the heat islands and increase Hamburg’s green network. However, the aspect of the project “Landscape axis Horner Geest” presented to us was the part that “urbanista” implemented – urban development through research, communication and citizen participation, under the moniker “Deine Geest”. Ms. Großman guided us through the form and process of citizens’ participation, which were funded with 1/5 of the amount the State was to spend on the overall project and elaborated on how their studio got the job, what they have been doing in the past and why they think urban planning is a participative process of engineers, sociologists, citizens and decision makers. She was kind enough to recognize and discuss the obstacles they faced, as well as moments in the process which could have been implemented better. Her presentation prompted many questions and instantly opened the issue that was embedded in our study visit till the very end, at least for me personally – the participation of people/citizens in politics and policy making. My colleagues and I were very interested in the different phases of the project implementation, especially under the circumstances we will rarely witness in our communities – a political structure aware of the environmental conditions and willing to act on it and a big budget. Nevertheless, we did not allow ourselves to stay in awe, as we asked about certain weaknesses we detected, which were confirmed and discussed by our host.

The visit to the “urbanista” studio was followed by a meeting with the representatives of “Horner Paradiese” and “Markt & Kultur vor der Horner Freiheit”, two of the twelve projects that came out as winners in the process facilitated by the urban planning studio. Both of the projects were focused on creating a small paradise for the community of Horn, a place of meeting, getting in touch with nature, biodiversity, promoting local produce, non-commercial or artisanship activities, social issues and leisure. The group, my colleagues, seemed more interested in the process than in the final product. I was too. I guess as we were translating things into our terms, a political struggle seemed inevitable, and everyone we met so far was so relaxed and with no signs of one.

Luckily, the afternoon visit, talk and walk brought the discomfort I needed, or at least hoped to see, because there are no perfect cities with perfect urban policies, and coming from a topos of constant struggle, the visit to “Hinz und Kunzt” brought different aspects of urban policy and planning into focus. Not only did we learn about the different efforts the people of Hamburg (and the City itself) have put into making it easier or more practical for homeless people, but we heard a comparative presentation of one personal story and the local social and political circumstances that affect the lives of the homeless. Mr. Harald was very precise and insightful in his presentation and managed to present the intersectionality of the social and urban policies, public health and other tangent topics such as security, culture and demography. In the city of more than 42.000 millionaires and more than 2000 homeless people, we walked the walk that the latter group does, every day, rain or shine, often struggling on more fields than only being homeless – institutional, medical, psychological. The Hamburger Nebenschauplätze tour was an eye-opener, and not only in the sense of “how the homeless live and struggle”, but on a level of understanding the very simple path to becoming homeless, and very complex institutional and logistical labyrinth to get back to decent living conditions.

Tuesday, March 5

The visit to „Gängeviertel“ and the cooperative „Komm in die Gänge“ was something really special. The talk to Dr. Michael Ziehl brought into focus topics whose importance ranges from XVII century historical Hamburg to present times, and with the work of Michael and everyone involved, tends to the public interest in the future too. By learning about and witnessing the only remaining historical houses of Hamburg, we discussed the problematic point of issue when urban development and urban historical heritage cross, especially as a result of private interest. I was ambivalent to the fact that the state still sells public land to private capital, scared that it happens in Germany too, comforted that the people can get it back.
Still in the face of a very strong wind, probably not worth pointing out about Hamburg, we walked around the quarter to see how the cooperative has managed to organize the space, establish programs, lines of funding, formal and informal rules and order, and most of all – have it made people be present, use and claim what was once planned to become private space, probably turned into offices or high-end apartments. My favorite aspect of this walk was having the opportunity to comparatively experience urban spaces that have been developed by private investors and citizens’ mobilization. The latter ones were much more open, humane and obviously used by people with care. Other issues were important for many of my colleagues as well: how the cooperative is organized, what is the decision making process, how is it embedded in local or national legislature, etc.

The visit of the HafenCity University and the talk with Prof. Dr. Kathrin Wildner was short but very impressive for my taste. We only managed to get to know each other, share interests and projects we work on. She presented academic projects from the department, but also other artistic projects that encompass and give names to many issues we are still discussing and rethinking. Thus, I benevolently accepted the concept of performing citizenship from their projects as something that interests me the most and I actually treat with the projects I work on, with my colleagues. I could say the same thing for many of the colleagues in the study visit group, they have all had their share of choreographed protests, walks, institutional procedures, environment protection gatherings, and supposedly recognize their deeds in this slightly more developed context. We were ready to go to Berlin.

Wednesday, March 6

Of course our program in Berlin kicked-off in the wonderful sunny offices of the Heinrich Böll Foundation with Ms. Gudrun Fischer, the programme coordinator for our part of Europe. We used the same occasion to pick the brains of Ms. Susanne Jahn, spokeswoman AG Bauen (Greens Berlin), urban planner and expert on the legal framework for civic public cooperation, practitioner in organizing participative processes for development of public space. At moments, it seemed like we exhausted the lady with our questions, concerns and doubts, but all in the name of trying to understand the format constructive societies and governments function in, and perhaps translate it in policy recommendations applicable to our own societies.

To start off the Berlin portion of our study visit, we went to the “Bauhütte Südliche Friedrichstadt”. It was another lesson in history with the potential for reappropriation at times of general domination of private capital over public interest. The „Bauhütte” is a medieval hut, a shack, a cabin set on a construction site as a place where construction workers and the local community meet and exchange. Rocco Zühlke, Andreas Roth, Robert Slinger and the community of people around are trying to use this form on a soon-to-be construction site in Kreuzberg, where they will do exactly the same thing, in relation to the upcoming urban changes in that part of the city, especially populated by immigrant population. The idea is to establish a place that will generate knowledge about the potentials and the needs of the local population that will be used in the further urban development of the location, otherwise catering only to the investors’ interest. They are trying to upgrade the model and build up a place of local importance, where the mixed population will exchange more than their everyday concerns, but learn each other’s languages, organize cultural events and/or other low-key political gatherings. I liked this initiative because its members were explicit in their understanding of the changing demographics in this part of the German city and the model they are proposing serves two aspects of being an immigrant citizen: one, practical inclusion on the level of speaking the local language, socializing, understanding the system and processes; and two, social and political inclusion as a pursuit of better life quality. Of course, using public funds and the bureaucracy pose many obstacles and limitations in the development of this model, but I hope the cabin stands as long as it serves its purpose. 

Thursday, March 7

Thursday started with another visit to a successful new Model – Berlin Program for Artists. I liked the realization I left this visit with – that we all try to create new institutions or institutionalize our actions, struggles and existence. We may not all call it that (as I witnessed several times when I brought up my obsession with institutional reform), but to me it seems that I have found myself as a part of generation that is not reactionary any more, and tends to establish new meanings and institutions (in the wider sense of the word) and rethink and redistribute values appropriated by one dysfunctional system. The talk with the co-founders Willem de Rooij and Simon Denny and artists Aliénor Dauchez and Yalda Afsah confirmed just that – they did not seem like people who will wait for their opportunity or look for it somewhere else, they create the opportunity.

Fabrik Osloer Straße was the essential example of what I’ve come to think institutional innovation is. De iure, it is a private institution that caters to many layers of the public interest of the citizens of Berlin, but in real life and in my opinion, it is a model of a public institution that we should spend taxes on. An institution which has gone through a long process of realization and now implements a program that comes at the intersection of social issues, culture, housing, employment, and even public health. Ms. Ruth Ditschkowsky, a long-time board member did not recognize their institution as such, but I stand to my position that this is the type of institutions our cities need as a part of the local governance system.

Late in the afternoon that same day, we visited the Berlin Senate and took a historical tour as any tourist, especially interested in governance, should. Berlin’s Government was in session and the whole idea about transparency in politics through architecture I’ve been reading and learning about – was in full light. Not only the transparency in being able to see or even intrude the plenary session, but also the interior, architectural layers of the building, even the ones from the past that the Germans are mainly not proud of. Our evening ended with the dinner and talk with the Green member of Berlin City Parliament Daniela Billig. We were tired of impressions, she was tired of her busy day at the Senate, but still found time and space between bites of the irresistible Dominican dinner to discuss green politics, Berlin’s political aspirations for urban development and commonizing resources and the upcoming demonstrations for the upcoming International Women’s Day. Ms. Billig was very supportive as we were trying to readapt the schedule for tomorrow in order to get back in town on time for the demos.

Friday, March 8

I don’t know if Ms. Fischer planned this or not, but Friday was all about the number 8 and women! It was the 8th of March, we were on our way to Brandenburg to visit the cooperative „Wir fördern dezentrale und solidarische selbstverwaltung“ (we promote decentralized and solidary self-administration), with plans to come back soon enough to join the Berlin demonstrations. Soon enough, I was struck by this great estate of 8000m² under the administration of 8 great women who came in one summer day last year, sprouted a new form of living and working and created an establishment of women (and men) that tends to the interest of the local community, them included too and presents a new form of social care. Again, this is an example of a new institution that is obviously possible and necessary and I see it as the new form of social care that communities need today, be it in urban metropolitan areas, or in the countryside. Lastly, this model is so appealing to me because I could see potential policy implications and reform for my own community, but more so because this cooperative too finds itself rethinking and working on social care, culture and environment issues even altogether. The different smaller decentralized forms of solidarity and initiatives within this system were just joy to listen about and I hope this project, still at the very beginning, works out, and this is the sentiment that the whole group left with, I dare to assume.

To sum up and not complicate, I would like to point out my two main conclusions and one recommendation, or perhaps a wish.

1- This study, the people we met and talked to, the processes and experiences we learned about, were all about people performing citizenship and reclaiming politics. The more successful ones were the ones that provided more than round tables and focus groups for political participation, they were the ones that brought the people in the streets, in the residential areas set for demolition or in the public institutions and processes.
2- Along with commonizing resources and governance, institutional reform and innovation is  more than necessary and obviously possible. We are witnessing organizations as private legal subjects, whose complete programmes and services are funded by public finance, and cater to the public interest more so. Their input in the process of creating resilient cities, solidary communities and sustainable governance models is much bigger than the modes reproduced by the existing inert and outdated public institutions.
3- Visits of good practices and examples are encouraging at first, but frustrating at the end, especially when they are set in a functional democracy and quite a richer society, without implying the work of all of the people we met was not difficult. But we need a one step inside on these study visits in terms of more work and engagement on our side. Whether we work with the people we meet more on policy issues and institutional models or we simply participate in their work, in their cooperative, in their tasks for the day.

The study visit to Germany ended gloriously – we were able to join the March 8th demonstration right before Jannowitzbrücke and march against patriarchy together with more than 15.000 women and men in the streets of Berlin. Such a righteous end to the study visit to Germany, the birth country of Klara Zetkin.