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“Thai Park” - Unauthorized market and Sunday picnic at Preußenpark, Berlin, Wilmersdorf.


Ordnungsamt Raid in Preußenpark.

(In)Stabilities and Conflict in Informal Urban Practices
by Christian Haid

In times of growing inequality and neoliberalization, urban in¬formality is expanding globally. Until recently, informality has been associated mainly with cities located in the so-called Global South. However, informalization in urban areas is also proliferating in the Global North. So far, urban informality research has predominantly focused on non-Western contexts. With my dissertation, I seek to contribute to a growing body of literature that is engaged with this topic in regard to metropolises of the North- West.

The city of Berlin presents itself as a fertile starting point for undertaking such a study. Informal activities have always played an integral role in Berlin’s urban life, contributing substantially to solidifying the reputation of Berlin as the city of “anything goes”. The availability of space and the fragmented urban landscape left many places un(der)regulated. These grey zones or loopholes have very much nurtured a thriving culture of informal activities, not only on economic, but also on political, spatial, governmental, aesthetic and ethno-cultural levels.


Although many of these activities are tolerated and at times even encouraged, conflicts over informal practices have augmented recently, especially in the city’s public spaces. Therefore, my research is concerned with the analysis of how modes of informality and informal practices are being negotiated. With a particular focus on informal economic activities such as food vending, bottle collecting, and agents offering all kinds of services in three contested public parks in Berlin, this research investigates in what ways the everyday life of people engaged in these practices are rendered (un)stable. This question is addressed by a qualitative mixed methods approach (ethnography, discourse analysis, etc) to unearth inherent (in)stabilities in the researched practices that are closely linked to broad influences such as everyday com¬petition, urban governance, and the uneven enforcement of local rules and regulations; as well as to local discourses and various forms of representation.

The focus on conflicts, contests and friction within informal prac¬tices addresses the critical points central to the constantly changing dynamics of the informal landscape, the involved instabilities and the incessant remaking of the city through these transient practices. Informality therein is understood as the ever-shifting interrelation of what is appropriate and what is inappropriate, licit and illicit, legal and illegal, authorized and unauthorized, accepted and unaccepted, of what is legitimate and what is illegitimate (cf. Roy 2009: 80). Characteristically, informal activities, such as food hawking, the unauthorized erection of built structures, mobile housing in the parking bay, bottle collecting, garbage recycling, camping, electronic waste picking, cigarette vending, etc., are fluid, temporal, at times unconscious, reflexive, concealed, ordinary and everyday.


Learning from the South

Although the research concentrates on the specific context of Berlin, a comparative approach of “thinking cities through elsewhere” (Robinson 2014) is operative in terms of gaining a broader more general understanding of urban informality. If many cities of the Global South are characterized by informal economies, many forms of irregularity have also shaped the cities of the North. Therefore, conceptually the project pursues a perspective of “seeing from the South” that seeks to re-contextualize, scrutinize, rethink and operationalize notions of urban informality and approaches in postcolonial urban theory. I depart from the approach of the Global South being “everywhere but always somewhere”, a concept-metaphor that “reterritorializes global space in the interests of repossession by the dispossessed” (Sparke 2007).Therefore, within this context, postcolonial theory, if kept “near” (and not merely taken and applied unaltered) has the capacity to unveil, better explain and conceptualize urban phenomena in cities like Berlin, and subsequently enrich global urban theory more generally.

Such a broadened analysis resonates with the theme of the IGK “The World in the City”, and embeds itself in the emerging debate of developing a global urban theory.

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Christian Haid’s academic background is in urban sociology, architecture and
urban planning. He holds a Masters degree in architecture from the Academy
of Fine Arts Vienna in 2007. After practicing as an architect and urban planner
Christian graduated in the interdisciplinary Masters degree in Urban Studies
from University College London in 2011.

Since 2012 he is DFG Fellow at the IGK.
His doctoral dissertation is supervised by Prof. Talja Blokland, Chair of Urban and
Regional Sociology, Humboldt University Berlin; Ass. Prof. Kanishka
Goonewardena, Department of Geography, University of Toronto; Prof. Harvey
Molotch, Sociology and Metropolitan Studies, New York University.