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Lichtenberg is an east Berlin district dominated by GDR social housing projects and derelict former industrial sites. Public perception has it that the district is dominated by Neo-Nazis and unemployment, but that’s not the whole story – roughly 3,800 Vietnamese live here, making up 11,6% of Lichtenberg’s population, and 33% of all Vietnamese in Berlin.

DXC at Herzbergstrasse (east-west)

DXC at Herzbergstrasse (east-west)

The Dong Xuan Center, named after the biggest market in Hanoi, has existed here on the former site of VEB Elektrokohle since 2005. The Dong Xuan GmbH (German for “Ltd.”) calls the center a “wholesale market”, but the complex also contains a wide range of commerce, services, small-scale production and additional functions. In and around the four main halls (totalling over 25,000m² sales area), restaurants, beauty salons, hairdressers, travel bureaus, translators, driving schools, telecommunications and repair shops, doctors, lawyers, supermarkets, and karaoke bars have set up shop. It is evident that it serves not only as a commercial, but also as a cultural centre. In fact, the Dong Xuan GmbH is planning to expand the centre into a much bigger Asia Town that integrates even more adjoining plots and existing structures, and finally spills over into public space for good by redeveloping Herzbergstrasse and Vulkanstrasse. The Vietnamese-German investment group plans to invest 100 million euros by 2020 to create a cultural centre, a medical centre, offices, a hotel, sports facilities, pagodas and more.

11The DXC is regarded positively by local politicians and residents, as it offers cultural activities to the ethnic community, and iprovides over 500 jobs. But the project exists in conflict with existing planning law. The district development plan of 2003 (Bereichsentwicklungsplan) permits only industry and production-oriented businesses – which explains why the Dong Xuan GmbH is sticking with the “wholesale market” epithet under which the project was permitted. But they’re fooling no-one – the GmbH has been reprimanded several times and asked to change the usage of the area to fit the law. According to Kasten et al., the conundrum can be traced back to the urban planning goal of protecting “the ideal of the european city” with its concentrated structure of small-scale businesses. Planners and policymakers across Germany are attempting to focus commercial development on existing city centres, both on the federal and the city level, in reaction to the expansive ambitions of large-scale shopping formats on the urban periphery that “drained [urban centers] of commercial vibrancy” from the 1980s onwards (see Chung: 638).

While the borough is planning a binding land-use plan that would legalise the Dong Xuan Center for what it is, Karsten et al. are skeptical that the intentions of the borough will suffice in the face of the well-meaning centre-protection lobby – perhaps for fear of a “Me Too” effect amongst project developers. As things stand, there is no planning security for the Asia Town expansion.

The Herzbergstrasse site is designated “production-oriented”, but as Kasten et al. point out, while there is no shortage of production-suitable locations in Berlin, demand is low and Lichtenberg may not be first choice for the few developers seeking a site.

On the other hand, the DXC could not happen in more central locations, only here, thanks to the concentration of Vietnamese residents and low rents of the ex-industrial sites.

12The centre provides much-needed jobs in an area with high unemployment and is beginning to be a tourist attraction despite its lackluster aesthetics. It not only provides a cultural centre for the ethnic Vietnamese that is proven necessary by its success, but can also conceivably create a sense of improved integration into Berlin for other Lichtenberg locals – by putting their borough “on the map” for something other than neo-Nazis and GDR housing.

If we compare the effects of the DXC and the ambitions of the Dong Xuan GmbH to Berlin’s Integration Concept 2007, it becomes quite clear that the DXC could be a poster child for Berlin’s capacity for integration or diversity management – if only it were legal.

Centre-protectionists want to keep retail exclusively in “integrated locations” (Berlin StEP Zentren). On the other hand, integration of ethnic groups and socially disadvantaged boroughs (like Lichtenberg, Marzahn, Hellersdorf) are priority goals for at least some of the Senate departments. Is the integration of the non-integrated then only desirable in already-integrated locations? For in a capitalist economy, commercial activity is a key to integration/inclusion. While the revitalisation of inner-city commerce is a laudable ambition, it is plain to see that the socially disadvantaged may have difficulty renting commercial space there.

The generic mall epidemic, in the wild.

Much of Berlin’s charm is due to the patchiness of its urban fabric – the free spaces that make the city feel less dense and rigid, and have given rise to the culture of interim uses. Berlin reproduces the fabric of the inbetween-city (Tom Sievert’s Zwischenstadt) between cities within itself. Of all the cities afflicted by inner-city decline, Berlin should be the one to embrace the idea of the occasional void – the tourists and residents already have. Rather than desperately fill every gap within the S-Bahn Ring exclusively and promote “Arcaden”-centric, generic retail centres in every borough, the administration should allow projects like the DXC to flourish – fill-in and revitalisation projects initiated by locals, by ethnic minorities, by socially disadvantaged groups where they can afford them and where they need them. The diversity advantage can only be harvested if the citizens and bridgers and mixers (as Wood&Landry would call them) are listened to.

Diversity management and urban design – a future perspective

In relating diversity management to urban design, the fundamental question may be “who is actually planning for whom?” (Terkessidis).

According to Terkessidis, the goal of contemporary urban planning should be “to create enabling, intercultural spaces [that] create conversations about diversity instead of denying it [or] ‘integrating’ it in a repressive way”. For this, community participation is of paramount importance – otherwise, there is a risk of descending into paternalism and clichés. He goes on to raise a very important point: in the context of globalisation, many people have complex “post-migrant identities”. Our cities house expats, tolerated aliens, long-term commuters, illegal ex-tourists and others – and more and more, cultural frames of reference are “actively constructed” by the people in different ways. Ethnic background or country of origin are not clear indicators of a specific frame of reference, and every society has internal cultural differentiation and stratification. The question then is who decides, in a planning context, which frames of reference are seen or how they are constructed (36)? Again, extensive and real community participation in planning processes seems to be an answer – but Terkessidis points out that this is often made difficult because many do not have voting rights, and therefore cannot legally make their voices heard.

Developing from the third row outwards

At DXC, development starts three rows deep and creeps outwards to the street

Terkessidis seems to expect vastly new things from projects with an intercultural approach, almost lamenting that the IBA Hamburg-Wilhelmsburg is “the usual bundle of projects”. But maybe one result of intercultural planning will be an understanding that humans aren’t essentially so different after all – or that, in a “post-migrant” (or perhaps para-migrant?) society, their differences in taste and activity are not primarily dependent on their however-defined ethnic backgrounds.

What remains of all this is that top-down planning without participation is a bad idea, both disrespectful and paternalistic. But the same holds true for Modernism and other top-down projects – individuals or small groups believing they know what it best for everyone – whose failures have significantly contributed to the recent rise of the participation debate, as articulated and exemplified in New Urbanism. It seems that diversity management is in a way a subset of the participation movement, or vice versa; perhaps the two can be meaningfully integrated. A complete understanding of diversity management should not just be about ethnic heterogeneity, but about cultural variety in the fuller sense of lifestyle diversity – it should be about affording participation and involvement to people from all walks of life, no matter their origins. This includes the recognition that there are marginalised subcultures within any “home” culture – punks, nudists, vegetarians, skaters, you name it. Planning in most countries tends to be for and by the native middle class, and to me, the word “integration” smacks of assimilation into that ethnic and socioeconomic class. Since historically speaking at least the latter integration appears to be impossible, it might be more fitting to speak of inclusion – and to extend the welcome not only to “guests”, but to anyone socially excluded.

If urban design is to become inclusive, it must “reflect the diversity of society” (Terkessidis) by responding to the specific needs and prejudices of the community, whoever that community happens to be. Cultural sensitivity may lead urban designers to perceive needs that are currently not accommodated by the rules and regulations made with a set of mainstream cultural norms in mind. The Dong Xuan Center show how permitting marginalised cultures to become active to meet their needs can lead to unplanned, creative urban regeneration. Time will show how sustainable this positive development is for Lichtenberg – if it is permitted to continue. Perhaps the role of urban designers and planners in this context could be more like that of a midwife, or even a parenting centre – not that of a corset-maker.

Planners and citymakers should embrace participation for many kinds of excluded cultures and subcultures – why should the diversity advantage be limited to ethnic variety? They must be attentive to the ways marginalised cultural needs and practices manifest themselves in spatial characteristics (think punks), and crucially: be open to new ideas when they encounter unorthodox appropriations of space.

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Sources

Chung, C. J., 2002, Resistance, in: Chung, C. J., Inaba, J., Koolhaas, R. et al. (eds.), Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, Köln: Taschen, 633 – 659

Kasten, B. et al., 2011, Das Dong Xuan Center in Berlin Lichtenberg, dérive No.43 April 2011, p.19-25

Terkessidis, M., 2012, Wer plant da eigentlich für wen?, in: Bauwelt 12/2012, 34-39

Wood, P. & Landry, C., 2008, Conclusions: The Ecology of the New Civics, in: The Intercultural City: Planning for Diversity Advantage, Wood, P. & Landry, C. (eds.), London: Earthscan, 317 – 327