When Christoph Kollert decided in 2015 to enrol at University College London (UCL), it wasn’t so much the city itself or even the prestigious university that was decisive, but rather the course content. ‘I wanted to be involved at the interface between urban planning and behavioural psychology’, he recounts. ‘This option at the Bartlett School of Planning offered me an Urban Design master’s study programme that is designed to be very interdisciplinary.’ This stay abroad was only made possible by a one-year scholarship from the DAAD. A stroke of luck for Kollert: ‘I’m still benefiting from it. The level of professionalism was incredibly high and the reading lists and speakers were excellently compiled. Some well-known researchers were either sitting in offices down the corridor or they visited our seminars. That provides massive motivation.’
Kollert is one of many DAAD alumnae and alumni from the fields of architecture and urban planning who engross themselves in the issue of how urban environments can be future-proofed given the current challenges. It was therefore obvious for him to accept the DAAD’s invitation to come to Leipzig. That was where the fourth meeting to date involving architecture alumnae and alumni took place at the beginning of October 2022. The date originally planned for 2020 had to be postponed due to the coronavirus restrictions.
Some 3,000 former scholarship holders were contacted regarding the latest event – with very positive feedback. ‘Once again we’re pleasantly surprised at the superb rapport and interest in participating’, stated Kirsten Habbich, Head of the Events unit at the DAAD. As is customary at these meetings, this year's extensive and demanding programme was once again conceived entirely by the alumnae and alumni. Around 80 former scholarship holders took part.
The aim was to approximate potential urban development processes from three perspectives. These included the aspect of social responsibility that emanates from forward-looking urban planning, the climate protection requirements imposed upon architecture and interior design, and the opportunities and challenges posed by increased digital networking within an urban environment.
The keynote address given by Professor Peter Dröge, director of the Liechtenstein Institute for Sustainable Development, highlighted the essential urgency of addressing these aspects: major cities around the world are still dependent on fossil fuels by up to 80 per cent. This value has remained almost constant over the past 30 years, but would need to alter dramatically in favour of renewable energies to avert the worst consequences of climate change.
Solutions have to be found, and urgently: this awareness was clearly evident among many participants. As was the potential offered by the DAAD network. ‘My greatest desire is that we as a group of alumni live up to the trust previously placed in us’, says Kollert. ‘That we leverage the knowledge we’ve acquired and our potential influence to future-proof the society and the country we live in.’ Many of the presenters, mainly DAAD alumni, seemed to share that sentiment.
In the ‘Social’ module, architect Kathrin Sauerwein (Lorenzateliers Innsbruck) spoke about concepts designed to counter the dramatic land use caused by urbanisation. With the right legal framework, it would in future be conceivable to have a greater proportion of residential use within commercial districts. Sauerwein also feels that participative processes should be rethought. ‘The legal entitlement of the individual The ‘Sustainable’ module primarily dealt with reflecting on the notion of urban spaces against the background of global developments. A city generally evokes largely positive connotations from a western perspective, whereas mega cities in the Global South are all too often perceived to be zones of chaos and economic stagnation, according to Professor Alexander Jachnow from the IHS at Erasmus University Rotterdam. ‘It’s vital that we urgently dispel this dichotomy.’ Urbanisation can represent an opportunity, even in developing countries.
But what if the authorities are simply overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the challenge? In such cases it can be helpful to send a project manager directly to site to provide assistance with technical studies and funding issues. This is the approach adopted by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH – a German development agency – as described by Lisa Junghans, herself a GIZ project manager. ‘The reality is that many cities in the Global South are under massive pressure to adapt and are therefore grateful for external assistance.’
The area in which African and Latin American metropolitan areas still have a long way to go is their use of digital technology, as discussed in relation to western cities under the term ‘smart city’. This doesn’t just involve equipping urban infrastructure with sensors (rubbish bins that automatically report their fill level) and the digitisation of administrative bodies, but rather social integration by means of technology, as Professor Iris Belle from the Stuttgart Technology University of Applied Sciences set out in her contribution to the ‘Smart’ module. An example? Analysis of the usage data from rooms within a building. ‘This would for the first time enable us to know how people actually move around and what needs they have, so we’d have a much more precise basis for planning.’ Assuming such information were available. This is what urban planner Ekaterina Liechtenstein was calling for. ‘We've got the potential to collate so much data on how people use a city. We should make use of this.’