16 October, 2019

Converting an office town for ‘people’? Re-designing Kirchberg, a public panel

by Markus Hesse,

I had another encounter with big politics and the planners from the famous office of Gehl Architects in Copenhagen, Denmark, on Thursday night 10th October. (See the entries on the 2018 podium and related issues in this Blog, here and here). This time they presented their ideas for renovating and upgrading public space on the Plateau Kirchberg, by means of urban design. For some awkward reasons, this meeting did not take place on the Kirchberg itself, which might have brought more life to the 1960s+ office town … but in the city’s quite wealthy Limpertsberg district. Anyway, it attracted a certain interest from the public, and including some attendees who obviously lived either on Kirchberg or in adjacent neighbourhoods. 

The Kirchberg is a 365-hectare site on Luxembourg City’s eastern edge which provides a home to the financial market and plenty of EU-institutions – the country’s built manifestation of its role as a hot spot of the services industries. At the meeting, Minister Francois Bausch – who is not only in charge of public works and transport/mobility, but is also the authority that oversees the state’s Fonds Kirchberg development agency – underlined the goals of his policy for the area, which aim to make the Plateau with its office blocks, motorway-like streets and voluminous urban layout more suitable for what he called the ‘human’ scale.

Following the minister’s introduction, two representatives from Gehl Architects presented their ideas on what to do with the public space on Kirchberg. They ignited a whole firework of urban design ideas that would help to improve the accessibility and usability of the site’s assemblage of boulevards, asphalt sidewalks and empty spots. Benches, cafes and shops, an open swimming pool next to the Coque-arena and a number of street design features are part of the plan, which will be discussed and assessed for implementation in the near future. Interesting also was their impression of the huge underground capacity on which the Plateau Kirchberg is actually positioned: According to the government’s plans, the public and private parking garages that currently provide parking for just under 28,000 vehicles, would be expanded to a level of more than 40,000.

This is really striking, but only one among several features that make the future development of the site a subject as exciting as it is delicate from an urban planning, policy and development perspective. While the Kirchberg is already subject to constant change in most general terms, the site is foreseen to increase the total job occupation from the roughly 42,000 that is there right now to more than 65,000 by the mid- or end 2030s; most of this growth will be covered by foreign employees. In contrast, the number of residents, currently counting less than 4,000, is foreseen to increase to 7,600 in the short term and about 14,000 in ten years’ time. These are the predictions of Fonds Kirchberg. The question is: How can one urbanize an office town, and what might the urban geographer’s contribution to this debate be? 

Of course, one aspect that deserves to be highlighted here is time: Kirchberg is built history – a child of the infamous 1960s/post-WWII planning guidelines and paradigms, with their overall functionalist and narrow-minded determination that left a legacy of major challenges for contemporary urban planning. However, the Kirchberg shouldn’t be simply assessed from today’s standards. It needs a fair judgement from a realistic perspective that reflects upon on-going planning practices and cultures, and doesn't simply blame its odd and outdated urban layout.(1) Secondly, urban design can indeed provide useful improvements to the overall shape of the site, and give, let's say, ‘new dresses to the emperor’. Yet, while one should welcome efforts towards the improvement of cities, the very expectations and promises that are associated with such new design features need to be cautiously balanced. In this respect, one should not confuse cause and effect: If Kirchberg will continue to be the machine that keeps much of the country’s (political) economy at work – and this is a reasonable expectation – then it requires the constant flow of people, jobs, investments into and out of the area. The related imperative of both providing sufficient office space and organizing seamless circulation (mostly cars bringing people from outer parts of the Greater Region) will determine the Plateau, regardless of whether or not there will be new benches to sit on or not. But seriously: will there be any enjoyable public space remaining if not 50,000 but 60,000 cars will be rolling up and down Kennedy Avenue on the average workday?

Thirdly, the future of Kirchberg as a site of residency also deserves cautious discussion. On the one hand, increasing the number of local residents on site is an indispensable requirement of any urbanization scenario. For this reason, housing plans are necessarily welcome. On the other hand, what urban planning will essentially ask for is: What sort of land use should go to what sort of location, and what will the future relation between jobs and housing look like? And, how will the new mixture then contribute to fostering a liveable urban district? As to the first question, there are massive plans for housing underway, including affordable housing, e.g. at the north-eastern end of Kirchberg. This brings more people in, particularly to the edge of the site. Given the high densities envisaged, this raises the question of designing the fringes properly. Since the Kirchberg ended up overly packed with office space, it might be unhealthy to do the same with multi-storey housing, simply because there is rising political pressure to do so and the land on Kirchberg is under state control. Filling empty slots with massive housing injections may include the risk of creating a new banlieue. As to the second question: If Kirchberg employment will increase further according to the government’s prediction, indeed, the job-housing mismatch will become more modest. However, the site as such will still be determined by its function as an office town. As a result, is it realistic to assume that all the measures mentioned above will have a causal effect in invoking liveable neighbourhoods, given that the DNA of Kirchberg remains unchanged?

View of the eastern end of Plateau Kirchberg from above/south, 10 yrs ago (Hesse)

Finally, when talking about the ‘human’ scale and politics for people, the question, of course, is: Who are the people? Are we referring to the global investment banker, the EU- or government official, the programming herds of the financial industries, the tram driver or cleaning staff, or the local residents? Given the variety of different interests and mindsets present in one city alone, it might be difficult to provide one-size-fits-all solutions. Cities have grown on an enormous degree of variety and diversity, and this applies to late-modern societies. This gives some reason to turn the attention to politics and governance in more general terms. The Kirchberg is an exciting case in this respect, as it offers a delicate policy constellation with a strong state and a barely visible municipality. The city was also absent from the panel discussion last Thursday, for whatever reason. So, the vertical arrangements as to how local and state authority interact, and include and negotiate citizens’ interests, is worth exploring in more detail. The same applies to the horizontal linkages between the various Kirchberg sites (office, retail, housing) and its adjacent neighbourhoods such as the long-existing Weimershof and Weimerskirch.

Having said that, the urban geographer’s (and geographers’) contribution to this debate would not be about arguing against improvements to an urban setting that is perceived as rather lousy so far. If such a judgement was shared by the public officials who were also attending the meeting, this alone would be considered a success. However, the real aim of the discussion ought to be about providing context and discussing the fuller picture within which the built environment and the whole revitalization efforts are embedded. While public urban space is only one component of the built environment, the full range of the associated interactions between people and space would deserve more attention, such as concerns about land use patterns, social composition, and governance strategies and the like.(2) On the next occasion, it might be wise to pay more attention to such fundamentals. This is nothing abstract, theoretical, or academic; rather, it merely points at the imminent characteristics of the site, which have direct ramifications for practice.(3) Of course, it would then be reasonable to hold such a meeting exactly on the site which is subject to debate, the Plateau Kirchberg, not in the central city or elsewhere.


(1) It is most likely that a huge development such as the Kirchberg may only change in the long run. However, past analysis has also pointed at the role that the site has played in the country’s planning practice elsewhere. Hence, a reflective modernization of planning attitudes may offer potentials for improvement more generally; cf. Hesse, M. (2013), Das «Kirchberg-Syndrom». Grosse Projekte im kleinen Land: Bauen und Planen in Luxemburg. disP-The Planning Review 49 (1), 14-28.

(2) In the urban studies literature, large-scale urban projects are observed to be quite persistent as building blocks that develop according to intrinsic logics, that might be less adaptive to changing demands or to other concurring interests. This may also have a significant impact on the ‘sense’ of place, which is the main target of urban design measures; see e.g. Breux, S. & Bédard, M. (2013), The urban project and its impact on sense of place: Methodological propositions. Geography Compass, 7(1), 75-84.

(3) Three aspects might be considered essential here: i) governance patterns and practices in the triangle between state, city, and citizens; ii) the relation between work and residency in general; and iii) the future trajectory of the office market as the major determinant of the site’s land use patt

07 October, 2019

DKG “50 years after Kiel”. Reflections on German-speaking geography

by Markus Hesse

During the last week of September 2019, the German Congress for Geography (DKG) took place at Christian-Albrechts-University (CAU) of Kiel, Germany, organized on behalf of the German Society of Geography and the Geographical Institute of the CAU. The leitmotif of the Conference, which had about 2,000 registered participants coming from the human, physical, didactical and whatsoever specialized streams of the discipline, was “Changes and new beginnings – Geography of the future”. 50 years after the eventful 1969 Kiel “Geographentag“ (as the format was once called), the community of geographers went there again, discussing how the discipline has changed since then and what the contemporary challenges for research, practice and education are about.

It was not necessarily the 50th anniversary as such that made this an important timeline but the myth that is yet surrounding “Kiel 1969”. On that precise occasion, the German part of the discipline had its coming out in the course of the 1967/68 revolts against the establishment, conservatives, authoritarian thoughts and practices. The main claim of the then young generation of assistants and students (profs are not known to having played a major role then) was that geography should get out of the narrow mainstream of descriptive “Länderkunde” (regional geography), and seek for new frontiers in both theoretical and applied, if not political regards. If there has ever been a particular sense of “critical”-ness in the country’s disciplinary formation, it was obviously coming into being exactly then. 

While there is no space here to get into the details of this controversy and how its outcomes and consequences are being judged 50 years after, there is also no need to do so. There are some excellent papers provided on the whole subject matter, regarding both its historical and contemporary meanings, which were published recently in the prestigious Geographische Zeitschrift (GZ). They are available online and open access here. A thorough reconstruction of post WWII-(West) German geography debates and developments in English can be found here. Of course, Kiel 1969 was prominently placed on the DKG’s Agenda, for example in a brilliant keynote conversation among two geographers, one young woman (Carolin Schurr, Berne University, Switzerland), and one emeritus (Peter Weichhart, University of Vienna, Austria). They talked about the outcomes and legacy of Kiel 1969, about today’s state of the discipline, and what the commonalities, differences and contradictions between a modern, post-structuralist and feminist take of geography on the one hand, and a more classical understanding of geography – even though pretty well reflected and theoretically informed – on the other hand could be.

The open question addressed in this conversation, which alone made the trip to Northern Germany worth undertaking, was the search for a conceptual if not theoretical centre of the discipline, and whether such a centre can possibly exist at all. Bakery products such as cruller (Krapfen), pretzel and donut were used as related imaginaries, with the donut eventually indicating the yet empty centre of geography. The debate, which actually took place in the absence of attendees of Kiel 1969 and thus rested on related memories rather than contemporary witnesses’ reports, was continued in a panel that discussed also more internal ramifications for the discipline. While Kiel 1969 apparently marked an era for new world views, approaches and methodologies to emerge and to be practiced by geographers, the hierarchical patterns within the discipline itself remained almost unchanged. Some argued that this would still be the case nowadays, also regardless of the age of today’s younger generation ordinarii.

Further consequences from Kiel 1969, such as for the sub-discipline called applied geography, were discussed as well. In this particular context, the debate about the role of geography as an academic discipline in society was especially inspiring. I was lucky to be part of a session that aimed at bringing applied and ‘critical’ geographies together, seeking some common ground of these two strands which are not only distinct and remote fields of engagement, but sub-communities with own journals, networks and habits. The question addressed to the applied colleagues was how to provide impact without being positivistic, which the organized applied geography community is sometimes held suspicious of, at least implicitly. On the contrary, those who label themselves as being critical are not only asked to concede that the rest of the discipline pursues critical engagement as well, but to situate themselves at the interface of research and practice, science and policy in a way that allows making a real impact (likewise, this certainly applies to the whole community …). The science-policy interface seems to become highly relevant and delicate in most general terms, as increasing parts of society expect certain political and practical impact resulting from academic contributions, not only on Fridays – while others wish to see exactly the opposite: the neutral search for truth and objectivity that may not disturb the political battles and monopolies. Hopefully, there will be a journal issue evolving from this truly inspiring debate in the foreseeable future.

The sheer number and variety of different topics, keynotes and sessions presented at the 2019 DKG was a real purchase for attendees, since it revealed that the discipline is actually in good shape. This also contradicts the usual complaint about geography in decline, for example as a subject taught in school classes. This is indeed dangerous for the discipline as a whole, given that academic geography once started in the late 19th century for the purpose of educating school teachers. So geographers’ associations call for urgent action in this regard, for very good reason. Nevertheless, while the large number of parallel sessions doesn’t permit making too general judgements on the conference’s outcome, I had a chance to attend and listen to a variety of excellent sessions with highly inspiring papers. To the positive side of a huge conference, you can easily inform yourself about developments in neighbour strands of your usual research interest as well. This tends to happen not too often, which is also a result of the latent pressure on academics to specialize. My participation in sessions on developmental geography, political ecology, geopolitics or responsibility in science and research was actually more than worth a try.

The nice campus venue and the perfect organization by very many colleagues and students involved made the 2019 DKG rather enjoyable. Also, the Audimax of the CAU provided a ‘central place’ in the very material sense of the term (at least in this respect, the donut was filled very well …). The venue offered plenty of opportunity to meet with colleagues whom you’re otherwise not used to run into. Hence my overall impression is that this was definitely one of the better geo-congresses I participated in, and the sample for comparison is quite large since I attended a “Geographentag” for the very first time (which was in Münster, 1983, at my own Alma Mater). So, well done colleagues, geography move on.

02 October, 2019

Program for Guest Lecture Series: Our Common Ground

Today, Christian Schulz and Florian Hertweck announced the program for the Institute of Geography and Spatial Planning's Guest Lecture Series, entitled, 

OUR COMMON GROUND: The political economy of land property and prospects for a post-growth society

Current debates on finite resources, on social inequalities resulting from financialised real estate markets, on biodiversity loss, or on the impact of land use on climate change have one thing in common: Sooner or later, they all problematise the question of land property, and increasingly question the prevalence of private ownership and speculation. In many countries, the decreasing share of public land has drastically reduced the capacity of local authorities or communities to decide upon and steer land-use patterns in a way that serves the common good. The lecture series “Our Common Ground” aims at discussing current development trends and their underlying mechanisms, as it strives to present innovative policy responses and progressive planning approaches in different European contexts. 

Tuesday, October 8th, 12:30-14h | MSH - Black Box
Jacqueline Tellinga, City of Almere, Homeruskwartier

Tuesday, November 5th, 12:30-14h | MSH - Black Box
Brigitta Gerber & Klaus Hubmann
Neue Bodeninitiative Basel & Stiftung Habitat

Tuesday, December 3rd, 12:30-14h | MSH - Black Box
Bernd Belina, Goethe-Universität Frankfurt a.M.

Tuesday, December 17th, 12:30-14h | MSH - Black Box
Christiane Thalgott, München - (lecture will be held in German)

Tuesday, January 21st, 12:30-14h | MSH - Black Box
Dirk Löhr, Hochschule Trier

Attendance is free. No registration. For further information contact malte.helfer@uni.lu

DKG Kiel, 2019: Housing on the edge: considerations of land and ownership, urbanization, and the possibility of recentering non-market housing

Just over two years ago, Christian Schulz, Gerald Taylor-Aiken and Antje Bruns ignited a series of exchanges to bring the Institute of Geography & Spatial Planning closer together with the Governance and Sustainability Lab at the University of Trier. There, I (Constance Carr) and Jennifer Gerend began talking about the land question. Last week, with support of the AK Geographie und Geschlecht (The Working Group for Geography and Gender), we held a session on "Housing on the edge: considerations of land and ownership, urbanization, and the possibility of recentering non-market housing" at the German Congress for Geography (#DKG2019). Unfortunately, we had two cancellations, but that made way for a short and sweet session with plenty of time for debate afterwards.

The Re-Emergence of the Factor Land in Current Housing Debates
Dr. Sabine Horlitz, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin 

In recent years, land prices have increased rapidly, in particular in urban agglomerations. Subsequently, the provision of affordable housing by local municipalities and private non-profit organizations has become increasingly difficult. In this context, questions about land policies and land laws are (once again) the focus of public discussions. This paper sets out to investigate current debates about land policies in German-speaking regions and different approaches to the problem of speculation with and scarcity of land. The paper is laid out in three parts. First, I will briefly explore current debates about the relationship between land and housing policies. Second, I will present a variety of (current) land-related regulatory and/or legal frameworks and tools and analyze their respective political orientations and goals. In particular, I will refer to: 
– civil society initiatives that try to permanently withdraw land from the speculative market (e.g. the Swiss Edith Maryon foundation, the German Trias Foundation and initiatives to set up non-profit land trusts) 
– different land taxation models (e.g. an increased levy on so-called “profits without consideration” or efforts to enact a new real property tax) 
– municipal land policies (e.g. so-called cooperative site development models, a focus on allocating land leases instead of selling the land, local municipalities’ use of their right to first refusal) 
Third, I will further investigate the potential and applicability of the above-mentioned models and approaches, but also point out their inherent dilemmas and shortcomings. 

The land question of the future is regional: Planning, borders, and the case of Trier-Luxembourg
Jennifer Gerend, Constance Carr 

The land question in geography broadly aims to expose issues of ownership, use, and regulation of land, as well as the flow of capital across cityscapes and the socio-political ramifications (Safransky 2018, 500). Yet, it arguably reproduces traditional, territorial limits while the land dynamics warrant a broader look at such boundaries (Paasi 1999). We illustrate the regional dimension to the land question via the case of our Trier-Luxembourg Greater Region. We draw on the literature addressing: 1) regions as contingent trajectories of change that are “becoming” (Paasi & Metzger 2017, 23), or an amalgam of dynamics coming together in time (Allen et al. 1998, 17); 2) the land question, the meanings of land, and social construct of scarcity (Davy, 2012); 3) processes of (sub)urbanization and sociopolitical unevenness (Carr & McDonough, 2016). Here, strategies on both sides of the border attempt to counter the effects of the regional land dynamics driven by economic growth strategies in Luxembourg, such as the finance sector. Still, further fragmentation prevails. In Luxembourg, skyrocketing land values reinforce cross-border regionalization, even despite public debates, a wealth of planning instruments, and local initiatives to mitigate housing problems. In Germany, federal building law and a state land database in Rhineland Palatinate aim to counter rural land consumption and encourage infill development on buildable lots within existing urban areas. These and other efforts amount to a territorially bounded, regional land “tinkering” (Storper 2014) deficient of a more wholistic consideration of the region. 

Allen, J., Massey, D., & Cochrane, A. eds. (1998). Rethinking the region: Spaces of neo-liberalism. London: Routledge. 
Carr, C., & McDonough, E. (2018). Integrative Planning of Post-suburban Growth in the Glatt Valley (Switzerland). Raumforschung und Raumordnung, 76, 109-122. 
Davy, B. (2012). Land policy. Burlington: Ashgate. 
Paasi, A. (1999). Boundaries as social practice and discourse: The Finnish‐Russian border. Regional studies, 33, 669-680. 
Paasi, A., & Metzger, J. (2017). Foregrounding the region. Regional Studies, 51, 19-30. 
Safransky, S. (2018). Land Justice as a Historical Diagnostic: Thinking with Detroit. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 108, 499-512. 
Storper, M. (2014). Governing the Large Metropolis. Territory, Politics, Governance, 2, 115-134.

23 September, 2019

Bonne rentrée à tous!!

Back in Luxembourg after a long summer break -- travelling to the INURA Conference in Croatia and then onwards to Toronto to do further investigations into Sidewalk Lab's (sister company to Google) plans for a digital city along the city's waterfront. 

September is, so far, a whirlwind. Classes began; Markus Hesse, Tom Becker and I are teaching the first year Master class in spatial planning. As usual, we have a number of interesting tours around the Grand Duchy lined up. 

Later this week, Markus and Constance are off again to the German Congress for Geography in Kiel.  

We have some other projects up our sleeves planned for the coming year.  But more on that later.

For some local news, the Luxembourg Centre for Architecture is calling for project entries to its competition: LAA Luxembourg Architecture Award. More information about how to participate is available here: https://architectureaward.lu

24 August, 2019

Job Advertisement: Two PhD positions at the ETH - A message from David Kaufmann

Dear colleagues,
I am searching two PhD students for the newly established research group in “Spatial Development and Urban Policy” at ETH Zürich, Institute for Spatial and Landscape Development. The research group and both PhD students will work at the intersection of public policy, urban politics, and spatial planning.

PhD in Spatial Planning Policy Analysis
PhD in Participatory Urban Governance

Applications are considered until September 1, 2019. Please share these job ads in your networks and with suitable candidates. Contact me if you need more information.

Thank you and best regards,
David Kaufmann

Incoming Assistant Professor in Spatial Development and Urban Policy, ETH Zürich
Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Bern

18 August, 2019

The IGU Urban commission meeting in Luxembourg was a huge success!

The IGU Urban commission meeting in Luxembourg was a huge success! Thank you to all the participants for a great conference. All extended abstracts of the presented communications are available here.

09 August, 2019

It matters how smart cites are governed

A longer German version of this blog post, "Smart Cities: Selbstzweck oder sum Wohl der Städte?" was published in the Tageblatt, August 2019. It is available here.

By Constance Carr*

In recent years, the idea of a smart city has captured imaginations with many believing that the future city is upon us with politicians, business leaders and the wider public all excited about what the future city will look like and who will have the best. This has also ignited a certain race for innovation, with the speed of development reaching such a velocity that the tech industry's appetite for more and more R&D, associated qualified labour flows, and necessary infrastructure seems insatiable. This narrative has also fuelled digitalization as a key urban development policy around the world. Luxembourg is no exception here, and aiming for a leading position in digital development.

Part of Sidewalk Lab's exhibition at the 307, March 2019 **
Yet, there is more at stake than simply catering to the needs of the tech industry, because a truly smart digital revolution would also demand investment into areas that have nothing to do with digitalization skills, programming, or coding per se. For some, one key is to understand if the latest innovations can be suitably translated or properly applied to the fleshy, analogue world. For others, it is necessary to understand the psychological interface between humans and technology. These are necessary avenues of research, but what is equally vital to understand is how people are treated, how decision-making is organized, how information is shared, and how wealth is distributed. This sociopolitical awareness is not part of the standard computer science degree program but is nevertheless a fundamental component of the smart city future. In short: Society matters.

This is not new, as the shadow sides of the tech industry's impact on cities is already well documented. Silicon Valley is known as the city of angry people, as exploding housing prices continue to exacerbate homelessness or sustain long, arduous, commuter flows, and no one does anything about it. Seattle is confronted with Amazon's headquarters that ignited a rash change in population demographics and associated challenges. And, there is more and more evidence from China that their digital revolution represents a consolidation of state power and new structures of social stratification. See Karvonen et al.'s Inside Smart Cities – Place, Politics and Urban Innovation for an overview of the latest research on these issues.

A good example of what happens when urban digitalization is taken on by big tech in particular, is the Quayside development in Toronto. In 2017, Waterfront Toronto, a governmental agency in charge of land use along the city's lakeside held a competition to develop 12 hectares of land. The winner was Sidewalk Labs, daughter of Alphabet Inc. and sister to Google LLC, who declared that they would build the world's ultimate smart city. 

Wooden, flexible, multi-purpose, climate positive passive buildings, automatic garbage removal, self-driving cars, sensors left and right to monitor air pollution, commuter flows and municipal service needs, the tech fantasy was all there preserved in appealing water colour paintings. Quayside is marketed as the economically, environmentally beneficial and equitable to boot.

Yet, the hype and fancy drawings didn't dazzle everyone. In an earlier blog post, we listed some of these critical voices who are raising serious concern. In addition to those, since then The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has again filed a lawsuit against Waterfront Toronto and all three levels of government on the grounds that the agreements with Sidewalk Lab on issues of data governance are neither in the public's interest nor constitutional. Roger McNamee, Silicon Valley venture capitalist, wrote an open letter to Toronto City Hall:

And, together with Prof. Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, together with McNamee and Balsillie (founder of Blackberry), McNamee also testified before the Canadian Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics and the International Grand Committee on Big Data Privacy and Democracy advising them against their business model. Watch some of it here.

And, a wide social movement has formed, #BlockSidewalk, involving urban planners, techies, business leaders, land developers, and politicians and residents with full intention to stop the project all together.

Sidewalk's primary response to the criticism has been to dominate public discourse. First, it was silent, ignoring the outcry. Then, it published a 1500-page 'draft' plan, that will take months or years for the public to figure out.

Clearly digitalization of urban space can be a Trojan Horse. However, it can also bring about positive change. While still confronting its own challenges, Barcelona is a leading example here. Barcelona's smart city strategy began agenda of economic development and growth. And, it was designed to favour a handful of chosen corporations. A change in government with a different set of values, however, redirected this strategy to one of citizen control, digital empowerment and technological sovereignty. Local problems were examined, debated, and digital solutions were tried out that would improve the urban life and not just business development.

The story of Barcelona is important for several reasons. First, it confirms that the applications of the smart city are case specific. Second, it reveals that there are positive outcomes of digitalization, when appropriate governance frameworks are put in place. Three, governing structures and values matter and make a difference. Issues of fairness, equity, sharing, and participation can be built into the smart city design.

Here in Luxembourg, the Ministry of Economics is pursuing the vision of intelligent digital specialization, and the capital city has been presenting itself as the Smart City stage for some time now. What kind of smart city will be produced here? Who will it benefit? Will it improve life for everyone or just a few? What resources will be drained and who will profit?

There are win-win scenarios to be had. Digitalization can be applied effectively. The clues are the relationships between socio-institutional and technical domains. The savy, and smart, digital city would take this into account.

* Constance is currently a Visiting Scholar at the CITY Institute, York University, in Toronto , where she is researching the Quayside development on Toronto's Waterfront. Find a research summary here.)

** For a urban scholar's perspective on the Human Scale, see previous blog post

Further Readings at Urbanization Unbound
Carr, C., Hesse, M. 2019. Digital Urbanism and the Challenge of Urban Governance (DIG_URBGOV) – Short Research Summary
Carr, C. Hesse, M.  New Publication on Smart Cities in Forum für Politik Gesellschaft und Kultur
Carr, C. 2019 Digital and city development and urban governance in Toronto
Carr, C., Hesse, M, 2019. Some notes on smart cities and the corporatization of urban governance
Carr invited to York University's CITY Institute as a Visiting Scholar, 2019
Carr 2018. Wagering the Waterfront? Angling the abc & xyz of Quayside Toronto

12 July, 2019

The IGU Urban Geography Commission annual meeting, 4-9 August 2019

The IGU Urban Geography Commission annual meeting, 4th -9th August 2019 is coming up. It will be held this year in Luxembourg. Information about the IGU can be found here:

Below shows the schedule at a glance. The full program, including schedule of keynotes and speakers, descriptions of field trips and information about visiting Luxembourg, can be downloaded

New publication on Smart Cities

A new publication came out today: Carr, C., and Hesse, M. "Smart Cities, ‚big politics‘ und die Privatisierung der urbanen Governance" in Forum - für Politik, Gesellschaft und Kultur.

The full article can be requested the University of Luxembourg's publication archive: http://orbilu.uni.lu/handle/10993/39894

The 30th Annual Conference of the International Network of Urban Research and Action will take place in Luxembourg, 2020

Hold on to your hats! At the 2019 INURA Retreat in Croatia, it was voted and decided that INURA will celebrate the 30th Annual Conference in Luxembourg, 2020. The event will unfold as a partnership between the Christian Schmid from the ETH and the urban group at the Institute for Geography and Spatial Planning. We will let you know the dates and program in due course.

Find information about INURA at www.inura.org.

For now, thank you Arie van Wijngaarden for the first personal investment into this upcoming event!

Further Readings on INURA at Urbanization Unbound
Hesse, M, Doerr, T., Carr 2018. Keep off the grass - even if the grass is not grass
Carr, C. An event in Zurich on housing co-ops and cooperative living
Carr, C. Notes on INURA Lisbon 2013

27 May, 2019

2019 Benelux Interuniversity Association of Transport Researchers (BIVEC-GIBET)

Last week, Markus Hesse and Tom Becker presented at the biannual Transport Research Days held at Department of Geography at Ghent University and organised by the Benelux Interuniversity Association of Transport Researchers (BIVEC-GIBET). 

The BIVEC-GIBET aims to generate discussion on various angles of transport infrastructure, such as transport economics and governance. The Transport Research Days, presents an opportunity for both "young and established scholars from the three Benelux-Countries ... to present their research findings to an informed audience of transport researchers."

In a session entitled, "Accessibility" chaired by Thomas Vanoutrive (University of Antwerp) Becker presented, "Best practice without evidence? Policy-based evidence-making in European sustainable urban mobility transfers". 

In a session entitled, "Pricing" and chaired by Bert van Wee (Delft University),  Hesse presented a paper that he co-wrotei with Carr, entitled "Free Transit in Luxembourg: A case of post-political urban governance through policy mobility," and focussing on the issue of governance, policy mobility and transport pricing. It generated lively discussion and we look forward to telling you more about it when it is formally published.

26 May, 2019

Over 180 researchers at the University of Luxembourg support the Youth for Climate

Luxemburger Wort, May 22, 2019.
Susanne Siebentritt had the idea first. Luxembourg students were preparing to march for climate change, and she thought it was time that scientists say something in support. Hard to argue against the necessity of such a message, a cross-faculty group of authors quickly solidified to knock their heads together and write up a statement for the press. These included Rachel Reckinger (Identités. Politiques, Sociétés, Espaces), Ariane König (Education, Culture, Cognition & Society), Susanne Siebentritt (Physics and Materials Science Research Unit) Norman Teferle (Research Unit in Engineering Sciences (RUES), and Constance Carr and Christian Schulz (from the Institute of Geography and Spatial Planning).

Moreover, 180+ researchers from the University signed the statement, and various translation s were made thanks to additional help from Pol Breser, Nathalie Entringer, Peter Gilles, Laurence Colin.

These translations and the list of 180 signatories are available at sustainabilityscience.uni.lu

On May 22, 2019, the Luxemburger Wort agreed to publish it as a Letter to the Editor. An English version is available here; the Luxembourgish version is available here, and a French version is available here.

On the same day of publication, 100,7 requested an interview. Carr and König were able to respond. Here is the link to the Luxembourgish transcriptOr, just click here to go directly to the sound file (German).

18 May, 2019

Registration for the Master in Architecture at UniLu is still open for EU candidates

We are still accepting applications from EU citizens interested in pursuing a Master degree in Architecture. Find our more about this exciting opportunity at: masterarchitecture.lu

16 May, 2019

Digital Urbanism and the Challenge of Urban Governance (DIG_URBGOV) – Short Research Summary

Downtown Toronto (photo by Carr 2019)
The aim of DIG_URBGOV is to explore the broad question of how technology is unfolding in societal contexts and what the related impacts or implications are in urban space. As new modes of accumulation are invented, and as we are witnessing a revolution in digital devices, services or economies, some urgent questions are surfacing: What is the role of big tech in urban development? What kinds of societal impacts might we expect? How are these impacts and interrelations understood, negotiated, and governed? What will our urban future look like (digital or not)?

Inspired by scholarly and qualitative takes on the digital turn in urban geography, DIG_URBGOV research will zero in on Alphabet Inc.'s involvement in urban development along the Toronto's lakeshore. This case potentially poses a minefield of lessons that can speak both to the international scholarly debates in urban studies and to practitioners everywhere. The research will thus bridge two worlds, that of tech-driven economic development on the one hand, and urban studies scholarship on urban planning and policy on the other.

In so doing, our research aims to help to establish what is meant when speaking about digital and/or smart cities in broader contexts as well as in certain detail. It seems quite evident that as of now there is no consensus on this, just as the case was decade (or more) ago: 

"Despite numerous examples of this ‘urban labelling’ phenomenon, we know surprisingly little about … smart cities, particularly in terms of what the label ideologically reveals," (Hollands 2008). 

Recently, ‘Smart Rebel Cities’ circulated an overview of tech-cities and their various permutations and development paths over the years. Their examples span Masdar to Songdo to Sidewalk (Smart Rebel City 2019). Or, consider a recent overview of over 50 German smart cities published by Bitkom e.V. & Fraunhofer IESE (2019). Just about any city that had implemented any kind of digital device or system (traffic lights, or driverless cars) was a smart city. 

While developing an awareness of the diverse understandings of digital cities seems necessary, this project is particularly interested in the urban constellations of digital producers and how they intersect with other modes of city governance, planning and development.

Urban studies, technological development and society
Clearly, digitization and technology have revolutionized geography in many ways. This is, however, nothing new. Decades ago, with the rise of the Internet, some (e.g. Mitchell 1995) speculated that the web and other ITs would eradicate space into the ‘City of Bits’. Such statements didn't go uncriticised, however, as onlookers pointed at the technological determinism that often underpinned such positions, and emphasised that there is a complex relationship between urban development, urban planning, and technological innovation. 

Yet, urban geography has experienced a ‘digital turn’ (Ash et al. 2016; Ash et al. 2019), even if the concrete terms under which this digital turn is materializing remain obscure. 

While the digitalization of urban spaces has, of course, provided benefits, it has also come sidelong a number of unsolved problems, which reveal that there are a number of unanswered questions with regards to digital or smart cities (these are summarised in a conference paper by Carr & Hesse, 2019). 

DIG_URBGOV aims to explore some of these in greater detail by focussing on one digital/smart city that is currently in the spotlight: Alphabet Inc.’s project in Toronto. In 2017, Sidewalk Labs, won the international competition to develop Quayside, a derelict piece of land in downtown Toronto in the Port Lands district.

The announcement ignited not only a massive media storm, but also perked the interest of urban scholars both locally and around the world who wondered what it meant when one of the world's largest tech companies was suddenly investing in the real estate, housing, and construction industries. How will this change or challenge the usual modes of urban development? How will this change our understanding of cities and urban spaces?

DIG_URBGOV aims to explore these questions. In this context, the research is structured around overlapping research streams as follows.

First research stream What are the institutional arrangement of digital cities? How do tech-firms situate themselves in urban development? How do pre-existing institutions react to new players in the field of urban development?

Kitchin (2015) noted that the smart-city agenda is heavily pushed by tech companies. Yet, even if tech products are destined to change cities, practices of urban development and planning are not generally the domain of expertise belong to most tech firms. There is thus a need to understand how it is that tech companies understand urban space and what their intentions are. 

InTactical Urbanism, Lyndon and Garcia (2015) referred to a kind of urban transition process that was driven by extra small scale urban initiatives that, in their aggregate and over time, changed the spaces and flows that constituted urban spaces. Such initiatives were usually experimental in character and relatively easy to implement (in terms of investments or permissions required). And, while the strategic objectives may be have been obscure, the effects could be rapidly assessed, and appropriate measures were easily undertaken. 

One could interrogate what tactical urbanism looks like when driven by big tech: What would be the implications of such experimental, uncertain, urban interventions? This line of reasoning could be extended into an institutional analysis of big tech urban development, with the aim of understanding the kinds of institutional arrangements that are ignited when big-tech enters the field of land use development and urban planning.

Second research stream What new kinds of socio-political implications are there when big tech enters the field of urban development? Are there new social divisions associated with tech firms pursuing land use and real estate development?

A useful reference point in addressing this question is that of Zuboff's (2019) “two texts.” The first text is most easily understood as the user interface. These are the texts that users read and engage with – the clicking, liking, typing, inputting, etc. This is the text that technologists often refer to as when trying to design their products as user friendly and/or fit-for-purpose. The second text refers to all the texts in operation behind the screen – the algorithms, scripts, cookies, bots, and codes etc. that execute the commands. 

However, Zuboff's (2019) two texts are not solely about the different sides of the screen. The two texts also demarcate the material and embodied spaces and flows that constitute them. On the first text, this could be conceived as the everyday life and its multitude of user demands for technological development. On the second text, one could refer to the chips, wires, metals and all the value chains implicated in the production of hardware, plus all the political economies that produce them, run them. The two texts can thus also indicate social spheres: 1) distributions of knowledge; 2) increasing asymmetries in the economies of scale; 3) encroaching “economies of scope” (Zuboff 2019) as more and more spheres of tech innovation intervene in the non-quantified spheres of social life. 

The first and second texts could also be understood as the front end and back ends of the new tech-drive urban space. DIG_URBGOV aims to explore this divide, aiming to understand how is it discursively reproduced, how it is understood by various actors and institutions, what kinds of efforts exist to bridge it, and how it affects the planning process.

DIG_URBGOV is a qualitative research project. Our aims are to understand the discourses surrounding the Quayside project, to reconstruct the role that these discourses play for planning, politics, and governance, and the various ways the governance of Quayside is actually executed, in the contested field between private and public stakeholders and the general public.

We are already keeping a close eye on discursive practices in media (newspapers, websites, public documents). Against the background of written discourse, Carr has also already met with a number of knowledgeable persons active in the field. These were planners, community activists, or local scholars who had researched in the area for many years. Exploratory and informal discussions with these enabled an initial understanding of the various dimensions surrounding the Quayside project. They were also helpful in naming further interview partners. The goal is to achieve a diversity of viewpoints.

DIG_URBGOV researchers are thus keen on interviewing further governing officials, architects, real estate agents, developers, and smart city technologists. 

Concluding remarks
So, it is clear that technological change has always gone hand in hand with transitions in urban and regional space; that is, technological change as such is not new. This research project is thus not a zero sum analysis of whether or not tech is bad or good. It is not about positioning urban scholarship as for or against technological innovation. That would be missing the point. 

Rather, the object of the research is to understand the new institutional networks and structures of governance that arise alongside the new modes of production concerning digital urban space. The research thus targets the intersection of four domains of research on this issue: the practices of technological development and innovation, urban political economy, sustainability, and urban spatial planning.

In carrying out this research, the aim is to uncover what it means when big tech enters the field of urban development. While technological innovation is not new, the character of big tech is. For example, the differential scales of economy, or the new modes of production could potentially revolutionize the ways how, why, and for whom, modern cities and regions are planned and organized. Such changes have implications on society and space, and can challenge pre-existing and habitual modes of governance and urban development. And, these can have wide-reaching ramifications and perhaps unforeseen consequences. With a qualitative lens on this issue, DIG_URBGOV aims to shed light on this.

Digital Urbanism and the Challenge of Urban Governance (DIG_URBGOV) is a research project led by Constance Carr and Markus Hesse and supported by Prof. Gene Desfor and Prof. Roger Keil, CITY Institute, York University, Toronto


Ash, J, Kitchin, R, Leszczynski, A (2016) Digital turn, digital geographies? Progress in Human Geography, 42(1) 25-43.
Ash, J, Kitchin, R, Leszczynski, A (2019) Digital geographies. London: Sage.
Bitkom e.V. and Fraunhofer IESE (2019) Smart City Atlas. Berlin: Bitkom e.V.
Carr, C, Hesse M (2019) Some notes on smart cities and the corporatization of urban governance. Available at: http://orbilu.uni.lu/handle/10993/38978
Hollands, RG (2008) Will the real smart city please stand up? Intelligent, progressive or entrepreneurial? City12(3) 303-319.
Kitchin, R (2015) Making sense of smart cities: addressing present shortcomings. Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society8, 131-136.
Mitchell, W (1995) City of Bits. Cambridge: MIT-Press.
Smart Rebel City (2018) http://www.smartrebelcity.org/kapitel/kapitel-1
Zuboff, S (2019) The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. London: Profile Books.