25 November, 2019

Urban development, urban governance, and Big Tech: A home-made mix

Bissen town meeting with Google, November 2019 (photo by Carr)

For the past year, we have been following Sidewalk Labs (sister company to Google) in Toronto, where it wants to build a digital city along Toronto's waterfront. With the support of CITY Institute at York University, Carr spent several months in 2019 researching this process from the point of view of urban governance. First of its kind, there are many dimensions worth observing and all manner of open questions still outstanding. However, what can certainly be ascertained as of yet is that Sidewalk Labs (Big Tech) has effectively become a new player in the field of urban planning and urban development in the City.

Part of the research on 'Google City' in Toronto is also research on Google itself. Thus, when Google comes to Luxembourg to build a data centre, it naturally grabs our attention. And, volià: Luxembourg has its own story about Google and urban development.

Not much is known about the project. In 2017, Google signalled its interest in building a billion-dollar data centre in Europe a couple of years ago, pitting European countries against each other (among them, Luxembourg, Denmark, Sweden, and Austria). In the scramble to put together a proposal, a piece of land in Bissen (a municipality north of the City of Luxembourg with a population of 3000) was found that could be put up for such use. Somehow, circa 50 million Euros changed hands to make this happen. Then, it was announced that Google would short list Luxembourg. And then, with a bit of research, one could discover that on December 12, 2017, LB Technology S.à r.l. was registered in the Luxembourg Business Registry (Registre de Commerce et des Sociétes) with an associated fixed capital of 50 million Euro, with two registered Board members, one in Mountain View California, the other in Luxembourg. Still, the go ahead depended on local approval in Bissen, as well as the results of a few feasibility studies.

By 2019, the land was re-zoned, and Google received the green light. By summer 2019, however, the Bissener council of aldermen had been dismantled, the mayor (CSV) had stepped down (after his own party members voted against him), and a new municipal government had formed. Resistance in Bissen and throughout the Grand Duchy had exposed that there were still so many unanswered questions.

Protest posters in Bissen, November 2019 (photo by Carr)
Last week, for the first time, Google came to the municipality of Bissen to present its plans for the data centre that it intends to build. The town hall was filled, the media was present, and a police presence was accounted for as well. Eager to know how Google presents itself in Bissen, Carr attended too.

Actually, the Google reps gave a rather predictable presentation with all of the standard program points that we have seen in other venues: First, admonish the audience that Google could go elsewhere; Luxembourg invited Google to build their data centre in Bissen, and not the other way around. The message here is that Luxembourg needs to sort itself out because Google takes no role in, or responsibility for, local (petty?) conflicts. Second, demonstrate how cool Google is: It is the biggest consumer of green energy; It will build "eco points": It supports diversity and the labour market (although evidence suggests otherwise). Third, show pretty pictures, and pastel coloured architectural renderings. Fourth, send Google employees to do the presentation, who will also be ill-equipped to answer difficult questions, referring to local procedures as the main inhibiting force.

This standard format certainly deserves some deconstruction. However, it needs moreover to be understood and recognised as a form of governance: This is how Google governs. And the consequences of it, and the sacrifices that will be made in order to accommodate it, should concern all levels of government in Luxembourg (including the EU), and anyone respecting civic responsibility and action.

Of course, yes, there are possible perks. And, yes, this is a consideration that ought to be carefully considered. Equally real, however, are the many questions and challenges, and associated knock-on consequences, that require answers now and will need answering later. Who did the deal? Who profited? Why? What will happen to transportation? What about water and electricity? What infrastructure will be needed and how, where, when, will it be built? Who will pay for it? What will the labour market be affected? Should Luxembourgers look forward to working in the digital industry? Or, should Luxembourgers look forward to 350 additional families from elsewhere (think Seattle)? How will gender equality be tackled (think Silicon Valley)? What about radiation of the workers and residents in the area? And what about sound? How will these affect the financial planning of local residents in Bissen or Roost or Mersch?

There are, of course, golden opportunities; But there are also potential tragedies, and this list is long. And, all of the open questions from today as well as those of tomorrow will need to be managed, and funded by someone. First and foremost, this needs to be articulated and acknowledged (to be a problem).

There are two further familiar patterns here. First, as is apparently the case in Toronto, it is up to local politics to push the issue of how to manage the cascade of challenges, while the central government makes obscure geopolitical decisions concerning ‘Digital Luxembourg”, AI and big data (all featured by Google on November 21). And, some ramifications for local government have already been seen; Municipal fragmentation is also a challenge. Second, is the clash between the Luxembourg central government and Luxembourg local politics. This is hardly the first time that the central government has asserted a certain vision over the Grand Duchy.
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
Carr, Lutz, Schutz, 2018 There is no one human scale - Reflections on urban development practice in Luxembourg
Carr/Hesse 2017. The Corporate City Looming? Part I
Hesse/Carr 2017. The Corporate City Looming Part II: The “smart” City competes
Carr 2017. Digital Cities - Toronto trying to get ahead
Carr 2017. Hipsterland in Toronto's East Downtown

31 October, 2019

1 Post-Doc Position and 3 PhD positions at the University of Bern

We are happy to draw your attention to 4 open research positions at the Institute of Geography, University of Bern (see attached links for more information):
  1. 4-year Postdoc position (80%) in Human Geography with a focus on political urbanism and sustainable spatial development [link1]
  2. Two 4-year PhD positions in Geography in the SNF project “Governing densification” (GoverDENSE) [link2]
  3. 4-year PhD position in the field of Geography/GIS-Analysis in the SNF project “Governing densification” (GoverDENSE) [link3]

22 October, 2019

Urban planning and the theatrics of aggressive scooter companies: This time the City sent the Bird flying

by Constance Carr

Tuesday October 8th, Luxembourg woke up and found that a scooter company had played a joke on the City. Burning the midnight oil, Bird Rides Incorporated had gone around and placed a bunch of its scooters on the streets of downtown Luxembourg City, in what on the face of it seemed like a comment on the City’s transportation problems. Or, maybe it was just a marketing gag. Whatever the objective was, it was certainly nicely timed with Silicon Luxembourg - an independent information platform and magazine dedicated to startups - judging by the three articles that were published the same day. After a week of controversy, the City eventually showed Bird the door, and demanded that the company pack away their scooter flock: The City wasn’t interested in making rash decisions under pressure. 

This little spectacle certainly wasn’t the usual urban planning, so it is worth a moment of reflection on what the performance was about. There are at least three issues here, which suggest that there is good reason to be, at least, cautious with the introduction of scooters.

Conversations take time and Bird didn’t have any.
The first question concerns urban planning, mobility, and the role that scooters might play. Clearly, Luxembourg has mobility problems, (as we have mentioned elsewhere, here, here, here, and here). Moreover, there is little political will in improving traffic circulation, especially as it concerns the 200,000 cross-border commuters or thousands of students and workers in Belval. Yet, while Luxembourg’s mobility challenges are deeply seated in the its framework conditions, it is rather optimistic and naïve to assume that a hundred extra scooters on the Kirchberg Plateau will alleviate the problem.

Certainly the role of scooters in urban planning is a relatively new phenomenon, and there isn’t much published on the topic in urban studies. So far, it seems reasonable to draw lessons from its closet cousin: bike share programs. And, these, have not proven problem-free (Médard de Chardon 2017). Nevertheless, so far, the main issues of scooters, in both scientific and public discourses, tend to revolve around sustainability, safety, and accountability.

Concerning sustainability, scooters are potentially very interesting, offering pedestrians and users of public transport quick and easy means of moving around. More research is also needed, however, to determine if the production of electric scooters, their batteries, and their computers are in fact sustainable. What are the value chains or systems of dependency are required in their production? Of course, we should not forget to compare this to the four-wheel clunkers that are the preferred mobility choice in Luxembourg.

Concerning health, scooters can be a source of fresh air and exercise. A favourite complaint, however, is that they also pose safety hazard and a burden to the health system. Of course, again, this complaint must be weighed against similar impacts caused by the gas guzzlers that dominate the roads. Still, a candid conversation about public health risks is justified in order to find the appropriate regulation.

Aizpuru et al. (2018) note that head injuries and lower arm fractures are the most common scooter injury. Kobayashi et al (2019) calculated that most cranial injuries involved alcohol. So, there is a discussion to be had about helmets. Yet, Allem and Majmundar (2019) observed that the vast majority of Bird's Instagram posts show users without protective gear. And, it has been observed that Bird, itself, is not thrilled about helmet laws, having gone after Californian scooter law. Others argue that helmet laws would kill its business altogether, given that spontaneous users would essentially need to, first, carry a helmet with them wherever they go.

Concerning accountability, free-wheeling global capitalists like the big players of e-scooters would probably prefer that everyone simply consider scooters as toys, there for the grabbing, and good for a joy ride. Yet, their distribution in urban space demands that someone take responsibility for cleaning up after them, bringing scooters back to docking stations (if there are any), collecting, repairing, recycling broken scooters, or removing forgotten scooters from tram tracks, etc. This is labour that costs.

It seems that Bird had a quick fix to sell to governing officials of a rather specific place and framework conditions. The scooter might be a good idea. But some balanced, tempered, process might be in order.

The business of data collection and analysis
The second point is that scooters are excellent data collectors, the fuel of the data economy (McNamee, 2019).

"[Users locate and unlock] scooters through a location-enabled smartphone. Throughout their ride, the app will track their progress, saving the path of their completed trip for later viewing. Scooter-mounted GPS units and wireless connectivity pair with the app-based tracking in order to verify app-based data and paint an accurate map of a user’s location. […] Although Bird, Lime, and Spin posit their electric scooters as environmentally friendly and accessible transportation, they also allow for unethical uses of user data through location tracking and extensive collection of personal information. Relying on loosely worded terms of service and privacy policies, these companies reserve the right to monetize customer data, allowing for sharing with governments and third parties" Peterson (2019, 191-192).

This raises yet unsolved questions about data sovereignty, regulation, and surveillance (Tusikov 2019a, 2019b; Zuboff, 2019). Bird is no exception here. Each Bird scooter, is furnished with a microcomputer that connects it to Bird’s digital platform, which presumably transmits some information about rider habits, location, etc. Certainly, according to the app permissions, each scooter user must provide access to location data, their photos, media and other files, camera, WiFi and Bluetooth connection, as well as control over the phone’s flashlight, vibration, and sleep mode. “Updates to Bird may automatically add additional capabilities within each group” (Bird Rides Inc., App Permissions, 2019). Triangulation of this data with other 3rdparty sources could provide rich information useful to City administrations. Yet, it would all sit within the confines of Bird Rides Inc.

The familiar pattern of rogue capitalists
The third point concerns the strategic if not aggressive behaviour of Bird and other e-scooter companies vying for market share in cities across the planet. Again, we are reminded that the smart city revolution is endorsed by industries who view cities are marketplaces for their products (Kitchen 2015). But it is striking that they also seem to think that they can simply do as they please as long as it is not explicitly forbidden by law.

Micromobility comes in many forms; 
some are also analogue (Carr 2019)
When City officials got wind of the scooters on October 8th, it was immediately annoyed (See Tageblatt article above and one from L'Essentiel): They had, after all, already denied Bird the permission to operate its business in public space. This, of course, was awkward for the City, having to publicly announce that they had denied a possible contribution to clean mobility and to ameliorating traffic circulation.

But Bird has a habit of dumping their scooters in cities without permission. Luxembourg wasn’t the first! In fact, it was simply a new character in a rather well-rehearsed drama that is characteristic of Bird's business model, and the wider 'scooter invasions' or 'scooter wars'. This 'war' is waged not just between scooter companies competing for market share, or between environmentalists and car owners as is often portrayed, but between City administrations and scooter companies themselves. Bird advertises that its scooters are already in use in over 100 cities worldwide; A quick internet search will reveal, however, that St Louis, San Francisco, Cleveland, Denver, Santa Monica are but a few that have kicked the company out, and other cities where Bird (and other companies) is permitted, such as Paris, Washington DC or Venice, found themselves scrambling to find a last-minute, befitting, traffic regulation policy.

This is a familiar pattern, isn’t it? Zuboff (2019) discussed this as characteristic os rogue capitalists to some depth in her book that is primarily about Google. First: Exploit a legal loophole. And, Bird CEO, VanderZanden, makes no secret of it: "Where there's no laws, that's where we go in." Second, dazzle everyone about the benefits of all sorts such as environmental friendliness, the ease of use, the practicality of the app, thereby throwing up smoke and mirrors. Via Silicon Luxembourg, General manager to Bird Luxembourg, Jonatan de Boer, adds flattery: “Luxembourg City is one of the most beautiful in Europe, and we want to keep it that way by not only helping to remove cars, but also making sure our scooters do not create clutter.” Third, generate some public controversy, branding its name, while it buys time for the fourth strategy: Cash in while local politics are sorting it out.

On one hand, such strategies reflect a certain business ethic that might be worth some discussion (Zuboff, 2019). On the other hand, in this case, it also reveals how weak cities can be when assigned authority over its urban space, and when confronted with such surprises. Could it be that Bird doesn’t care much for climate change or traffic safety? Could it be that it doesn’t even care if it is shown the door? Through its cloak and dagger operation, it may have already achieved its goal, after all: branding its name, and collecting, processing, selling data analytics.

The conversation is therefore not just about whether scooters are good or bad, or whether they are needed or not. There are questions about regulation, data protection, business development, and how City officials ought to react to rogue tech players and their urban theatrics.

Maybe for the same price (in the wider sense of costs to the system and to future generations), the government could put out its own scooters, give out fancy running shoes, or just work on getting the trains to move on time…

Aizpuru M.,Farley, K.X., Rojas, J.C.,Crawford, R.S., Moore, T.J., Wagner, E.R. (2018) Motorized scooter injuries in the era of scooter-shares: A review of the national electronic surveillance system, The American Journal of Emergency Medicine, 37(6) 1133-1138.

Allem, J.P., Majmundar, A. (2019) Are electric scooters promoted on social media with safety in mind? A case study on Bird's Instagram. Preventive Medicine Reports 13(March 2918), 62-63

Kitchin, R. (2015) Making sense of smart cities: addressing present shortcomings. Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, 8, 131-136.

Médard de Chardon, C. 2017 A Geographical Analysis of Bicycle Sharing Systems

Peterson, A. B. (2019) Scoot over Smart Devices: The Invisible Costs of Rental Scooters. Surveillance & Society 17(1/2) 191-197.

Tusikov, N. (2019a). Sidewalk Toronto’s master plan raises urgent concerns about data and privacy. The Conversation. 

Tusikov, N. (2019b). “Urban Data” & “Civic Data Trusts” in the smart city.

Zuboff, S. (2019) Age of Surveillance Capitalism. New York: Public Affairs

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