Theory and Practice

Theory and Practice

Funk It Up
Issue #5 – Community

The field of landscape architecture covers design at many scales: residential, park, campus and city, and region also, especially if you consider planning as design. (I do.) One focus of mine is community design, an aspect of urban design. My work concerns questions of participation: What is the appropriate level and kind of citizen involvement? What are appropriate roles for experts in a democracy? How can accord be achieved in diverse communities? Following is a report on the first of my public space experiments in Hamburg, Germany, that explored these questions.1


In the summer of 2009, I attended a two-week-long urban design workshop in Wilhelmsburg, Germany, a river island neighborhood of Hamburg. Sponsored by Hafencity University, the goal of the International Summer School was to create a plan for Wilhelmsburg that would improve livability and develop the public realm. Students of architecture, landscape architecture, urban design, and planning from Russia, Italy, Germany, and the U.S. worked and stayed in Wilhemsburg during the workshop.

The specific aims of the workshop were to work with/engage the community, try promising findings on site, assess contemporary practices in the fields of planning and urban design, and examine planning and urban design curricula in this light. To achieve these objectives and the larger community design goals, it was essential to realize a high level of international and intercultural cooperation.

This study team identified one key concern: the lack of an integrated community on the island. People originally from Germany, Turkey, Russia, Portugal, Spain, and Ghana self- segregate residentially and socially in Wilhelmsburg, and are collectively separate again from the city of Hamburg and in other important spatial and economic dimensions.

Our biggest hurdles as planners were to promote conversation about Wilhelmsburg’s future both with and among the diverse groups, and to better connect the island to the greater city. These were no small tasks.

While we identified diversity as the predominant characteristic of the island in all of its aspects—quality and use of space, culture, and scale—we determined that this was both challenge and asset. New, creative solutions are frequently a product of such a mix, even when dialogue is problematic.

To address the diversity conundrum, we devised many small hypothetical actions that could add function to one-use spaces in the community. Our goal with these actions was to increase the mix of users and promote interaction and dialogue that would spark further, larger actions and interactions within and beyond Wilhelmsburg. We called our proposed actions “Funken” (sparks), and named the consequent transformational chains of actions and interactions “FunkenFlut” (flood of sparks). From this hypothetical action master plan, we designated several small “funken” for the initial experiment in Wilhelmsburg that were appropriate in scale, time, and means for the workshop.

We looked for public spaces that people necessarily used in common. Our chosen sites were a neighborhood laundry, a universally used bus line, and a men’s gym. We also identified five areas of universal human concern and interest—music, community, nature, health, and goods—and designed experiments related to them: music on the bus, gym in the park, a “barter box” (receptacle for exchange of goods), and a sidewalk cafe.

With one important distinction our method was akin to art intervention, the use of art outside the art world to change an existing condition. Initially we kept our purpose hidden, but quickly realized that sharing the purpose with the community was itself an important (planning) interaction that better created capacity for change. So our final, and most successful, experiment at the laundry was open and transparent.

To create a new public space at the laundry, we brought with us everything necessary for a sidewalk cafe, and set the items up inside the facility and then outside its entrance on Georg-Wilhelm-Strasse. The research team sat at a table, drank coffee, and was available to interact with employees, patrons, and passers-by. At the café, many people spoke with us and expressed their interest and support for street-side casual gathering places, including individuals walking by, the barber next door, and the formerly hostile laundry manager who changed his tune when he saw the positive community response. This indicated to us that informal public gathering spaces were in short supply and welcome, and that adding function to existing places was an effective, appropriate design response.

Also significant for our purposes were two upscale actions outside the experimental space that were sparked by this one small funk. First, local resident Ghanaian immigrants accepted an invitation to attend a ISS sponsored neighborhood party happening that Friday, bringing their drums for a jam session with the hired band—with great results. Second, a HafenCity University faculty member who was very familiar with the district reported that the day after WaschPlus’ debut, tables and chairs were outside another business establishment across the street from the laundry. She had never seen them before.

While these results of experimentally activating these specific spaces and sparking dialogue are few and small, they are not inconsequential. Importantly, they point to the efficacy of real time interventions as a legitimate on-site data gathering instrument for planning decisions. The questions that can be answered with this technique are: What does the community want and need? How will the community members respond? Is there community consensus? Can it be developed? Which design solutions are workable, worthy, acceptable? Can spaces be transformed?

We hope to report on and encourage other such experiments in the future.

One possibility is to continue this work in Germany. Andrea Merkel’s remarks concerning the cultural separateness of Turkish immigrants throughout German society highlight the condition we noticed in Wilhemsberg. Funk-like actions at a larger scale may be an appropriate and effective response, with music as the medium. Because musicians are frequently the first explorers of other cultures, ambassadors of their own, and creators of new, hybrid forms, they are a logical choice to spark dialogue across cultures. There are examples worldwide of new musical forms presaging larger cultural integration – American jazz is one – but most relevant here is the popularity in Germany of Shantel’s Disco Partizani pop music – a Russian/disco/German pop blend. This suggests a readiness for cross-cultural acceptance that musical events (on the scale of festivals or soccer games) may jumpstart and facilitate.

  • laundry new
  • bus
  • barter box
  • party


see also

Issue #10: Hand, Head and Heart
Home for the Aged
Issue #3 – Home



  1. The paper was originally published on the ASLA website in its Urban Design Forum, as Use of “Art” Interventions for Participatory Planning in Urban Environments
    by Deborah Zervas, Associate ASLA, with Martin Krings and Giacomo Losio
error: Content is protected !!